Sunday, February 26, 2012

Special Delivery

Welcome to the latest multi-sensory lambing simulation. So far, it has to be all in your imagination, but someday.... However, even in its simplest form, this will be a special delivery.

You’re going to do this all by yourself. Well, actually, not all by yourself, Dave is here to lay across the ewe’s shoulders to keep her from running away. She’s been in labor for over two hours and it’s time to figure out what’s going on.

Okay, wash your hands, leaving them soapy. Kneel behind your patient. The smell of wool, manure and amniotic fluid fills your nose. Touch the fingertips of your right hand to the thumb tip forming a wedge and slide your hand through her vulva into her uterus. Now close your eyes to better ‘see’ what your fingers feel. You can hear the rustle of sheep settling into the fresh straw bedding, the small baas of lambs looking for their mothers and the loud, strident calls of the mothers.

Your hand squeezes through the hard ring of her pelvic bones into a warm space with hanging veils of what feels like wet silk or plastic wrap. There! Your fingers touch something smooth and solid. Explore it. Feel the division between two parts. Follow the division back a short way until the smoothness becomes rough. You’ve found a hoof.

You need to find either another hoof or a head next. Slowly move your fingers until they encounter something else hard. Explore. Does it feel the same as the hoof? Is there a dividing line through it?

The dividing line is longer and the surfaces it divides are rough and soft, not smooth and hard. Run your fingers along the line again. That line is the lamb’s mouth. Sometimes you can feel tiny teeth there. Slide your fingers back, deeper into the ewe’s uterus, while still touching the lamb’s head. Feel the slight indentation of the eye sockets. Find the domed back of the lamb’s head.

Now you have a head and a hoof, enough to deliver a lamb. Not so fast! Because your fingertips don’t have eyes, you have to be sure that the hoof and the head are part of the same lamb. Slide your fingers down the back of the head, over the soft folds of the ear. Keep moving; trace the anatomy of a shoulder to the long bone of the front leg, the ankle bones, two long toes bones and then to the smooth hoof. Yes! All one baby.

Grasp the hoof between two fingertips and your thumb. Pull gently, feel it slide toward you. Suddenly, the hoof pulls out of your grip. Good, a nice active lamb. Gently run your fingertips back up the leg, across the shoulder and up the neck. Cup your fingers over the back of the lamb’s head and gently pull toward the opening to the ewe’s vagina and the bog, cold, outside world.

The lamb moves toward you. Shift your fingers again to the hoof. Ease it through the vulva, out in the open. Feel around the pelvic opening with your other hand, second hoof. Face. Slide the fingers of your second hand over the back of the lamb’s head while pulling down and out on the first hoof. As the lamb’s shoulder clears its mother’s pelvic opening, a nose joins the leg.

You can open your eyes now. Your finger tips have done their sightless job. White nose follows white hoof as you continue pulling. This is a long lamb. Pull, pull, pull. The ewe grunts and moans as you pull. Finally, the lamb’s hind legs slide out of the space where it has lived and grown for the last five months.

Grab a towel, clean the head off first. Wipe the amniotic fluid away from the lamb so it can breathe air. Smooth the towel down its nose and then begin rubbing the curly white haired body. The lamb takes a shuddery breath and sneezes.

Now, you may take a shuddery breath, sit back on your heels, and relax.

Dave moves the lamb to it’s mothers head and her tongue comes out, licking the lamb clean and dry, encouraging it to breathe. Dave hands you the barn notebook. Date, time of delivery, sex of lamb, identity of the mother. You check the ewe’s ear tag. 20 orange.

20 orange. The ewe we were afraid had a uterine torsion. Such an easy delivery when we worried that it would be so hard. This was indeed a special delivery.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Predator and prey

Yesterday, while spreading hay in the pasture, Dave found a footprint in the crusty snow. It wasn’t a hoof print, we see them so often that we don’t notice them any more. It was a large, rounded print with four pads and what could be indentations of claws.

“Have you brought Newton out here I asked?” Dave shook his head.
“Coyote or big cat? Bob cat?”

We glanced around At least four perimeter pastures opened into this pasture. All their gates were open. I headed to the house for the camera, a ruler, and the Field Guide to Animal Tracks, and Dave set off across the pasture to close gates.

The tracks were 2” front to back, and 2.5” wide. Red fox. Foxes ate mice and shrews; not even in the coldest, most snowbound winter would they take down a baby lamb, and this had been a mild, open winter. We relaxed.

Just as coyotes and bobcats act like predators, the sheep behave like prey. When Dave checked the sheep that evening he could hear coyotes yipping in the far distance. All the sheep were in the barn and Kaylie, the alpaca, was standing guard just outside the barn door. Dave closed the gate to the feeding pasture so that the animals were confined to the barnyard, our most secure space.

