Thursday, January 30, 2014


Dave was excited when he came in from feeding the sheep. “Put on warm clothes,” he said, “I want to show you something, a surprise.” I bundled up and when we got to the barn told me to shut my eyes and led me in. Dave pulled me across the barn. I could hear the chickens muttering to each other. When I opened my eyes, there was a ewe in a jug and two heat lamps shining down on two white babies.

Obviously, that quick trip Winnie the Two had made over the fence in early September had been long enough. Most of our pastures were sere and brown by then, a combination of a hot dry July and August, and our not getting out to cut the warm season grasses so they wouldn’t go to seed. We try to cut each pasture just after the sheep have grazed it so nothing goes to seed before we put the sheep back on it. The sheep don’t like old, mature grass as well as young fresh grass, so the older grasses just keep maturing and when they go to seed, they stop growing and make no more young fresh grass leaves. If we can keep the pastures cut, each pasture lasts longer into the summer. By September, there was only one pasture that was moist enough to still have fresh green grass, the one right next to the ram pasture.

Our fences are old, but the ones around the ram pasture have been reinforced so many times that we thought they were impenetrable. We were confidant that the ewes would remain chaste even though they were grazing right next to the rams. The day we left for a ten day canoe adventure, Winthrop decided he needed an adventure too. He put his front legs on the fence, about three or four feet off the ground, pushed it down a foot or so, and hopped over. We’ve never had a ram as tall as Winnie before. Kate, our animal care person when we’re gone, saw that he was in the wrong pasture. She called a friend for help and together they put a leash around his neck and led him back home. He wasn’t happy, but he went. Then Kate reinforced that fence line with jug panels and 2X4’s.

Several days later when Kate went out to check on the animals, everyone was missing. Kate finally found Winnie and his ladies in the far west pasture. She called another friend and together, they drove the sheep back and separated Winnie out. Kate reinforced another part of the fence line. Winthrop hadn’t been with the ewes for an entire 24 hours, surely everything would be fine. January 26, we realized that we had been overly optimistic.

Monday night was not a good night for new lambs. The temperature had dropped to -21°F over night. The lambs were really cold. The male's ears were frozen and the wool on the girl’s legs was crispy with ice. We dried them off, slid a couple of baby pig warmers under their pen, hung two heat lamps a small electric heater – an accident waiting to happen. That’s not foreshadowing. We didn’t set the barn on fire.

The lambs seemed to warm. They drank colostrum from a bottle enthusiastically, but didn’t nurse on their mom. They weren’t very active lambs, but still, they weren’t shivering, were hungry and ate well.

We checked on the new lambs every three hours. They always drank well from the bottle and didn’t want to drink from their Mom. Dave fed them at 3 AM. When I went out at 7 neither lamb drank much and they both looked lethargic, ill. I left for a meeting and Dave went out to check their temperatures. The first lamb’s temperature was 94°, 10° below normal. He immediately called me home and filled the kitchen sink with hot water. My car didn’t start and when I finally got home an hour later, the first lamb was warmed up but the second lamb had died. We took the first lamb back out to his Mom. We were consoled by the fact that he was looking great.

Two hours later he was dead.

Dave talked to Dr. Weckwerth. Was this a repeat of last year’s problems, or was this hypothermia? Usually severely cold lambs don’t stand up, don’t nurse well. These lambs both nursed well. On the other hand, it didn’t seem like this could be hypothyroidism, the ewes had been on iodine for the last 9 months. What if it was something else entirely? What if it was something in our ewes or in our ram, in our land that produces our hay, or in our water? In his quiet, thoughtful way, Dr. Weckwerth said we didn’t have enough information yet to know what was going on. We’ve got two lambs that died. That’s not enough to see a pattern. It was really cold. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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