Thursday, April 18, 2013


We struggle to keep every lamb alive. Some years we’re successful, some years not. Back in 2006, only  28 lambs survived. Our normal is close to 70. Sometimes we know why a lamb dies, but most of the time we’re guessing. Even with the expert help from our local vets, we’re still guessing. We take temperatures and warm cold lambs. We inject selenium into animals with poor muscle tone. We supplement hungry or weak lambs with glucose or colostrum. Sometimes some things work, sometimes nothing works.

In a good year we lose one or two percent of our lambs. In a really bad year we have lost fifty percent. This year has been a great year for numbers because we’ve had so many triplets and quadruplets, but we’ve had a lot of losses. This year, the lambs who didn’t become a part of our flock died either at birth or shortly after. They had no muscle tone, didn’t breather, or seemed deformed in some way. We lost eleven lambs that way. IF all those lambs had lived, we’d have 64 lambs in the barn instead of 53, out of twenty-seven ewes.

One night I found a set of triplets. Two looked great; one has his head twisted back alongside his flank, the way cold lambs look when they are born in the deep cold of February. But this was April and the temperature was hovering at 25 degrees. A lamb should have been able to survive for hours at this temperature without help.

I ran to the house for the selenium for muscle tone, for injectable dextrose to give him energy and for colostrum to feed him at the end of my barn check if he survived. I had injected selenium and about half of the dextrose when I realized that there was something more wrong with this lamb. His head was the wrong shape and one eye was in the wrong place. In addition, he seemed to be having seizures. His head wasn’t turned back along his flank because he was cold; it was in that position because he couldn’t get it into another. He wouldn’t be able to nurse on his mother.

I laid the lamb under the heat lamp and continued with my barn chores – feeding and watering the ewes in pens and bottle feeding the lambs that looked hungry. By the time I was done, the sheep were settling back to sleep. The deformed lamb lay on its side in the glow of the lamp. I didn’t think it would survive until Dave's 3 A.M. check. I wrote him a note and taped it to a milk bottle so he would be expecting a dead lamb.

“Did the lamb die?” I asked when he crawled back into bed at 4:30.  “ No. It had its head up, crying. I gave it colostrum.”
I could hear a lamb calling when I stepped into the barn in the morning. Hungry lamb. I leaned over the door to the pen holding the triplets and set each lamb on its feet. All stretched except the deformed lamb. But his neck was straightening out. His head was only ninety degrees away from normal instead of one hundred and eighty.  Maybe he would gradually get better.
His feet didn’t look right. They turned at odd angles at the ankle and the knee.  This lamb couldn’t stand either. If he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t nurse on his mom. He couldn’t walk the pastures for fresh grass. I didn’t feed him.
When Dave woke, we talked about the lamb. If he couldn’t stand, he couldn’t nurse or graze. We splinted both his legs. He could stand then, but he couldn’t get to his feet. We decided to feed him. He was trying so hard to survive. 

The next morning, we did tags and tails and testicles on all the lambs that had been born in the last two days.  The deformed lamb wasn’t crying anymore, so he must be getting enough milk from our bottle feeding. His head had straightened out a little more. He was more stable on his feet, but still couldn’t get up.   But he seemed to spend more of the time lying flat on his side, instead of with his head up looking around like a healthy lamb does. It was when Dave held his head so that I could tag his ear that we realized that the lamb was even more deformed than we had thought. His upper and lower jaws didn’t come together correctly. He obviously could nurse, but would he be able to eat? Could he crop grass or chew corn with teeth that didn’t meet?

Somehow, a mouth splint or braces didn’t seem like a realistic solution. We could see nothing but suffering ahead for this lamb. His plight also made us uncomfortable. 

We decided to do what we should have done that first night.

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