Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The first flowers



When spring comes, I search for flowers. I have to look hard to find the pasque flowers in the Lake Region Electric Coop prairie. Their buds are the same pale parchment color as the dried debris of last years prairie. If the old stalks hadn't been cut and raked, I wouldn't have seen the pale purple petals just inches off the ground.

The pasque flowers aren't flashy; they don't overwhelm you with bright color or scent or their vast numbers. It's the persistence of the plant, the fact that it forces its way up through ground just barely thawed, that impresses me. Any plant that blooms while the nights still freeze regularly and the days hover around 40 degrees must be a survivor. And yet, the pasque flowers just barely survive. They don't compete well with sod forming grasses. They need prairie grasses that grow in clumps, leaving space for the prairie flowers in between. They need the prairie grasses that emerge when conditions are warmer to allow the early spring sun to reach the pasque flowers, heating their patch of soil and building sugars in their roots.

Once the prairie grasses grow, the ephemerals like pasque flowers can't compete for light and they die back, conserving their energy for next spring when the soil warms and the fragile buds push their way up into the sunlight again in a pattern that will continue as long as there are prairies.

Thursday, April 7, 2016


Our grandsons, five year old Kieran and three year old Simon helped me feed the lambs.  Two little boys against eight hungry lambs delighted everyone.

After feeding the lambs, we looked for new babies. It had been nine weeks since we had expected our first lamb; there was one ewe left. Dave an I knew that Empress was pregnant. Her udder was plumping up and her abdomen eventually spread outward into that distinctive pregnant sheep shape. She was an experienced mom, but we checked  every three hours, hoping to finally see her with a new lamb at her side. The boys found Empress in the barn lying in an open jug, straining. It was finally time.

I settled the boys in the corners of the pen behind her. Then I leaned against Empress and looked at her back end. "These are his feet." I touched each hoof as I spoke. "And this is his nose." The boys were probably completely confused, the hooves and nose were almost the same color - off white- and covered with a clear shiny membrane.

"I'm going to pull on his foot to help him come out." The boys nodded. Empress groaned.
"You're hurting her," Kieran said. Empress groaned again. "You're hurting her," Simon said.

"We have to get the baby out," I explained. "It's a big baby, so we have to help. It will hurt for a little while and then she'll feel better." I pulled down and out on one hoof.  I grabbed the second hoof and pulled. This was tighter. I eased the legs sideways, pulled. I slid my fingers behind the lamb's head, hoping to ease it out. Empress groaned again.

Then I felt the give as the lamb's head passed through the cervix. Yes! It was a big, big lamb. I dragged it out into the air and swiped my hand across it's mouth and head, clearing the membrane from its nose and mouth so it could breathe. The lamb didn't move. Empress didn't turn to look for him.

This lamb has to  live, I thought to myself. I can't have Kieran and Simon watch me deliver a dead lamb.

I shook the little body. No breaths.

I dropped it gently to the floor. No breaths.  But he did lift his head slightly. I set the lamb down and ran to the cabinet for towels. Then I began rubbing the lambs abdomen and chest, hard. After every couple of rubs I'd pause, watching for breaths.

A flutter. Then another. Yes! As the lamb began to breathe easily on its own, I handed the towels to the boys. "Rub him dry," I said. "He's a nice big, healthy lamb."

I checked Empress for another lamb but she was done. She struggled to her feet and turned to lick her baby. I clipped his umbilical cord, dipped it in iodine and then stripped the milk from Empresses teats, explaining to the boys as I worked.  Then Kieran filled a bucket of water for her. Simon dropped some hay into her pen. I tied the pen shut.

The boys both looked over the pen again before we left the barn. Empress' lamb was standing, nursing. Outside, the bottle lambs mobbed us, hoping for one more drink of milk.


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Fresh snow



Dave and I lay in bed this morning admiring the fresh snow. "It always makes me feel like Christmas when the ground turns white," Dave said.
I agreed. "I always think maybe it will be a snow day and we won't be able to go anywhere."

