Monday, March 31, 2014


Peace met me at the door of the barn both figuratively and literally. The ewes were sleeping with their babies. The chickens were muttering in their coop. The bottle lambs slept piled on top of each other in the warm glow of a heat lamp. 

When I shut the door, the bottle lambs woke. Peace, number 7 yellow, an older ewe walked right up to me. She stayed beside me as I fed the two most insistent lambs. She followed me as I walked through the sleeping flock, looking for new babies. 

Peace was an experienced mother. She obviously needed me for something. I crowded her into a corner, knelt beside her, grabbed the two feet on the far side of her body, and pulled her over onto her side.  I had to force my fingers into her vagina; the cervical opening was barely dilated. When I withdrew my hand, a sack of golden amniotic fluid followed. So she was ready to lamb, but her cervix hadn’t opened. I knew that I could solve that problem, but it would be easier if Dave was holding Peace down. 

He was just waking when I returned to the house and was easily persuaded to come out to the barn. Peace waited for us just inside the barn door.  Dave pulled her down and then lay on top of her. I washed and lubricated my hand and, fingertips together, I slid it into her vagina again. This time I pushed until my hand was through the cervical opening. Clouds of amnion wrapped themselves around my fingers as I searched blindly for a lamb. 

There!  Two feet, facing up instead of down. These were hind feet. No wonder her cervix wasn’t dilating well. There was no head or shoulders to force it open. I gathered the two hooves between my fingers and began to pull steadily. There are several  problems with breach presentations beyond that of narrow cervical openings. One is the danger that the lamb could take a breath before we get it out into the open air as its chest moves through the birth canal. The second is that we might not be able to get the chest beyond the cervical opening. The head and shoulders act like a wedge in a normal birth. In a breach birth, the rib cage just runs into the cervix with no wedge to go before. 

This lamb was slender enough to pass through the cervix once I began exerting pull on his legs. Chest followed hind legs, shoulders and head followed chest and the front legs came last. I swung the lamb into place in front of Peace and began scrubbing the amnion and amniotic fluid from its face. Dave grabbed a towel and also began rubbing.

By the time Peace’s first lamb had her head up and was beginning to struggle to her feet, Peace was in hard labor with her second lamb. This one delivered with no help from me. When the lamb slithered to the barn floor, I swiped the amnion off her face and passed her up to her mother’s nose. Peace began licking and the lamb began breathing all on her own.

When Peace and her babies left their jug two days later, she was completely uninterested in me. Her entire attention was focused on keeping her lambs in sight. She will probably never approach me again, but the fact that she did, that she knew I would help, changed me. Now I know that I have a relationship, more than just the bringer of hay with the sheep. The knowledge brings  me a kind of peace.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Super goat

Most of the time we have an ambiguous relationship with our goats. They are faster than a speeding human, more implacable than a locomotive, and able to leap tall fences in a single bound. Fortunately, as far as we know, they don’t fly.

They are however, super moms. They kid on their own, rarely needing help. Their babies, slide out of the uterus and immediately start breathing. We don’t need to rub them or encourage them or swing them around our heads to get them to take those first breaths. They are up on their feet, searching for nipples even faster than the lambs are and nurse well. The does also nurse their babies well.  We bought the only bottle kids we’ve ever had as bottle kids. The does don’t seem to get mastitis, perhaps because our goats usually have a single kid, rarely two, and never three or four.

The goats also seem to live forever, or perhaps it just feels that way when they’ve successfully leaped a fence as  we’re trying to corral them in the barn. When you have an animal with super powers, but the collaborative instincts of a wild animal, even a short life can feel too long at times.

Our goats are beautiful animals. Clean lines, striking faces, gorgeous colored hair. I wish I could get that marvelous brown in a nice crimpy sheep fleece. Unfortunately sheep and goats don’t interbreed. Actually, it’s fortunate.  We don’t need any more super animals in the flock.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When spring comes

The first day of spring came and went. The morning dawned warm and misty with ice crystals coating grasses and bushes. We saw our first finches at the feeders, their heads stained with rose. Sap dripped from the maple trees and we collected 10 gallons.

The first day of spring came and went, as did spring. By Friday, the temperature had dropped to 9°, and the wind roared through the woods at more than 24 miles per hour. Only ice filled the cans. Today, with temperatures and winds just as fierce, we closed up the barn to keep the sheep warmer and closed the sugar bush to keep our intrepid sugar bush friends warmer too.

We’ll reopen the bush and the barn when spring returns.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Wisdom from old shepherds

I 'm not saying that at 66, either Dave or I am old, but we have been shepherds for 30 years now and you'd think we would have gathered some wisdom in that time. You'd think. The following are all actual statements made by one or the other of us, along with the eventual outcomes related to those statements.

1) "You can tell when a ewe is about to lamb because she gets sunken right in front of her hip bones"
She lambed 38 days after this picture was taken.

2) "She's not big enough to have a third lamb in there."

Picture taken three days after she lambed.

3) "I feel real bad that Amy won't be lambing this year."

Photo taken two days after statement.

I guess humility is also a kind of wisdom.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Eleven P.M.

