Wednesday, March 23, 2011


The wind was roaring through the trees when I walked out for the 7 a.m. lamb feeding yesterday. I stepped around the Nankin cherry bush at the edge of our driveway and saw what looked like a fur hat riffling in the wind on top of the garbage can. It took me a few seconds for the image of fur hat, black and white fur hat at that, to rearrange itself in my mind to SKUNK!

I backed quietly toward the house. By the time I returned with Dave, the fur hat was gone.

Later that morning, when Dave fed the ewes, he noticed that one of the ewes didn’t come up for corn. She was pawing at the hay in the field. That’s not normal behavior for a sheep at this time of year. They’d rather eat corn than hay. When he went down to investigate, he found she was in labor. Ten days after our last set of lambs and we have new babies in the barn!

Two surprises in one day; almost more than a person can stand. Nobody got sprayed and nobody died. The best kind of surprises.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Lights glowing in the night

Dave and I were first introduced to headlamps on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area last summer. Jesse, our son-in-law, used a head lamp to navigate us across a lake at night in a storm. He found us a campsite and avoided all the rocks in the way. It was amazing! When we got home, we ordered one for each of us to use during lambing.

Lambing checks at night can be a spooky proposition. The flashlight only shows a small area of ground at a time, so we have to sweep it back and forth. Also, most of our flashlights are constantly in need of new batteries. And if you want to work with a flashlight, you have to stick it in your mouth to leave your hands free. And if you set that flashlight down in the barnyard before you stick it in your mouth...

Several years ago I gave up on regular flashlights and bought some hand crank flashlights to save on batteries and to always have a flashlight that worked. But, as Gautam, our other son-in-law says, hand cranked flashlights only work in theory. The light beam they shed isn’t very bright and you do have to crank fairly often, which you can’t do with your mouth if you need to free up your hands.

So, the Petzl headlamps looked to be a wonderful improvement with hands free operation, and a good, bright light over the exact field of view of our eyes.

The first night I went out with my headlamp, it was snowing. Everywhere I looked, the air was filled with glittering crystals. It was so beautiful, I stood there entranced. Then I stepped into the pasture. Dozens of pairs of little green lights glowed in the distance. Most of the sheep were out enjoying a nice winter evening. Their eyes glowed green in reflection. When I stepped into the barn, dozens more green lights looked back at me. The headlamp had completely changed our grubby, late winter, manure – covered barnyard into a fairyland at night. My light woke the sparrows nesting in the barn, which fluttered around in the rafters, until one hovered in front of me, tail feathers spread, wings spread, staring into the beam of my headlamp. A fairyland indeed.

Last night, when Dave went out to feed the bottle lambs, he noticed a pair of glowing green lights beyond the barnyard fence in the south pasture, watching the barn yard. Dave walked toward the lights, expecting them to disappear. They continued to glow, steady, watching him now. Those eyes didn’t belong to sheep, they were in the wrong pasture. They didn’t belong to deer or any of the other animals that are afraid of people. They could have been dog or coyote. Either was bad news for the flock. Dave shut all the animals in the barn and closed the gate into the next pasture. By the time he was done, the glowing eyes were gone. But where had they gone?

Predators are always of concern on a farm. This morning, Dave checked the snow beyond the gate. No tracks. Whatever had been watching the barnyard hadn’t tried to come any closer to the barn. We will leave that gate closed until we have a chance to check our south fence lines. There can be a dark side to fairyland.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Freedom's just another word for...

Today we let the last set of lambs and ewes out of the group pen. For the ewes, the open door meant freedom and they rushed out. For the lambs, the open door meant nothing, but they rushed out all the same just because everybody else was rushing out.
The lambs immediately realized that they were someplace strange and called for their mothers. Most of the ewes realized almost immediately, that their babies were missing and came back to the barn to find them, maaing. Some ewes expected their babies to come find them. Those moms and babies called from opposite sides of the barnyard and never seem to get any closer.

For an hour or so in our barnyard, freedom's just another word for cacophony.

Eventually, all the moms and babies find each other and only call periodically when they can't actively see each other. They call, for example, if they are on the other side of the barn from each other, or if one is inside and one is out, or if they are standing next to each other, but one is facing north and one is facing south.