When I went out at 11 PM, 56 and her twins were out in the barnyard, but not together. The lambs were both baaing, their voices high and vulnerable sounding. They were within twenty feet of their mother, but she ignored them and concentrated on eating. and they were too young to have learned to walk around the feeder to find her.

I fed and watered the ewes in the jugs and checked to make sure that their lambs stretched, a sure sign that they were getting enough milk. 56’s lambs’ baas followed me as I walked toward the house, their voices clear and piercing in the quiet night. ‘Those baas will carry a long way,’ I thought, ‘perhaps as far as the coyotes.’ I returned to the barnyard and herded the lambs gently around a feeder until they found their mother and quiet descended on the flock.

As I walked back to the house, I listened carefully for the yip of a coyote. Silence, that deep night country silence not disturbed by the sound of cars or even of dogs barking, surrounded me. I shut the night and its silence outside, dropped my coveralls on the floor beside my boots, and climbed the stairs with Newton’s toenails clicking on each step behind me. I snuggled into bed next to Dave and breathed the prayer of all shepherds everywhere. ‘May I be the only predator my flock knows.’

Friday, February 17, 2012

Mother and baby

mother and baby
black alpaca standing guard
fresh snow this morning

Thursday, February 16, 2012

3 AM in the barn

The 3 AM barn check is the hardest part of lambing. We put off doing it until the first lamb is born and then continue with it until the last lamb is born. At 3 AM, we feed any moms in jugs, replenish their water buckets, check to make sure all the new lambs are well fed, and check for even newer lambs – moms in labor or just delivered.

All this makes sense after the lambs start coming, but for the last week we have been doing the 3 AM barn check with no new lambs, and lately, with no lambs or moms in jugs. We get up in the middle of the night and stagger bleary eyed out to the barn on the off chance that there will be new babies.

One week ago, 12 hours after our first lambs were born, I jumped out of bed when the alarm went off, slipped easily into my clothes and went striding out to the barn, awake and excited to see the babies again and hopefully find new ones. The ewe’s eyes glowed at me from the back of the barn. Everyone was calm, no new babies disturbed their rest. The next night, I didn’t wake quite as easily, I couldn’t find the sleeve hole of my sweatshirt and my feet went between my long underwear and my jeans when I tried to pull them on all together. Obviously, I needed to nap during the day if I was to be at my best at 3 AM. The next two nights, with a couple of naps under my belt, I was functional, if not really awake. But all those nights, I woke, dressed and walked to the barn for no reason.

I don’t remember waking at night when our kids were little. Dave says he got up with them. I nursed them, so I know that I did wake, but I have no memory of it. Our daughters, Amber and Laurel, have just spent the past year waking at night to the hungry voices of their sons, and not just at 3 AM, sometimes at 11 and 3 and 5. How do they do it and still function the next day?

Once Dave got home from work, he took over the 3 AM barn check because he frequently works nights and thus is theoretically better adapted to it. I don’t complain too hard, I just sleep right through the alarm at 3 AM when he is home and thank him in the morning.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Gift

On the first day that lambing could possibly begin, 56 yellow presented me with a pre-birthday gift - two healthy, white ram lambs. I was not as overjoyed as I should have been.

Usually, the ewes don’t get pregnant the first day the ram is introduced. Usually, we have two or three days, sometimes even a week of “lambing” before the first baby is born. That’s why this year, Dave planned to work at the ER the first four nights of lambing. That’s why I hadn’t bought new ear tags or replenished my colostrum supply. That’s why I had four meetings scheduled in the next four days. It wasn’t why I was still finishing Valentine’s gifts and our holiday letters (that was just slowness on my part). Whatever the reason, I wasn’t ready for lambing. But that didn’t matter, the lambs were here.

Dave clipped their umbilical cords, dunked the cord ends in iodine, and stripped milk from their mother’s teats at 2 PM. When I came back from my first meeting, one of the lambs looked kind of hungry. He didn’t stretch or shake when I set him on his feet; his skin was sort of wrinkly, not smooth like his sibling’s; and he baaad. I checked his mom’s teats. Plenty of milk in the left one, only a drop from the right. And her udder was hot and hard on the right. I gave her an antibiotic and would keep watching her.