Eleven P.M. After a fifteen minutes of persuading, of rushing back and forth to head the flock off as they went up the hill behind the barn, or down the hill in front of the barn, anywhere but into the barn, they finally tired of the game and filed slowly into the barn. I closed the big door on all of them. All, that is, except #22 orange who was in labor at the bottom of the hill.

She lay quietly as I knelt beside her and slipped a forefinger into her vagina to feel two hooves. Then she surged to her feet and circled the spot, wandered off, came back, wandered off. I stood there, hands in pockets to keep them warm, waiting for her anxiety to ease or for the contractions to become strong enough that she lay down and labored.

I stilled myself, relaxed, practiced not thinking of bed. The moon moved across the sky. Finally, she settled down. She lay facing away from me, but she kept looking over her shoulder, watching me. Slowly, gradually, I moved closer. 10’, 9’, 6’, 4’, 2’. I was standing right beside her. Slowly, I took my hands out of my pockets, one at a time. They hung at my sides – no threatening motions. I bent one knee and knelt. As I bent the second knee, she surged to her feet again. My hands even touched her back, but there was nothing to hold on to.

At least this time, I was able move her away from the site where her water broke. I cracked the people door of the barn open and a thin path of golden light streamed across the snow. If I could just move her close enough that she could see, hear and smell the rest of the flock…

I harried her. Up the hill. Down the hill. Up the hill, down the hill. I held my breath, not moving as she investigated the golden path. She stepped through the door. I breathed again. Now she was inside the barn, away from predators. I could wait endlessly, curled up on a dry patch of straw for her to go into hard labor, a labor so intense that she would ignore my interference.

I waited another hour. She paced, lay down, immediately got up, paced. I wrote this essay. When she lay down for more than an instant, I threw my body on hers and slid a finger into her vagina. The hooves weren’t any closer to the outside world. She threw me off and struggled to her feet. We began our dance again, but now I was worried. 22 orange had been in labor before I found her two hours ago. She should have progressed. There must be something wrong.

I needed Dave. I couldn’t hold her down and pull a lamb. It’s nice that he has retired, we always have backup in the house. The two of us didn’t wait for her to settle. We cornered her and Dave dived for her hind legs. Sheep can’t usually drag themselves away from him.

I slicked my hand with lubricant and slid my fingers into her vagina. The opening was unusually small for a ewe in labor. I forced the rest of my hand in through the constriction and realized why. I could feel three hooves up front and a head way back in the uterus. There was no way this baby (or, more likely tangled twins) could ease out through the vaginal opening.

A normal presentation for birth is a lamb’s head centered over the same lamb’s two front feet. We’ve never had a third foot from the same lamb. Minutes passed. Dave lay on 22 orange. I followed the contours of a lamb’s body, blindly. Teeth. Arch of the head. I forced my hand deeper. Shoulder. Is that shoulder connected to the head? I think so. I pulled on the leg connected to the shoulder. It straightened and appeared at the vaginal opening. A white lamb. Now what about the second leg? Is that connected to the same head? My jacket sleeve wouldn’t go any further up my arm. I pulled my hand out of the slimy warmth of 22 orange’s uterus and slid out of my jacket. Then I reinserted my hand, arm. The second leg was bent at the first joint. I slipped my finger behind the angle of the joint, but couldn’t straighten it out or pull the leg far enough forward. I pushed that leg back and focused on the head and leg that I was pretty sure were connected.

By now, the opening to 22 orange’s uterus had stretched large enough to deliver a large lamb. I pulled on the leg with one hand and cupped the fingers of my other hand over the arch of the head. I kept steady outward pressure on the head and pulled as hard as I could on the leg. The head and leg had felt connected, but it just seemed like I was pulling too hard. I must have the wrong leg.

I followed the line of the leg up to the shoulder again and across to the lamb’s head. All one lamb. I pulled harder on the leg, directing it out and down. Finally, head and leg of a large lamb eased through the cervix and out into the world. The rest of the lamb followed. A very long, large lamb.
We ripped the amniotic sack off her face and began the process of encouraging her to breathe. Dave rubbed her body with a towel. One breath, then nothing. Her mom licked her over and over, concentrating on her head and neck. One breath, then nothing. Dave lifted her in the air by her hind feet and jiggled her up and down like shaking a bottle of ketchup. Finally the lamb drew a deep shuddery breath and began to breathe normally. I was practically shaking.

I returned to 22 orange’s uterus and pulled a black, large, long lamb. When she was breathing, we moved mother and babies into a jug, turned on a heat lamp, fed her hay and fresh water. We checked for new lambs, closed the barn door behind us, crossed the barnyard, greeted Newton at the door, and climbed into bed at 1 A.M.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cold nights

Temperatures have rarely risen above zero this winter. That kind of cold is hard on new babies, so Dave and I began shutting the sheep into the barn at night. Now we don’t have to find new born lambs in odd corners of the pasture at 3 AM, and the lambs themselves have a better chance of survival out of the wind and in the relatively warmer environment of the barn. Even as the weather moderated, we kept shutting the sheep in the barn at night.

