Friday, February 27, 2009


Dave and I walked out to the barn with heavy hearts. We had decided that the best thing to do for Available and her lambs was to take the lambs by caesarian section.

“The longer you wait,” Dr. Weckwerth, one of our veterinarians told us, “the less chance the lambs will have.” We knew that Available had no chance. Her muscles just weren’t working well enough for her uterus to contract and deliver her lambs. She couldn’t regulate her own metabolism. She was old. We had never had a ewe survive a caesarian, even one done by a vet in his office. If we didn’t get the lambs out of Available, she would die over the next week from a uterine infection and her lambs would die too.

“When we choose to do something, we take responsibility, and it’s hard,” Dave said to me as we stepped into the barn, “but not doing something is also making a decision.” We couldn’t make the decision to not do something. We had to stop Available’s suffering and try to save her lambs. Fortunately, we had a choice that would do both, but it wasn’t an easy choice.

The ewes had begun moving into the barn for the night. They were oblivious to what was going on in the hospital pen where Available lay, shivering and struggling to breathe under two heat lamps.

I stacked a pile of old towels on the straw covered floor next to Available. Her golden eyes watched us, unafraid or too sick to care. I held her on her side as Dave gave her the anesthetic. Then he picked up the scalpel and made an incision through the walls of her belly and into her uterus.

“Here’s a lamb,” he said as amniotic fluid washed onto the floor. He handed me a yellow stained lamb and returned to the uterus, looking and feeling for a second baby.

I grabbed a towel and wiped it over the baby’s head, trying to clear the amniotic fluid from his lungs. The I started rubbing the little body with the towel. His neck flexed and his head jerked. “Yes!” I gasped with him.

By the time Dave pulled a second lamb from it’s dying mother, the first lamb was breathing and trying to lift it’s head.

I swiped the towel across the second lamb’s head , pulling the amniotic fluid away from it’s mouth and nose. The I began rubbing the second lamb’s body, encouraging it to breathe. His mother would have done this with her tongue if she could have. This lamb had to make do with a shepherdess and an old blue towel.

Finally Dave pulled a third lamb from it’s dead mother’s uterus. I grabbed a dry towel and repeated the process I’d used on the first two lambs. But this lamb didn’t start to breathe.

It seemed perfect, a big healthy looking lamb with a pure white, tightly curled fleece; but it just didn’t breather. It’s head hung limp. I rubbed and scrubbed and dropped the lamb onto the ground a few times. It opened big brown eyes. I could feel the beat of it’s heart, but it wouldn’t take a breath.

Dave knelt in the straw and covered the lamb’s mouth and nose with his own mouth. He breathed in and I saw the lamb’s ribs move. He repeated the breath again and again. This time, when Dave raised his head, the lamb’s nostrils twitched and her ribs expanded. She was breathing on her own.

I settled the lambs under three heat lamps and continued drying them while Dave cleaned up the hospital pen and spread fresh straw on the barn floor. Then he went to the house to mix up some colostrum to feed the newborns. They sucked enthusiastically from the bottle and settled down in the golden straw, shivering a little, but all alive and all healthy.

The decision to kill an animal that we have struggled to save is the hardest decision we ever make with the sheep. The decision to cut into an animal in a way that you know will cause her death is almost unbearable. But the sheep are our responsibility and we must make those decisions. And sometimes, those decisions prove to be good, both for the suffering ewe and for her three healthy babies.

Three healthy lambs

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Snow in the west woods

Three hours later

Usually, when I write stories or essays, I know the ending before I begin. I wrote the essays in my book, Shepherdess: Notes from the Field, days after the events.

When I write in real time, you read the stories as they are happening, and I don’t have the luxury of hind sight. I don’t know when I begin writing about Apple Blossom or Christmas, Maybe or Available what their stories are going to be.

Available is not doing well. One of the first things we do when we notice that a ewe is lagging behind, not eating well, just not acting right, is to check for ketones in her urine.

Available had ketones in her urine. So we gave her a medication to induce labor. Dexamethasone usually works in 24 to 36 hours. Yesterday morning, 48 hours after the shot, Available still wasn’t in labor.

When we check a ewe to see how far her labor has progressed, we wet our hands with water and a powdered wetting agent. Then we slip our hand into the ewe’s vagina and feel for her cervix, an amniotic sack, or lamb legs.

Available’s vagina felt like a glove turned inside out. I could feel firm little protrusions, but no lamb legs, no bulging amniotic sack, and only a tiny cervical opening. Either Available wasn’t in labor yet, or her labor had stalled either because she was so weak or because her muscles weren’t working very well because of hypocalemia.

Hypocalcemia is a problem in older ewes. It can lead to breathing problems, twitchy skin and muscles, and death. Available was panting, her skin rippled when we touched her. Hypocalcemia!

Dave injected a total of 72 milliliters of a calcium phosphorus solution in six different sites all over her body. Next he repeated the hormone shot to encourage her body to go into labor. Then he fed the rest of the ewes their hay. By the time he returned to Available, her breathing was better, her skin wasn’t twitchy, and she was eating hay. Good diagnosis.