There are good reasons why sheep are thought to be dumb animals. Of course, I can also remember my kids and I doing the same thing - we just used more complicated sounds to call each other.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Clip, dip, strip

Clip, Dip, Strip is a mnemonic that we use in the barn to make sure we remember to clip every lamb’s umbilical cord, to dip the stub of the cord into iodine and to strip the first milk from the ewe’s teats. I think most shepherds use something similar. Those first actions go a long way toward ensuring a new lamb’s survival.

We clip the umbilical cord to shorten it so it’s less apt to trail in the manure of the barn floor and pick up bacteria. We dip the stump to help it dry up faster and further protect the lamb from nasty bacteria. Lamb’s don’t start making their own antibodies for several weeks; they depend on the antibodies they receive through their mom’s milk. If they don’t have enough antibodies, or if the number of bacteria to which they are exposed are high enough, young lambs can develop fatal cases of diarrhea. And finally, we strip the ewe’s teats to make sure she has milk and to expel a plug of dried milk that might make nursing harder for the lamb.

All three of those actions help ensure a new lamb’s survival. With the mnemonic, they all get done even if the shepherd isn’t thinking in top form at all hours of the day and night. And we don’t, think in top form that is.

One night, before his 3 a.m. barn check, Dave sat on the edge of the bed for an embarrassing length of time, trying to figure out which opening of his sweatshirt he should put his right leg through. Sunday morning, I lay in bed telling myself that because it was daylight savings time, I could wait until 8 a.m. to do my 7 a.m. barn check. My reasoning made perfect sense. We were supposed to move our clocks one hour forward, so from seven to eight, and I hadn’t changed mine yet. The fact that I had been out in the barn until 2 a.m. with an old ewe and two new babies might explain why my brain wasn’t working quite right.

Last night, I was disappointed to find several sheep and a lamb outside at the feeders because I had hoped to lock them into the barn again. But it was really quite a mild night so I set aside the idea of herding them into the barn in the dark. As I headed back down the hill, the lamb followed me, crying. I picked it up and checked its number. 61. Hmm, that lamb should be still in a pen. But a ewe at the feeder called and the lamb responded. Then another ewe called and the lamb responded. Okay, I reconsidered, that was a 16 not a 61. I set the lamb down and he ran off towards the calling ewes.

I went to bed. This morning, I noticed that the lamb sleeping curled in the corner next to the waterer (a favorite place because the water heater warms that corner), was white instead of black number 45, the usual inhabitant. I checked to make sure it wasn’t 29, our sometimes bottle lamb, but the number showing on the tag was a one. So I went on with my barn chores, giving the penned moms fresh water and hay. I also checked to make sure that every baby in every pen stretched. When I got to 24 red’s pen, I paused, there was only one lamb where I expected to see two and the one lamb was tagged with the number 60.

My heart sank; I ran for the barn records. Yes, 24 red should have had two lambs, number 60 and number 61. I picked up number 61 from his spot next to the heater and put him in his mother’s pen. She sniffed him; he headed for breakfast. When I checked his belly a few minutes later, it was round and full.

If we can just think of mnemonics for the all the rest of our lambing actions – like “can” means “check all numbers”, or “slot” means “short leg openings = tshirt” we would have perfect lambings.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The storm

Friday night when I did my 11 p.m. check, all the sheep were in the barn. The wind howled as I rounded the corner and faced into the wind; tiny pellets of snow cut at my face – ‘not a fit night for man nor beast’. I pulled the barn door shut and trapped all the animals in the relative warmth of the barn – at least they were out of the wind. By morning, it would be degrees warmer inside than outside.

Orange number five had not been able to adopt a new lamb. She licked it, but when we tried to move her away from her dead lamb, she left the new lamb for the dead one. We didn’t want to have her lick the new lamb and completely change its odor, and then abandon it, so we returned the live lamb to its real mother who was birthing her third. I guess Dave and I really aren’t risk takers. Fifty yellow, the mother of the triplets is a good mother, they will all thrive under her care.

