Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Two degrees Fahrenheit

The weather has turned cold again. The wind generator is humming on the hill, and gusts of snow swirl down off the barn roof. Two days ago, I walked back from the barn without gloves or hat on, savoring the cool air on my face. When the air temperature drops ten or twenty degrees, I add layers – long underwear, wool sweaters, extra gloves under my mittens.

The sheep don’t have that luxury. When the temperature drops all they can do is try to stay out of the wind and eat more food. The more calories they eat, the more calories they can burn to maintain their body temperature – about 103˚ Fahrenheit.

The lambs have even more of a problem. Their only source of calories is their mother’s milk. They have very small reserves of fat that they burn up in the first 24 hours of life. After that fat is gone, they are at the mercy of disease, cold, wet and starvation. The starvation comes if a mother doesn’t have enough milk, when a lamb doesn’t learn to suck right or when a ewe is a bad mother.

When lambs don’t get enough calories from milk, they can’t keep their bodies at body temperature. Our first sign of starvation is a lamb standing with it’s back hunched, feet close together. When we feel the lamb’s belly, it’s concave instead of flat (or in really greedy bottle lambs – bulging). When we hear a lamb crying in the pen, we suspect that it is hungry.

First we try to get the lamb to nurse on it’s mother. Dave is especially good at the patience it takes to hold a lamb under a ewe, and persuade the lamb to open it’s mouth and suck on a nipple. This entails either calming the ewe, calming the lamb, or more likely, both. Trying to get a lamb to nurse gives us some idea of the problem. If the lamb sucks well but the mom is agitated, the mom may be rejecting the lamb. If the mom is encouraging but the baby is listless, the lamb may already be too weak to nurse.

We take the temperatures of listless, hungry looking lambs. Two degrees can make an amazing difference. A lamb with a temperature of 101˚ often stands with it’s back hunched and head down. We may have to encourage it to eat by squeezing the milk bottle after we get the nipple wedged into the lamb’s mouth. If we can warm the lamb and get some milk into it, we can always save it. A lamb with a temperature of 99 degrees may not be able to stand, only lie there with its head turned back over its body. It won’t suck or swallow. It is close to death. Those lambs we feed with a thin gavage tube attached to a 60 cc syringe. We can push the milk into the lamb’s belly. In all these young lambs, if we can get that temperature back up to normal, we can usually save the lamb.

The best way to warm a lamb with a mom (as opposed to an orphan lamb) is to immerse the lamb up to its neck in a bucket of hot water, right in front of its mother. That way the mom can keep sniffing the lamb and talking to it. Because when we pull the warmed, dripping lamb from the bucket and dry it off, it will be a lot cleaner than it was when it went into the bucket and won’t smell the same. If she can’t recognize her lamb, the ewe will reject it and not allow it to nurse. Sometimes it takes two or three buckets of warm water to get the lamb’s temperature back up to 103˚. We can almost tell without a thermometer when a lamb is ready to come out of the bucket. They lift their heads, kick their feet and call for their mothers. Complete cures at the cost of a half an hour of time and a few gallons of hot water.

Warming lambs always makes me feel like a successful shepherd. Now if I could just learn to recognize the problems before my lambs have lost those 2˚ of heat.


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  2. Glad you are including the lamb count. I love to watch it change!

  3. 34 and counting. That's awesome. Stay warm!