Now we have to regulate Available’s metabolism with gavages of polyethylene glycol and water every three to six hours, as well as keep track of her calcium levels, and hope that she lambs soon.

Three hours later her cervix had not changed at all. I gavaged her, kneeling over her prostrate shoulders and slipping the tube into her mouth. She didn’t struggle at all; only ground her teeth in frustration. Sheep teeth don’t cover their entire jaw, so the gavage tube lay safe and undamaged in that open space.

Three hours later, she was panting and twitchy again. Dave repeated the calcium. We dragged her onto a clean patch of straw, laid out fresh hay and water, hung a heat lamp over her body and went in for lunch. We’ll check her again in three hours.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Still waiting

The south wind had filled the path to the barn with snow. On my 10:30 pm trip out to check the ewes, I stumbled in the dark through the drifts.

In the barn I turned on the over head lights and began working my way through the flock. Available was standing, looking pretty good for a skinny, lame, very pregnant ewe who might have ketosis.

But Number 4, Maybe, didn’t look good. I’d been watching her because of her girth and her huge udder. If her belly dropped much further, her udder would be dragging on the ground. I couldn’t get her to stand up, no matter how hard I tried. So I tried to check for ketones in her urine. I couldn’t get her to urinate. The best technique is to hold a keto stick under their vulva while someone else holds their nose and mouth closed. Urination seems to be a reflex when you can’t breathe. I positioned the keto stick on her udder under her vulva and then moved to Maybe’s head. I wrapped my hands around her mouth and nose and held on tight. She struggled, wrenching her head back and forth and finally, out of my hands. When I checked the keto stick, it had fallen to the barn floor and was completely dry. We repeated the process twice and she finally urinated. Negative for ketones!

I slid a finger tip into Maybe’s vulva to check for lambs. I could feel my finger pass through the one centimeter ring of her cervix. She was dilating! I might be spending the night in the barn waiting for her to lamb. I trudged back to the house.

Dave was in bed waiting for me, he drew back the covers. I shook my head. “I think she’s in labor.” I explained about the cervical opening. “I should probably go back out in an hour.”

“I’ll be checking the sheep in three hours,” he said. “She won’t have lambed by then.”

“Yeah, but,” I said. We had slipped into our lambing ritual – me cautious, Dave logical. Finally, he persuaded me to climb into bed and turn off the light.

At 6:30 this morning, she still hadn’t lambed and was walking around the barnyard with no problems. At 10:30, she hadn’t lambed. At 1:30 she hadn’t lambed.

The sheep are much better at waiting than I am.

Monday, February 23, 2009

If you can't catch them...

At 6:30 in the morning, the sun is just rising. Snow drifts glow light peach; ice crystals in the air glitter.

The sheep aren’t awake yet. It’s my job to wake them. One of the best ways to discover which sheep are just about ready to lamb, or just about ready to have problems, is to wake them and make them stand up. I move through the barn, talking as I walk. “Christmas, you’re pregnant this year, I’m so pleased.”
“No, Sammy, I know you aren’t pregnant, sorry to disturb you.”
“Come on Available, you have to get up. Come on, up you go. Up, up,...”

Available is awake. She seems to be holding her chest a little off the ground, but when I try to force her to stand by hoisting her butt up, she can’t get her feet under her. She pees a little, so I rush to the barn cabinet for some keto sticks. I swipe the thin plastic strip across her vulva. Not very wet, maybe I imagined the pee. But I begin counting off the fifteen second test time anyway. Within just a few seconds, the pale pink test square on the strip turns a dark purply red. She has ketones in her urine!

Ketones in the urine mean that Available is in metabolic distress. Her body is not getting enough calories, so it is metabolizing her fat. Ketosis is frequently a fatal problem for sheep. We need to get some energy into Available and then induce labor. Once her lambs are born, she won’t need quite as many nutrients.

I mix some propylene glycol in a quart of warm water and return to the barn. The fact that Available can’t stand will make gavaging her easy. I will kneel over her shoulders and insert the long tube of the gavage bag into her mouth. The drench of water and propylene glycol will give her the calories she needs.

I can’t find her. All the sheep are finally awake and wandering around the barn, not quite ready yet to step out into the cold wind that blows across the barnyard from the south. Available is somewhere in that mass of white and gray and speckled sheep, but I had only noticed her sickness, not her facial characteristics when I was in the barn before. I wander through the flock and finally find her ear tag number, 29 white. She looks fine, a little unsteady on her feet, but definitely walking around. I don’t want to chase, tackle, and take down a ewe who has trouble getting up just so that I can give her a little water and a little energy. Our rule of thumb has always been if you can’t catch them, they’re not so sick.

One hour later, when Dave and I go out to feed the sheep, she is gets up before I enter the barn and wanders unsteadily out to the corn feeders. We grab her as she wanders by and inject her with dexamethasone, a hormone that will induce labor in 24 to 36 hours. We again decide not to gavage her. Our reasoning complex and perhaps not very good: it is healthier for her to get her energy from corn than from propylene glycol; the keto sticks aren’t always accurate; and she doesn’t look too fat, or too thin, the more normal conditions for a sheep to develop ketosis.