Whether it was memories of Christmas or the thought of the illusory freedom of a snow day when all we can do is curl up and read while we watch the snow pile up foot after foot, we both jumped out of bed in great moods, ready to spend a day walking the paths in the sugar bush - collecting sap, cutting wood, splitting wood and feeding fires. Fresh snow in the spring always means the sap will rise in the maples at least one more day.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Monday morning fog

Monday morning fog. The trees fade into the distance and disappear. The bottle lambs do not appear. They're not out back; they're not in the barn. I set the bottles into a lambing pen and there are the bottle lambs, still in the pen into which we dropped them as they finished feeding last night to make feeding less insane. No wonder there are three ewes in the barn maaing for their babies.

When we finish feeding all eight lambs Dave takes a bucket of water to the rams and I feed and water Amy who lambed yesterday morning. The bottle lambs swirl around my ankles. I know from experience that they will follow me right to the pasture gate and that two of them are still small enough to fit through the wire grid on the gate.  Instead of the straight forward path, I sneak out the people door of the barn and run for the gate.

No baas of bottle lambs in pursuit. I climb the gate and walk the driveway toward Dave who is feeding the rams. He grins and gesture. Lamb number 76 has followed me through the gate after all. I return the lamb to the pasture and tie a hog panel across the gate with baling twine. The wire grid of the hog panels blocks the openings in the wire grid of the gate, but it also keeps me from climbing the gate.

I climb an interior fence to the feed area and then climb the stile, hoping to lose or at least confuse the lamb. She follows me into the feed area and stands at the bottom of our perimeter fence staring at me standing at the top of the ladder like stile. If I descend and start across the yard, the lamb will follow me because our perimeter fences have an even bigger wire grid than our gate.

I stand at the top of the stile hoping that the lamb will lose interest and wander off before I lose patience. "Go back through the barn." Dave shouts. Duh! Talk about early morning fog. I climb back down the stile, walk through the barn, leave by the people door, run across the barnyard, climb over the stile and am out of sight before number 76 stops looking for me in the barn. As long as  Dave is smarter than the lambs, we can still outwit them. The sun burns the fog away before our next feeding.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sometimes when you least expect it...


Thursday I told a friend that we only had two ewes left to lamb and that it would be a couple of weeks before they did.

Friday began like an ordinary morning. I mixed up four bottles of lamb milk replacer and walked out to the barn. Eight lambs met me at the barn door, tripping over each other and tripping me as they vied for first chance at a bottle. I select the two biggest and strongest lambs to nurse first. When they are done, they'll wander off and the smaller, weaker lambs will get their chances to nurse.

Two at a time, they suck vigorously, completely intent on eating. The other bottle lambs try to steal the nipple away, climb onto the backs of the nursing lambs, wedge their bodies between me and the nursing lambs. They try, but if the nursing lambs and I concentrate on what we're doing, each lamb eventually gets his or her full seven ounces of milk.

Just as I finished feeding the last lamb, I heard the flutter of bird wings against a window. The sparrows sometimes get trapped in the barn when we close the big doors, but those doors hadn't been closed in several days. I turned to see a large bird desperately beating the window with its wings. Usually it's easy to brush a bird out of the window and give it a chance to reorient. I started across the barn to help the bird when I saw a little black lamb with a tail nursing on a white ewe.

Okay, which is the most immediate need, I asked myself, to free the bird or to catch and pen the new lamb and it's mom? Another flutter of wings decided me. The bird was frantic and I was afraid it would hurt itself. When I got to the window, I recognized the hooked beak of a hawk. I was not going to try to brush a hawk out of the window with my hand, even a gloved hand. I grabbed my crook and moved it across the window. The bird cowered in the bottom corner, the light brown speckles on its  breast trembling as it panted. The crook scared the bird even more than I did. Next I grabbed the step stool from it's hanger near the ceiling and set it up in front of the window. I unfastened two of the three toggles that held the window in place and pulled the plastic away from the opening. I stepped back and the bird slipped out to freedom.

Then I turned to find the new lamb and it's mom. They had left the barn. I followed them out into the barn yard, but the lamb was easily keeping up with its mother and they both easily kept ahead of me. We'll have to wait until both Dave and I can go out to the barn to corral the new family and dip the lamb's umbilical cord in iodine. We won't jug them, they are obvious doing fine, but the iodine is really important to keep the bacteria of the barnyard from entering the lamb's navel and causing all kinds of problems.

