Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Glitch Happens

So, if Murphy has never visited you, chucking his obnoxious little laws about like confetti, consider yourself one lucky farmer. Our day first lambing day of the season was rife with glitches, big and small. It was also a tremendous and utterly wonderful day.

It all began on a balmy spring Thursday. Dan was already at work, My nephews (5 and 7) were scheduled to spend the day, the turkey poults were due at the post office at any time, our seven ewes were looking positively huge.
A perfect storm was a brewing.

I went down to check on the ewes around six. Before I made it all the way down to the barn, I heard the squeaky bleat of a newborn lamb and the deep, "muffley" Ma-aa-aa of a new mama ewe. I peeked through the fence to find Daisy (AKA "Princess Daisy") drying off the second of her twins!

Daisy, having lambed twice previously, was an old pro, and she was actually showing a lot more interest and care than she had with her other two babes. I scrambled over the fence, picked the two up and, holding them at ewe's eye level, I backed into the barn with Daisy following and calling. Once she was locked in our "maternity ward" area to further bond, I cut and cleaned the lambs' navels. Two cute white ewe lambs, one with heavy phaeomelinin (peachy/coppery pigmentation that fades as a lamb matures) on the face and legs and one with "pinto" spots of phaeomelinin (possibly indicating that she carries the gene for spotting) Micah named them Caroline and Coraline.

I watched the trio a while, waiting to catch the reassuring sight of the lambs nursing. Nothing. Now, Daisy is a real mess. She is always a mess, the one ewe who's fleece is so consistently encrusted with mud and matts and vegetation it's hardly worth the effort, and after a muddy spring and delayed shearing, I worried that that fleece would prove impenetrable. The lambs did seem to be winding down, exhausted and shivery, poking around without success. I called my friend, Heather, who had offered her help, and together, we held Daisy still and clipped the matted, muddy fleece from around her udder and hind legs. Then we held the lambs to her side. They flopped down at first, then finally nursed strongly enough to get a dose of colustrum. It's possible they'd already nursed on their own and were simply spent from the whole birthing ordeal. At any rate, things seemed to be going swell. As glitches go, no sweat!

Then the turkey poults arrived. We took them from their packing crate (an ingenious little cardboard traveling box) and placed them under the heat lamp in their brand newly-built brooder box. The poults were feistier and bigger than chicks, and they commenced to peck at everything and anything in their paths, my right knuckle being the first casualty. They were pretty darn cute, I tell you!

My nephews arrived in the midst of all this livestockness and the 5 kids (All eight or under!) spent joyous hours playing pirates and desert island and building elaborate tracks for hot wheels cars and other wonderful-fun things. All of which needed near-constant supervision, mind you.

Then the power went out! Now, turkey poults must be kept at 100 degrees, free of drafts and temperature fluctuations. They are even more fragile than chicks, it is said. The day was sunny, but windblown and cool, nowhere near 100 degrees, nowhere near 70 degrees! I did what any self respecting turkey novice might do: I called the power company and registered my complaint. No, they didn't know when the power would be restored. No, they weren't responsible for the imminent death of my 15 poults (They don't "guarantee continuous service", after all). We were on our own. I poured the last water in our pipes into a large pot, boiled it up (Propane stove) and made makeshift water bottles out of all the old milk cartons and orange juice jugs in the recycle bin. The poults were quite happy with this strategy, they snuggled around these goofy heaters in fluffly little piles. I spent the next three hours refilling the water bottles, referreeing disputes between the five children, checking on Daisy's lambs, and making our very late lunch. Okay, Murphy, fine. Show me what you got. I am one resourceful flockmeister!

The power returned, right around the time that Penny, our four year old ewe went into labor. Penny is a first time mom, having come from Jager Farm by way of a small fiber flock. I suspected that she might have a difficult time, and shooed the kids inside to give her some privacy as she kept going all watchful and wary, her head zooming up to scan every which way at the cacophony of kidsounds. Penny's water broke, she paced and called to her unborn lambs, she sniffed the spot she'd chosen, pawed it, paced, called, pawed, paced. Nothing happened. Nothing.

Then it was dinnertime and my nephews went home and Dan (Thank god!) returned. He and I went back down to check on Penny's progress. Nothing. She was still pacing and pawing and calling. How long could this go on? We were three and a half hours in already! We called Barb Webb, who is as amazingly wonderful, helpful and knowledgeable a shepherd as you could ever hope to meet. She said we had to go in. The lamb could be breech or there could be some other hang up that needed immediate attention.

Ooookay... here we go again.
I had a serious flashback from last year when I reached inside Daisy without success to free her big lamb, James. Honestly? I did not want to do it. If I thought I could get away with hanging around and waiting on Penny another few hours, I would probably have done it. (Yep, this is seriously wimpy) But it was clear that something had to be done. Dan and I caught Penny and brought her into our second "maternity ward".

"The person with the smaller hands should do this." Dan said, noblely. Um, yep.... and that'd be... Me. I snipped my nails, sudsed up, and took a deep breath.
"Oh, Barb said she'll gush." Dan said. "You should expect that."