Maybe she’ll be all right. In any case, we certainly won’t treat her until we can catch her.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Lambing could begin any time now. The rams were put in with the sheep 146 days ago. Our schedules are cleared as much as possible and we are resigned to never being away from home for more than three hours.

Time. This is a time of waiting. Every three hours we pull on our quilted barn coveralls, warm boots, wool hat and leather gloves and tromp out to the barn hoping to find new life.

This is a time of disappointment because the ewes who looked ready to explode last Saturday when we sheared, are not quite ready to lamb yet. Their bellies are taut with one or two or three lambs; their udders are full of milk; but the time is not quite right.

Babies are born on their own time schedule and it has nothing to do with ours. Nights are favorite times, as are weekends after noon. Some how, every problem delivery happens after the vet's office is closed. And some weekends there is no on-call vet. Then we really have to learn new skills.

But for now, the only skill I need is patience. We just have to wait until the cervix dilates, the amniotic sack ruptures, and the lambs struggle toward air and freedom. We just have to wait until they are done with waiting.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mel, our long time shearer, finishing a sheep

I always feel like my shepherding year begins with shearing.

We sheared the sheep on Saturday. It was a beautiful to day. The sun was shining. At 7:30 there were flat plates of snow crystals drifting in the air, glinting rainbow reflections.

Inside the barn, the breathing sheep had created a fog of water vapor. When we opened the door cold air poured in the open windows and set up swirls of clear air through the fog.

It was warm enough so that I worked without my gloves on.

We were trying out a new shearer, always a nervous business. What if he sheared carelessly and cut the sheep? What if he didn't understand how clean the wool needed to be for hand spinners, and kicked each fleece out of the way with his boots, as shearers are wont to do? What if he handled the sheep to aggressively and the moms, only a week away from lambing, went into premature labor? What if... What ever he did, we would deal with it.

While Tom, the shearer, attached his shearing motor to the wall and oiled the shearing head, we turned on lights and filled syringes with worming medication and the overeating vaccine. Then we opened the gate and moved half a dozen sheep into the shearing area. Katy, the sheep dog, worked along the fence line, encouraging the sheep.

Dave, my husband, and Glen, a friend, grabbed a sheep, Apple Blossom I think, set her on her bottom, pulled off her coat, and began trimming her hooves with their hoof shears. Richard, a graduate student in chemistry on his first visit to a sheep farm, gave her two shots. I recorded her tag number and the date on the big plastic bag that we would fill with her wool.

Then Tom took over. Using a shearing head on a log jointed arm, he began on the sheep's abdomen. He sheared up her belly, around to her right side, and up and down both right legs. He swung her around to her other side and a beautiful shiny white blanket of wool fell away from her body. Then he sheared her head, carefully skirting her ears, and finished with the left side of her body, running the shear off above her tail.

Tom stood up and Apple Blossom surged to her feet and raced away, anxious to put as much distance as possible between herself and that whirring motor. Her skin shown pink and healthy through the one quarter inch wool left on her body. She was obviously pregnant. Wonderful!

Behind her, a glistening white fleece lay on the plywood floor. I gathered it into my arms and handed it to Terrill, Tom's wife. She threw the fleece onto our shearing table, a hanging wire platform as big as the biggest fleece. Dirt, hay, manure all fell through the holes in the wire platform, while a rotating crew of volunteers skirted the fleeece, pulling off the dirty locks and throwing them aside to be used later for mulch around our orchard trees.
Then they rolled the clean fleece up and stuffed it into it's bag to be weighed.

In a few days, I will skirt the fleece one more time and grade it, determining a price by cleanliness and quality of the fleece.

As the skirters worked, they taught each other about fleeces.
"See the crimp, the tiny waves in this fiber?" Athena said. "This will sin up into a wonderful knitting yarn."
"I love this warm brown," Katy said, "I think I have to take this one home."
"Do you want to dye some wool?" Meg asked Lizabeth. "This white will dye beautifully."
"Look at how fine this fiber is," Gail said. "This will make a really fine yarn."
Laura, Camille and Zaida added their questions and coments. The barn was full of the sound of happy women and moderately unhappy animals.

Callie, our single alpaca, hummed her distress, unsure if she should be protecting her flock or not. The angora goats bleated occassionally, afraid that their turn was coming. Ten degree temperatures are really hard on the goats - they just don't tolerate the cold as well as the sheep - so we'll wait to shear them until spring. They can relax.

But the sheep need to be shorn now. They need to feel the cold so that they will lamb in the relative warmth of the barn. Then Dave an I won't have trouble finding their babies when they lamb in the middle of the night. And the babies will be able to find their mom's udders to nurse, not get side tracked sucking on a lock of unshorn wool instead of a nipple.

By evening, all 52 sheep are shorn and the barn is bedded in fresh golden straw for the sheep to nestle into during the cold night. The bags of wool are stacked in the wool shed, waiting for a final skirting and then transition to carded roving, yarn or felt. And the workers? We're all collapsed on the floor and the sofa, warm, well fed, and exhausted by a good days work. Best shearing we've ever had.