Yesterday, I declared that we had two ewes left to lamb. We still have two ewes left to lamb. This lamb was a surprise. I can't believe that we miscounted pregnant ewes, but somehow, we did. It's always nice to have more lambs than you expect.

I've never needed a bird identification guide in the barn before, but this morning I did. I was so focused on rescuing the bird that I didn't look at it closely. What color were its eyes? Did the speckles cover its entire body or just the belly and shoulders? This was the closest I've ever been to a hawk and I almost didn't  pay enough attention to identify it. I never in my wildest dreams expected to find a a sharp shinned hawk in the barn.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

When images are better than words

You may have already seen this video. It shows a young child helping a ewe give birth. I'm speechless. She is so cool.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

20 orange


Yesterday, 20 orange lambed. It was almost anticlimactic; it had been  over three weeks, since I'd spent 36 hours worrying that she would die  if I didn't figure out what was wrong with her.

This time it was obvious that she was in labor, not just tired of being pregnant. She groaned and grunted. Her head went up during each contraction. When I did a pelvic exam, I didn't feel baby lamb parts, just the thin, filmy tissues that float around a lamb in the uterus. She wasn't quite ready to lamb yet.

I fed hay to the ewes and milk to the bottle lambs. I poured corn into buckets for each ewe in a jug and refreshed their water. Then I rechecked 20 orange's status. I could feel feet at the tips of my fingers.

I moved the dirty straw out of jugs we had just emptied of sheep. I rebedded those jugs, ready for the next moms to lamb. I hung a heat lamp over the jug I would use for 20 orange. I rechecked her pelvis.  Way back as far as my hand could reach into her uterus I could feel two hooves and a head. They weren't positioned correctly and I couldn't reach far enough to determine if they were all part of one lamb. When I pulled on the hoof, it pulled back. No matter how hard I pulled and how hard I held on, the little hoof slipped from my fingers

20 orange had now been in labor for at least two hours. I start to worry after about half an hour for experienced mothers. Two hours was way past my worry date. When Dave came out to see how we were doing, I turned the obstetrician's job over to him.

Slowly, steadily, Dave pulled on the lamb's two front legs. The head moved with them. "I think they all belong to the same lamb," he said. "Yes."

I watched from 20 orange's head as he pulled the lamb from her vulva. He handed the baby to me and I laid her in front of her mom. Then I grabbed a towel and cleaned the amniotic sack, mucus and amniotic fluid off the baby's face so that her first breath would be air.

20 orange began to lick her lamb. She licked whatever part was closest to her tongue. I moved the lamb so that she would be working on it's face as I rubbed it's abdomen to encourage those first shuddery breaths.

"This next one is tangled," Dave said. He worked one handed, eyes closed in concentration.When he pulled her out of her mother's uterus, she looked perfect, but her body was limp.  She didn't have a heart beat and I couldn't make her breathe, even by swinging her over my head.

"There's something wrong with this lamb" Dave said as he eased lamb number three out into the cold air. It was definitely dead. Small and dark brown, it hardly looked like a lamb. Dave sat back on his heels, head down.

"Well," I said, speaking through my sorrow, "at least we have one live lamb. That's really more than I was expecting after giving her the dexamethasone to induce labor all those weeks ago."

Dave slid his hand back inside of 20 orange one last time and pulled out a small brownish lamb covered with muddy brown mucus.  This lamb wasn't limp. It's body twitched. She swung her head up and sneezed. When I rubbed, she shuddered and began to breathe. In minutes she was standing, looking for her mom's udder.

Even though we use it to induce labor, the bottle of dexamethasone warns not to give it to pregnant animals. Three weeks ago when I realized that 20 orange was not going to lamb any time soon,  I began to worry what the effect of that drug would be. We'll never know why out of four lambs, only two were live births. We'll never know why one of the dead lambs seemed grossly malformed and why one looked perfect and yet they were both dead. We'll never know how the little brown lamb survived in an amniotic environment that looked more like mud than anything that belongs in a living animal.

The one thing we do know is that after thirty years of lambing and hundreds of births, we still don't know what to expect when we go out to the barn to help a ewe give birth to a lamb.