Friday, March 27, 2009

Bottle babies

Bottle babies are joy and frustration. They are one of the high points of every day and some of the most aggravating little beings on the face of the earth. They are one of the worst reasons to keep raising sheep, and one of the best.

In the first place, bottle babies are a triumph of the shepherd over death. They become a bottle baby because their mother died or because their mother has rejected them and won’t let them nurse. When I watch a ewe step aside as a baby tries to nurse, I’m furious. I get livid when I hear a mother toss her baby against the wall of her pen to keep the baby from bothering her.

My instincts are to protect that baby. We sometimes force a ewe into a corner and then hold her in place so her baby can nurse. The ewes fight us all the way. I have even bitten ewes just to show them how determined I am while trying to hold them in place and hold the baby on their nipple. Believe me biting a ewe is not nice, but it shows my level of frustration!

Sometimes ewes reject lambs because the lamb doesn’t act normally in the minutes or hours after it’s birth. Sometimes they reject lambs who hurt when they nurse on their nipples. Sometimes they reject lambs who have been warmed in water because they lose their unique odor. Sometimes they reject lambs because the ewe herself is too sick to care for a baby.

Whatever the reason, when a lamb is rejected by its mom, the shepherd takes over as mom. We don’t sleep curled beside them; we don’t lick their bottoms to encourage them to nurse; but we do feed them. We feed them an ounce or two of colostrum every three hours for the first 24 hours. Then we feed them a gradually increasing amount of lamb milk replacer every three to six hours for the next three to four weeks. With only one lamb, we feed it out of a bottle. Even three or four lambs we can handle with multiple bottles. The lambs all vie to be first in line. We struggle to make sure that each lamb gets the right amount of milk and that we don’t miss anybody and don’t feed anybody twice.

When we’re feeding eight lambs, like we are this year, we rapidly shift from bottles to a sucker bucket which feeds six lambs at once. The sucker bucket is a large, square white bucket with two nipples projecting from each of three sides. The nipples go through the bucket wall to suck milk from inside the bucket. We fill the bucket three or four times a day and float a jug full of ice in the milk to keep it cold.

Teaching the lambs to use the sucker bucket is an exercise in patience. They rapidly learn that our hands carry milk bottles. So when we try to direct their mouths away from our hands and onto the sucker bucket nipples, they are incredible dense. They bite our fingers, chew on knuckles and butt at our heads. When we are actually holding a lamb onto the sucker bucket nipple, the rest of the lambs take advantage of our inability to defend ourselves and gang up on us. They jump on our backs, chew our hair, take off our glasses and butt our faces. There is nothing quite so eye wateringly painful as a lamb head butt to the nose.

On the other hand, watching a lamb who began life not quite dead, who needed to be warmed from 94 degrees to 103 degrees and who mostly lay in its pen for the first 24 hours of its life, watching that lamb grow from a scrawny limp white stuffed animal to a bouncing, active lamb fighting to be first at the feeder gives me an incredible feeling of success, even more, of joy. It’s hard to watch a baby lamb without smiling. Baby lambs who have bonded with you make you feel loved (even though you know that they love you for the food you bring them.)

One day during lambing I went down the row of pens offering all the ewes a small treat. The only ewes who sniffed my hand or ate the treat were bottle lambs – last year, or the year before or the in years before that. Those lambs have grown, and have lambs of their own, but they still remember the shepherd to fed them, the shepherd who gave them life when their mothers couldn’t.

1 comment:

  1. Bottle lamb,shepherd, love, hate relationship. Smiles from Glen and Ellie