Thursday, February 26, 2009

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.


  1. When I read your writing I am continually reminded of how strong you are. So many moments during lambing give you challenges that I can't even begin to imagine dealing with. Thank you for sharing these stories with us. I know that it isn't easy for you to share sadness but you are giving us a gift by letting us into this world.

  2. I'm having a lambing crisis today, found your blog. We're out in OR, but I am from Minn. I hope your ewe makes it. I have one ewe who went down two days ago, my first expereince with ketosis, and a prolapsed vagina. She is very large. We had vet do iv drip, and usual treatment, and we revived her in time, I hope. The other ewe is my head ewe who went down this am, and I hope I got her in time with calcium and B12 and prol..ANyway, It's my first time after 5 yers of lambing where I will definately have to assist the bigger ewe - and I am having the hardest time differentiang her cervix from the vagina wall!

    I hope things work out for you and the ewe - you can only do your best, and we obviously had calcium issues in the diet this year, I'm not sure why, but I will learn and do better.