Monday, August 12, 2013

Nine vultures

photo from

Nine vultures circled our pastures. Something bad had happened. I wasn’t surprised that there might be a dead animal out there. Lamb #59 had been getting weaker and all the intestinal wormers, coccidiostats and antibiotics had made no difference. We could see his backbones and his pelvic bones. He looked and acted like he was starving.

Nine vultures seemed a little extreme for one tiny lamb. It wasn’t just lamb #59; six lambs were dead.

Vultures are scavengers, not predators. We did not lose six animals to vultures, the vultures were benefiting from our losses. Why were lambs dying? The animals were in four different pastures. They all had access to fresh water, to shade for part of each day, to grass. We thought we had a basically healthy flock on luxuriant pastures. This was supposed to be the easy time of the year for the sheep.

However, a fair number of lambs had diarrhea. We took a fecal sample in to the vet. They found lots of round worms, a high enough concentration of which can kill lambs. We had wormed our lambs three weeks previously, they should have been protected for several months. Why hadn’t we had this problem before? What was the difference?

One month seemed to be the difference. Normally our lambs are born in February and March. We feed them creep feed for the next month or two and they are ready to wean and turn out on fresh pasture by the end of May. This year, our lambs were born in April and we didn’t wean them until the end of June so they’d have two months of creep feeding. They spent an extra month in the home pasture, a place where intestinal worm cysts had been collecting all winter. They had eaten so many worm cysts, that a single worming was not enough. I should have realized that diarrhea meant there was a problem. The first lamb I lost twenty-nine years ago was infected with Haemonchus contortus, the barberpole worm. I thought I had learned that lesson forever, but this year, my mind was somewhere else when I watched lambs with continuing diarrhea. . The diarrhea dehydrates the lamb. The worm also causes irritation in the gut lining and protein leaks from the cells of the lining, starving the lamb. My lambs didn’t have a chance. They depend on their shepherd to make the right decision and this year, I hadn’t.

We wormed our lambs again. Fewer have diarrhea, but we’ve lost another lamb and two more still look like they are starving. They are on fresh pasture and hopefully will recover. I am ashamed that it took nine vultures to alert me to a problem that I should have recognized immediately. The next time we change anything about the way we lamb, we will try to keep our brains engaged.

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