Friday, March 20, 2009


The Horned One was lying in the corner. My heart sank as I approached; I could hear her labored breathing from across the barn.

Labored breathing usually meant pneumonia or hypocalcemia. We didn’t have problems with pneumonia, but this year, hypocalcemia, low calcium levels, had been all too common. This year, we’d had only two outcomes from hypocalcemia – a slow, inefficient labor followed by a difficult delivery with weak lambs, or death – and sometimes both.

This year has been the second worst lambing I’ve ever lived through. Ewes died, lambs died, sometimes both a mom and all her babies died. We struggled hard to prevent those deaths. I don’t think we’re bad shepherds, careless shepherds, uncaring shepherds. But as the deaths mount, I face each trip to the barn with dread and I think to myself. “We are in the business of killing sheep. Nobody should be in that business.”

I kept trying to figure out what we were doing differently from past years. Why were ewes and lambs dieing this year? We were feeding the best hay we’d put up in years. The corn was from an elevator we trusted. There was no rain or snow melt finding its way into our feed bin to mold the corn. We were feeding trace minerals and lasciloccid in salt. Our animals should have been in perfect health. Instead we had seasoned ewes dieing in labor and beautiful, big lambs born dead.

I could only think of one change. This winter, the Farmer’s Elevator in town started stocking a new kind of trace mineral salt for sheep. Two things about the salt made me uncomfortable. One, it was supposed to be good for cattle, horses, and sheep. In the past we had been very careful to only buy trace mineral salt designed for sheep because they have very special nutritional requirements. And two, it listed copper as an ingredient. Copper can be toxic for sheep so I usually buy a mineral mix with no added copper. I wasn’t concerned because the copper concentration on the label was low enough that it shouldn’t hurt our animals.

Every time we heard labored breathing, we checked for twitchy skin and took the ewe’s temperature. If her skin shivered and twitched when we touched her and she didn’t have a fever, we assumed that the ewe had hypocalcemia. We treated her by injecting 100 cc of Calphos# 2 under her skin. The drug burned so we injected 10 cc in ten different sites. I could always tell how sick a sheep was by how she responded to the injection. If she tried to run away, there was hope. If she just lay there, her hypocalcemia was advanced and we would be giving her calcium over and over again until she either lambed or died.

After our third ewe died, I went online to learn more about our salt. I was still fixated on the copper concentration, but when I printed out the chemical makeup of our new trace mineral salt and other typical trace mineral salts for sheep for comparison, Dave realized that copper wasn’t the problem, calcium and phosphorous were. The salt we had been using had less than two percent of the amount of calcium and phosphorous that our sheep needed.

We consulted with Dr. Weckwerth one of the two very good veterinarians in town. He agreed with our diagnosis. Low levels of calcium would mean that the ewes’ muscles wouldn’t contract well. Her labor wouldn’t progress normally. And her lambs would therefore have a longer, more stressful labor. Lambs that were born live might be weaker. Lambs whose mothers were particularly deficient in calcium, older mothers who had fed many lambs over the years and might have lower calcium stores to begin with, would maybe not have enough calcium for the muscles of their chest to expand and contract for breathing. Lambs with low calcium might not be able to breathe, even though they were full term, otherwise healthy looking lambs.

We had delivered five lambs who wouldn’t breathe no matter what we tried. Five dead babies without the tiny amount of calcium necessary to cause their lungs to fill with air. All because of a change in a dietary supplement that the sheep eat about 1/3 pound of each week. And the calcium was only 12% of that 1/3 pound. Such a big effect for only 17 grams of calcium, about one tablespoon of calcium per week.

Now we had to decide what to do for the Horned One.

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