Tuesday, March 9, 2010

teaching a lamb to nurse

When human babies are born, their moms hold them in their arms, and guide them to their nipples so that the babies can nurse. Sheep aren’t like that.

The ewes encourage their lambs to stand by licking, pawing and talking to them. They then nudge the lambs toward their udders with their noses. But if the lambs don’t figure out how to latch on to a nipple, there is nothing the moms can do.

There are a number of reasons why lambs don’t nurse. The nipples might be too big, too high, too low. The lamb might be too cold, too dumb, too weak. Whatever the reason, it is the shepherd’s job to help the lamb learn how to nurse.

Every shepherd has different techniques. Some are more successful than others. When we first started raising sheep, we would get the lamb as close to its mother’s nipple as possible and then stretch the lamb’s head and the mom’s nipple until they met. It didn’t work very well. The technique I’ve finally developed works most of the time.

I skootch up to the ewe on my knees, holding the lamb between my knees. When the distance is small enough so that the lamb just fits between me and his mother’s udder, I cradle his head with my hands – one under his chin and the second cupping the back of his head. This way, I can keep him centered on the nipple. Lambs are so tiny, their heads fit easily in to my cupped hands. Then I use the forefinger of the hand under his chin to slide the nipple into his mouth. On a particularly stubborn lamb, I might have to open his mouth with the thumb and middle finger of my bottom hand and then slide the nipple in.

Dave pins the ewe against the wall with his shoulder against her chest and his head behind her ribcage. He holds the lamb’s front legs back under its body with one hand and guides its mouth to the nipple with the other.

If I stay calm, and the ewe doesn’t panic, my technique usually works quite well. But if the ewe is skitsy or in a panic, Dave holds her against the wall while I try to get the lamb nursing.

Once we have taught a lamb to nurse, they don’t need reminding. There is no sight more rewarding than to watch a lamb that I have struggled with, nursing, its entire body wriggling. Without our help, that lamb would have died.

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