When I opened the door at 7 a.m., four more ewes had lambed. I was grateful that we hadn’t had to search for those babies in the storm.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The first thing

The first thing I found when I walked out to the barn this morning, was a cold lamb, lying at her mother’s feet on the ice. I ran back to the house, filled a bucket with warm water, grabbed some clean towels and went back to the barn.

The second thing I saw when I walked out to the barn this morning, was the mother of the cold lamb and a black ewe both sniffing another little white lamb lying in the straw. Which ewe did that lamb belong to? I set the cold lamb in the bucket and figured out how to prop its head on the side of the bucket. Until the lamb warmed a little and started to struggle, she should be safe. I needed to figure out which ewe the new lamb belonged to and get the pair penned so they could bond in peace. I headed toward the back of the barn and our last two open jugs.

The third thing I saw this morning before I got to the back of the barn, was a white ewe and the black and white spotted baby thief arguing over two big black lambs who still had their tails – obviously newborn.

I spread fresh straw in the jugs and turned on the heat lamps. The white lamb was nursing on the black ewe. The cold lamb hadn’t moved in the bucket of warm water. I picked up the two black lambs and backed down the barn. The baby thief and the white ewe both followed, the baby thief inserting her body between the babies and the white ewe, no matter how I twisted and turned. I set the babies down in front of their pen and looked carefully at both ewes. The white ewe had a few bloody splotches on her udder; the baby thief’s udder and legs were clean. I wrestled her out of the way, opened the jug panel and slipped the babies onto the straw under the heat lamp. The white ewe pushed in after them. I closed the panel and the baby thief threw herself against it. I tied it tightly and then did a quick pelvic exam on the white ewe to make sure these really were her babies. Her nipples had milk and her uterus had mucous. Even though the babies were black and she was white, I was fairly certain that I had guessed correctly.

When I went back to the cold lamb, she was dead.

Now I had to figure out which ewe the live white lamb belonged to and it was more important than ever. If I gave a lamb to a pregnant ewe, she might not be able to nurse it yet and it would die. Both ewes had amniotic fluid shining on their udders. The white ewe had blood staining her udder, her vulva, and her legs. I had seen her licking the cold lamb. Both ewes were licking the live lamb. But the lamb was trying to nurse again on the black ewe, I chose her as the mother and carried the lamb to the last open pen. Both ewes followed, but the white ewe circled back to her dead baby when I closed the pen on the black ewe and the lamb. I checked the black ewe for milk and mucous in her vagina. She had definitely lambed recently and in spite of the fact that I had two black lambs with a white ewe, and one white lamb with a black ewe, I felt comfortable with my decision. It didn’t matter in the long run, because I had no record of the genetic history of either mother.

A fourth ewe was going into labor. She was a big ewe. If she had more than one baby, I could maybe graft her second baby onto the mother whose baby had died. If we laid the live baby next to the dead baby, maybe she would transfer her interest.

The last thing I saw when I left the barn this morning for a quick, late breakfast, was ewe number 5 orange licking her dead baby.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eye of the storm?

We’ve gone 24 hours without a new lamb. This must be the eye of the hurricane, or the lull before the storm, or the quiet on the eve of the battle. Whatever you call it, we often get a few days of quiet during every lambing. We really appreciate the break, and maybe the sheep do too.. Dave and I catch up on projects, update our record keeping and take naps. The sheep sleep in the sun, gaze at their navels and out over their world.

It has been a hard lambing so far. In the ten days since the first lamb was born we have had 25 ewes lamb, 50 babies born, and 8 babies die. That last statistic breaks my heart. Eight beautiful, big lambs who should have been able to stand, should of been able to maintain their body temperature, but for some reason, couldn’t.

After the third or fourth death, my emotions sort of shut down. I can’t keep grieving with each new baby who can’t stand. There isn’t room in my heart for that much grief. After we had considered every medical possibility in every sheep book we owned, talked to our friend Glen, a retired shepherd, and consulted with our veterinarian, there was nothing more to do. As I drove back from the diagnostic lab at NDSU, I felt as if the burden of these lamb deaths was now on someone else’s shoulders.