I’ve discovered that the biggest advantage of shutting the sheep in the barn has nothing to do with temperature or lamb survival. When I go out at 7 AM, I slip in the people door and feed the bottle lambs who are waiting right there for me. Next I look for new babies and give the ewes in jugs fresh water and hay. Then I open the big barn door onto morning. Across the home pasture I can see the rams eating in the snow. The sun is just rising behind the trees. The air is fresh and invigorating. It’s going to be a good day. Morning after morning, I feel that way. Opening that big barn door to the world sets the tone for the rest of the day. After a cold night, with that peaceful beginning, the day just has to be good.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Resilient lamb

Two lambs were born last Friday night. Dave found them on his 3 AM trip to the barn, dried them off, got them into a jug with a heat lamp – the temperature outside was below zero. They looked cold, weak, and uncoordinated. He milked out their mother and fed both lambs. When I went out at 7 AM, in the clear light of day and after a complete night’s sleep, I realized that there was something wrong with the little girl. When she tried to move, her left leg dragged behind her and her skin wasn’t tight on her body. She just looked bad. I milked out her mom and fed both lambs. The little girl ate voraciously. When I set her down after feeding her, I thought her femur might be broken; a bump appeared and disappeared halfway up her thigh in certain positions.

When Dave woke up, we walked out to examine the little girl. He thought the head of her femur was dislocated from her hip socket, but he couldn’t reduce it, put it back into the socket. Assuming that our vet had more experience with four legged animals than we did, we asked him to stop by the farm.

When Dr. Weckwerth arrived, we laid a piece of plywood across a lambing jug and by the light of a heat lamp, with Dave holding the patient to keep her from squirming, he examined the lamb. A pretty resourceful vet. She definitely had a dislocated hip. He reduced it and then began winding first gauze and then tape around her lower leg and her upper leg, to keep the femur in the hip socket and the leg bent and up off the ground.
The lamb didn’t cry out while he worked, but she twitched, obviously uncomfortable. When we set her back in the jug with her mom and brother, she didn’t even try to get up. “She’s probably pretty sore from being manipulated,” Dr. Weckwerth said as he wiped black, tarry, new baby lamb poop off his hands. “Try to keep the sling on her for 10 to 14 days.”

Twenty four hours later, the lamb with a sling was dragging herself across around her pen. We left the family in their jug for six days, hoping that her right hind leg would become strong enough to support her. But when we moved them into the group pen, it soon became obvious that the genetic deformity that led to a dislocated left hip had also affected her right hip. She really wasn’t mobile. Her right hip didn’t stay in the socket. Every time she tried to move, she damaged her right hip more. This lamb who had tried so hard, who had struggled to us to nurse whenever we climbed into her pen, could not live without at least one more functional leg.

I can’t make this story turn out well, all we could do was to end the suffering of a resilient lamb.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


When Dave, Jasper our grandson, and I stepped out of the house Sunday morning, the cold air caught at the back of our throats. There was something besides cold in that air, a hint of smoke, drifting in from the west on the wind. I didn’t identify that something until we stepped into the barn and saw the smoke billowing out from under our waterer.

The waterer is a metal tank with a float valve set over a hole in the barn floor. A short hose runs from the bottom of the tank to the water hydrant in the bottom of the hole. We keep the water from freezing with two tank heaters on either end of the tank and by two heat tapes, one to wrap the hose and the second around the water pipe coming into the barn.

Dave began wetting towels and laying them along the bottom edge of the water tank, hoping to cut the air to the fire. I turned off all the electricity to the barn. Then Dave ran for fire extinguisher. Jasper and I brought the shovel and the pick axe from the garage and then observed from a safe distance, the most useful thing a three year old can do in this situation. Dave emptied the first fire extinguisher under the edge of the tank, but the smoke kept coming. So he hefted the pick axe. Amber joined us with two more extinguishers as Dave finished breaking the bottom of the water tank free from the ice on the barn floor. As Dave tipped the tank back, Amber threw buckets of water onto the glowing straw stuffed under the tank.
When all hint of burning straw was gone, Dave shoveled out the soaked, blackened mass. “The insulation on two of the wires has been stripped,” He said. “Rats.” The next shovel turned up the body of a wood rat.

“Well that one won’t be a problem again,” Amber commented.

Dave rewired the tank and the heat tape while Amber, Jasper and I fed sheep who seemed completely unfazed by the commotion. The last thing we did was to throw a bait bar into the hole under the tank.

Three hours later, after Amber and Jasper had gone home, Dave and I went out to feed the lambs and check for new babies. The waterer was steaming. Not a good sign with the temperature at 12° below zero. The electrical work Dave had done was working well, but sometime during the repair, the water line had frozen either in the hose or at the stand pipe. We got out the trusty old Vidal Sasoon 1800 hair dryer and began the thawing process. When the water was flowing freely, we decided to add skirtings, dirty clumps of wool, as insulation around the waterer. It was reassuring to find that the bait bar had already been chewed. We’ve been farming for thirty years. It’s even more reassuring that the only fire we’ve ever had in our barn was caused by a rat.