By my 3 AM check, the wrinkly lamb’s wrinkles were more pronounced. That could be due to dehydration, or the fact that he was part merino, a breed with very wrinkly skin. But he seemed hungry and I hadn’t replenished my colostrum supply! I vaguely recalled a small container of powdered colostrum in one of the garage freezers. I trudged back to the garage and dug through the freezer until I found it. I measured the colostrum and warmed water and mixed them until the colostrum dissolved. Then I scoured the house for a plastic pop bottle. We don’t drink pop, but someone must have left one at some point. Nothing in the recycling. Nothing in the fridge. In a back corner of the pantry I found a bottle of iced tea. It didn’t have quite the right threads for the nipple I used, but it would work.

I tried to feed the wrinkly lamb. He wasn’t very interested. In fact, I couldn’t get him to drink at all. His belly felt flat, not concave, so he probably was nursing on his mom. I decided to stop worrying and look at him with more rested eyes at my 7 AM barn check.

Three days later, the wind across my face was no longer balmy. When I breathed, the cold caught at the back of my throat on each breath. The setting sun stained the western sky a beautiful orange that silhouetted the trees in our woods. Both lambs and number 56 were doing well. My Valentine’s gifts and holiday letters were finished. I only had one easy meeting left. Dave was due home in 24 hours.

As I walked back to the house and a nap on the sofa with a good book, I felt relaxed. I could lie around and read or sleep for three hours and not feel guilty. There were no problems in the barn, and no “to do” list in the house. For the next month, our responsibilities were to watch over the sheep and do what needed to be done to feed and clothe ourselves and sleep. This is the gift of lambing, the gift of simplicity.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

20 orange

We sheared two weeks ago - 41 sheep and 10 volunteers. At times I felt like Tom Sawyer; these people were all here because they wanted to experience the adventure of shearing sheep. They wanted, if just for a day, to live on the farm.

It was a perfect day for it, not too cold, not too warm. The sheep behaved admirably. The fleeces were nearly all perfect. The company was convivial. We had great conversations both in the barn and in the house over lunch.

Tom, the shearer, finished in 3 ½ hours, a new record. We weren’t quite done skirting fleeces yet, so the women insisted that we return to the barn after lunch and finish. They hauled the new fleeces to my storage shed and then bedded the barn with fresh straw. The sheep came in out of the cold, snuggled down into the straw and relaxed.

All except for 20 orange, a young white sheep who lay down next to the hay feeder instead of eating and didn’t want to move into the barn. I noticed a slight discharge from her vagina. Ooh, watch this ewe, I thought.

Sunday, she came slowly when Dave called her to eat. She didn’t seem a part of the flock. By Monday, she was back with the other sheep, seemingly fine. But a week later, she still had a slight bloody discharge.

Our sheep were a good week away from lambing; she’s not very big, and she doesn’t have much of an udder. I worry that she might have twisted her uterus when we sheared her. If we’re lucky, it twisted back and she and her baby will be fine. If the lamb isn’t lucky, she’ll lose the lamb. If we’re really unlucky, we could lose the ewe.

My books talk about reversing a uterine torsion by laying the ewe on her back, inserting your hand into her vagina so that you can feel when the torsion is reversed, and then rolling the ewe from side to side until the twist untwists. We won’t be able to tell what has happened until she goes into labor. I think we’ll get a second opinion then. This sounds like the kind of situation where I really wish I could use the Tom Sawyer technique and have someone else do the job.

Friday, February 3, 2012

For Love of Wool

One of the side effects of raising sheep and playing with fibers is that wool tends to become a decorative accent in your home whether you plan it or not. I have a beautiful basket of my natural colored yarns – creamy crystal, frost white, subtle, variegated oatmeal, light gray silver, medium gray smoke, dark gray charcoal, warm brown chai, dark gray brown chocolate, and my newest yarn, almost black coffee. Those are my yarn samples and I display them because I love the natural colors. In the entry way, we have another basket of yarns in blues and greens, because I love blue. In our bedroom, I have three large baskets of wool yarn and roving that doesn’t fit in my yarn dresser, the suitcases full of yarn piled decoratively in Laurel’s old bedroom or in the thirty odd plastic bins in the basement. Actually, that’s not fair, the bins in the basement are yarns to sell; the rest are my yarns to knit or crochet or weave.

Right now, I also have twenty bags of white fleece from 2011 in my entryway. I bring in a bag from the wool shed, skirt off the grungy bits, measure the fiber length, weigh it and set it in the pile to be spun into bulky yarn or the pile to be carded into batts for felting or mattress pads.

With all this wool in the house, Newton is in heaven. When he’s not sleeping, he’s snuffling for wool, enjoying either the tangy scent and flavor of lanolin and manure in the fleece, or the incredible mouth feel (I do not know this from personal experience!) of the clean, carded or spun fibers. If I can’t find Newton, chances are he’s head first in a fleece or a basket of wool, completely in love.