Of course we keep trying to figure out the problem. Right now, our thoughts are running along genetic lines. For several years, we used ear tags to identify our animals which turned out to be defective. Most of the ewes tagged in those years lost their tags and their identity in my record books. For the last three years, I may have been breeding ewes to their fathers. I had no way of knowing. In retrospect, I should have replaced my rams the year we lost so many tags, but it didn’t occur to me. I know that inbreeding can be dangerous, resulting in babies with mild to severe problems, but it can also give you some outstanding individuals. It just never occurred to me that the negative side would be so overwhelming. Some animal breeders may use inbreeding to improve their strain, but I will never consciously do so again, whether that turns out to be our problem or not.

And so we wait, impatiently, for the results from the diagnostic lab. We have gone 48 hours without a lamb death. It is unlikely that the dying is done, but in this little pause, I appreciate going out to the barn not to worry about a dying lamb, but to celebrate the joyous pronking of the lambs just released from the group pen, and to savor the quiet contentment of a mother and her baby or the patience of ewes waiting to lamb.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Christmas' presents

Christmas was born on a long ago Christmas Eve (see blog entry for December 23, 2010), as Dave and I and the girls were rushing off to celebrate the season with our family in the Twin Cities.

Christmas(the lamb, that is) has been a delight ever since she was born. Her mother couldn't feed her, so Christmas became a bottle baby. She was cute and little and everyone loved her.

Because everyone loved her, Christmas loves everyone. She has no hesitation about walking up to people and nuzzling their hands, looking for Cheerios or graham crackers.

This year, with lamb after lamb dying in the barn we could barely stand to do another barn check. But this afternoon, we went out to the barn to find Christmas in labor. She delivered three little white lambs, just as cute as she is. We've already named the girl New Years. Christmas has given us so many gifts.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


I carry the problems of my animals with me at all times. Like a gray veil that sweeps from the top of my head to the ground, darkening the sunlight, draining joy from my days. Wednesday afternoon, a second lamb was born who had to be helped to breathe, who couldn’t maintain her body temperature, who couldn’t stand or nurse.

We warmed her and fed her and injected her with selenium. She lived, but she still couldn’t stand, couldn’t walk, couldn’t nurse.

Dave and I searched through our sheep books and the internet looking for solutions to a problem we could barely describe, that still seemed like a selenium deficiency, but that didn’t improve when we injected selenium.

Selenium is an essential nutrient for sheep. It protects muscles from the toxic effects of peroxides which accumulate in the body from food or exercise. In the absence of selenium, the peroxides eventually kill muscle cells. However, selenium itself can also be toxic. If you give selenium to an animal who is not deficient, you may poison them.

Finally I called Dr Weckwerth, our veterinarian. We discussed the symptoms of this lamb and the dead lamb and the two lambs who had died with the same symptoms in 2009. His suggestion was to first determine if our ewes were selenium deficient, and if they were, to inject every ewe, hoping to give each one enough selenium to share with her lambs through her blood. He found out what university to send the blood sample to and stopped at his office to pick up a vacutainer tube for the blood sample.

Dave and I talked about retrieving the dead lamb from the compost pile for an autopsy. Selenium deficiency is also called white muscle disease and is distinctive on autopsy for the unusual pale – white color it imparts to muscles. But by now, this lambs breathing was getting faster, an echo of the first’s lambs deterioration before it’s death.

The question became what to do next. Do we let this lamb die of starvation, of hypoxia because it can’t get enough oxygen, or of heart failure because it has to work so hard to breathe? Or do we kill this lamb and take it’s newly dead body to the Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory at NDSU for an autopsy and test, hoping that they can trace the clues that we could not.

I learned several years ago that I can’t kill a lamb no matter how much it would help that lamb to die. Dave had struggled so hard to keep this lamb alive, I couldn’t ask him to kill her. So we determined to pay Dr Weckwerth to examine the lamb, record his findings and then euthanize her for us. I would take the lamb to NDSU and hopefully we would know more.

“We’re sacrificing this lamb for knowledge to help the flock,” Dave said.

“This lamb is dying,” I responded. “This way, she won’t suffer. And yes, hopefully we will know more as a result of her death.”

