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.

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