Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Weeping Camel

Last night, Dave and I watched The Story of the Weeping Camel. It was a charming, fascinating documentary about a family of Mongolian sheep, goat and camel herders. That movie shows the best depiction of an animal mom rejecting her baby that I have ever seen.

It is not uncommon for a ewe who has had a hard labor or who has two or three babies to reject one of the babies. She either doesn’t allow it to nurse by moving every time it heads for her udder, or by kicking the lamb, or by butting it with her head,  or if they are no longer in their pen, by continually walking away. It is the most frustrating experience that I as a shepherd have ever had. We try a variety of different techniques to force or  trick the ewe into accepting her lamb. Sometimes we rub the rejected lamb on the accepted lambs, hoping that a different smell might help. We check the lamb’s mouth for sharp teeth. We try to retrain how the lamb sucks. We put the mom’s head in a stanchion so that she can’t move away from the baby. We hold the mom down and physically put the baby on a nipple, opening its mouth and sliding the nipple inside with our fingers. All the while, a clock is ticking in our heads. Babies need that milk. Twenty-four hours is the outside edge of how long a lamb can live without milk. It really should have milk with in the first couple of hours, especially in the winter, when the cold rapidly leaches heat from those tiny bodies still wet from amniotic fluid. It has to have that first milk from it’s mother to keep it warm, to make muscle and bone and nerves an skin, and to provide the antibodies it needs to survive until it has begun to make antibodies on its own in about 6 weeks.

If we can’t get the baby to nurse, we have to feed it colostrum (milk that is produced in the first 24 hours after birth) from its mother or another ewe or dried colostrum that we buy from the vet and reconstitute when we need it. If we can’t get the mom to accept her baby, we have to begin bottle feeding it with store bought lamb milk replacer. It’s not hard to bottle feed lambs, in fact it is really fun, but it does cost time and money. Usually, bottle fed lambs don’t grow as well as lambs who have been accepted by their mothers. In the long run, anything a shepherd can do to encourage a mom to accept her babies is worth doing. We learned a few new techniques  watching the Mongolians last night that we might be able to use when lambing begins on the first of April and we also realized how lucky we are to be raising sheep, not camels.

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