Dave and Dr Weckwerth examined the lamb, discussed options and possibilities, marveled over her severe entropion, the inward turning of the eyelids. This lamb had the worst entropion I had ever seen. Even when we everted her eyelids, hardly any eye was visible. “She already has scarring on her cornea from the eye lashes,” he said. “It must hurt a lot.”

Then he injected the drug and ran his hands over her shoulders and head as she drifted away. Suddenly, I noticed that her eyelids were open. She wasn’t in pain anymore.

When I walked in from the barn that evening, all the lambs were healthy and nursing, even the sibling of that first dead lamb who had seemed on the edge of death herself. The air was crisp and clear, tree branches finely cut against the darkening sky. I could see clearly now and and my heart was light. All was well in the barn

Friday, March 4, 2011

Of birth and death

Tuesday, Dave noticed that the ewe with the prolapse hadn’t come down for corn. He walked around the barn and there she was, a little white hoof sticking out of her sewn shut vulva.

I had meetings all morning, so Dave was on his own. Unfazed, he herded the ewe into the barn, cornered her with a hog panel, and then took her down in an adaptation of a well remembered high school wrestling move. He pulled a hoof shears from his pocket, slid it under a stitch in the suture around her vulva, and cut the suture.

The he pulled the lamb out. She was beautiful! He moved mother and baby into a jug, clipped the baby’s umbilical cord, dipped it into iodine and then stripped milk from each of the ewe’s nipples. No second baby yet.

He fed the mom, filled a bucket with water, and registered the birth in our barn records. Still no signs of a second baby. Dave fed six bales of hay to the rest of the ewes and carried a bale down to the rams. He fed and watered the rest of the ewes in jugs. Finally a hoof showed at the new mom’s vulva.

Dave helped ease the second lamb into the world. It was not a healthy baby. He struggled to get it to breathe, rubbed it’s little body with a towel, blew into it’s mouth and nose, dropped it onto the straw covered floor. Finally the lamb took a shuddery breath and began to breathe shallowly. But this lamb was still in trouble. It didn’t struggle to get to its feet. It didn’t raise it’s head. It lay there.

When Dave returned in an hour, the lamb was shivering. It’s temperature was below 98˚. It couldn’t maintain its body temperature. Dave warmed the lamb in a bucket of hot water. He expressed milk from the mom and fed the lamb with a gavage tube into its stomach. The lamb just lay there, thrashing when he tried to get it to stand.

The beautiful lamb didn’t look very good either. I remembered that we had used an injection of selenium in a similar situation several years ago. We gave both lambs selenium and fed them both by gavage.

The selenium hadn’t saved the lambs the last time we tried it. But I couldn’t find any explanation for a spastic lamb other than white muscle disease. For awhile at least we would treat them as if they had white muscle disease and give them selenium.

Twelve hours later, the second lamb was breathing impossibly fast. It couldn’t stand or raise it’s head. We had warmed it twice now and injected it with more selenium; we knew of nothing more to do. It was dead when Dave did the 3 am barn check.

The second lamb is hanging in there. She doesn’t look healthy; her head droops, but she can maintain her body temperature. She is learning to nurse on her Mom, and she isn’t spastic. She isn’t actively dying. Maybe we will come out of this with one live lamb.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Early morning

Mist hangs in the air. The gate, when I climb over it, glitters. The tree tips are frosted in white. Kaylie the alpaca and Lady, our last angora goat, meet me at the barn door. Either the barn is too warm for them or they don’t need as much sleep as their pregnant comrades.

Almost all the sheep in the barn are asleep or at least resting. Only Christmas and the two new Moms are standing. I imagine Christmas stands because her belly, swollen with pregnancy, has displaced many internal organs. I think she probably breathes better when she is standing. The two new moms stand over their babies who are nursing, one lamb on each side of an udder. Twins are perfect: their mom has a nipple and usually enough milk for each baby, and when I sell the lambs, if I haven’t had to feed them milk replacer or buy hay, one lamb will pay for his mom’s upkeep and the second one will be profit.

No one is lambing right now; no one is ill. I walk out of the barn, content. Behind the frosted trees, a red sun glows. It is going to be a beautiful day.