It took me a while to feel anything at all. At the risk of imparting too much information, I'll say that the inside of a sheep is slimey and warm and thoroughly unfathomable. Where was the lamb? There must be a lamb in there somewhere. I made contact with a tiny hoof, then another. Where was the nose? Lambs are born like little divers, their nose and hooves together. This lamb had the two hooves crossed demurely, but the head was far back somehow. I finally found it and was able to ease it forward. There is no way to quite describe the way it feels to come across a nose, a mouth and hard row of little teeth inside a sheep. Suffice to say it was a strange and strangely wonderful feeling. I was able to ease the nose and hooves forward. The legs were still a little more forward than they should be but I couldn't very well send them back in. I remembered the aforementioned episode with Daisy; our vet had grabbed that lamb and just muscled it out in one fell swoop. I could do that, I reasoned. No dice, though. The head was wedged tight. It was about 11:30 PM at this point and I saw how this thing could get ugly, real, real ugly before morning. I yanked and muscled and PULLED hard on those two little forelegs. Nada.

"Why are we doing this again?" I hollered at Dan (This is pretty much how all three of my own personal birthing scenes went.) "Just, PLEASE, tell me again why we wanted sheep. What the heck were we thinking?!"

Last ditch, Dan gave it a try and my better half, of vastly superior strength, was able to wrest the lamb free of its mama. (Smallest hands my foot!)

Our victory was short-lived, however, as the lamb appeared limp and lifeless. We rubbed vigorously while the exhausted Penny, with a surge of motherly instinct, licked the little gal's face and head. We dried the lamb best we could and it bleated weakly, barely lifting it's head. We provoked a sneeze with clean bits of straw poked into it's nose. (As instructed to do by various shepherding books) And, after what seemed a long ol' time, the lamb began to show some life. She was an adorable little thing with Penny's big eyes and clean white color, so different from the coppery beige of Daisy's two. Most adorably, she had dark markings, like eyeliner, around those big eyes. She stood to nurse and we assisted a little, just to make sure and cut away the matted fleece from around Penny's prodigious udder.

"Whew! I'm soooo glad we're on the other side of THAT!" I said. But the sheep gods (or maybe it was that durn Murphy again) had a little something else in store for us: As Penny swung her bum around to nuzzle her lamb, I noticed-- No, it couldn't, PLEASE No, it couldn't be-- another tiny hoof protruding from it. One tiny hoof. No nose, no nothing else. So here, we repeated the whole mussy thing, feeling up (literally) the sheep and yes, there was a head a little farther up, but the other hoof was was waaaay back there somewhere. I groped a while, remembering Barb's helpful injunction to imagine my fingertips had suction cups on them. I finally located a knee and was somehow able to straighten that sucker out. This time, the lamb came out pretty easily. Ta da! A solid moorit ram lamb! He was lively from the start and stood to nurse almost immediately.

What a day!
The thing is, all these hard stressful crazy things are wonderful in their own way. I imagine that a few years from now, assisting at the birth of a couple of lambs might seem like any other farm chore to us. We'll do it and come back in time for supper with a shrug. But on this night, we were jittery and joyful. We had managed this emergency ourselves, we had four new lambs, a bunch of crazy little turkey poults in the garage and it was a beautiful, beautiful night.


Cheap Like Me said...

Wow! Now that is a DAY! Great story.

p.s. We have similar taste in books. I will have to break down and read Jonathan Strange ...

Jeanne said...


I just checked in to see what is going on at Maggie's Farm--- wow! What an amazing day- full of the joys of new life. Sounds like you and Dan are homesteading veternas now. Wishing you a wonderful spring.

rooster said...

hooray! i'm predicting you had all of your crazy trouble up front and the rest will be smooth sailing.

i once had the power go out when i had brand new poults and i ended up bringing them inside and putting them in a box on the coal stove that was gearing down and not super hot. well, needless to say it looked like i was cooking a box o'poults when my husband came home.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! As my Gramma used to say, "All's well that ends well." Sleep now.


Christy said...

Congratulations! I was present for a very similar story. The momma was actively pushing for almost 4 hours before my friend went in and pulled the lamb out. Luckily, she only had the one. And momma and baby were fine.

P said...

Thanks everyone. I'm having trouble with my internet connection and haven't been able to reply, but I really appreciate all the comments and well wishes.

As for the power outtage, Rooster, I almost put the poults in the oven at 100 degrees, but wasn't sure how I'd contain them in there. Would have been a sight, though!


Jenn said...

Wow, Perri! You ARE one resourceful farmer-gal! Kayte recently joined the FFA, here, and is even now off weighing sheep. She just called to check in and I said, "WHAT is that NOISE?" She said, "Uh, Mom? That's sheep ..." Yeah, well, a farmer I am NOT--although I admire you heartily for what you do! I'm going to let her read about your little (er ... big!) episode. She'll enjoy this.