Monday, March 23, 2015

Questionable truths

This afternoon while listening to America’s Test Kitchen on Minnesota Public Radio, I heard Michael Moss, a reporter for the New York Times, discussing US Department of Agriculture research on meat animals. His story made me rethink a lot of the things we do as a matter of course on our farm.

Breeding for twins and triplets was one example. When a ewe has multiples babies, the chances of her having troubles during lambing increase with tangled twins, ruptured uterine ligaments because of the sheer mass of babies, and increased calcium demands which can lead to hypocalcemia and problems with labor, nursing, and as we learned this year, death. A single ten pound lamb is a big baby. Three six or eight pound lambs seems impossibly big and yet that is not unusual. Three big lambs probably reduces the number of years a ewe can be healthy and pregnant, just from wear and tear. I know that single lambs get to sale weight faster than twins and triplets, so why do I breed for multiple babies? Because I read thirty years ago that twins double your income per ewe. This is only true if those twins mostly graze and don’t require medical intervention.

Another “truth” that I learned when we first started lambing was that I should dock (or cut off) all our lamb’s tails so they wouldn’t get manure on their tails if they get diarrhea. The manure is inevitably followed by maggots which feast first on the manure and then on the lamb. We’ve had maggots only twice and both times it was horrifying.  They don’t dock lamb tails in the British Isles or in Europe, why do we do it here? I’ve always said that they don’t have the cold winters we have and thus don’t change their animals feed. When you change an animal’s feed, they sometimes get diarrhea. But when I look at it rationally, I’m not sure the if/ then aspects of the decision make sense.

Finally, we castrate all our male lambs. The lambs cry out when we dock their tails, but the females don’t stop eating or running around their pens. The tool that crushes their tailbones also crushes the nerves and theoretically, the pain is intense, but very short lived. When we castrate lambs however, the boys lay on the ground for the next few hours, obviously uncomfortable. We castrate the males so that our job is easier, we don’t have to worry about ram lambs getting the ewes pregnant before we are ready to breed them.

It would take a small change in management and a small improvement of our fences to keep the ram lambs away from the ewes in August and September. Two changes that we could make next lambing that might improve the well being of our lambs or might decrease it if they get diarrhea or if the ewes lamb in the depth of January cold when we weren’t expecting them to lamb for a number of weeks yet. 

What is the right decision? I don’t know, but it is something to think about.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Resons to celebrate

 The last lamb of this lambing season was born the morning after Dave proclaimed that the possibility we would have any lambs overnight was very small and besides,  Ervatunjum, the ewe the I 'd been waiting for, didn't look pregnant.

                                            photo by Kate Andrews
The next morning Ervatunjum greeted me with a beautiful, healthy black and white lamb. Healthy is the operant word for my response to this year's lambing. Every healthy lamb is a plus. We had way too many unhealthy lams and ewes.                                      
Fortunately, unlike some bad years in the past, this year we have figured out what the problem was. Our ewes, and thus their lambs, weren't getting enough calcium. That meant that the ewes weren't hungry, didn't eat enough, and had unproductive labors. That meant we had to do caesarians or pull lambs. Some lambs died in utero, others in the next few days after they were born and way too many had fragile bones  from lack of calcium.

                Colorful splints by Kate Andrews

The ewes began improving as soon as we added another calcium source to their diet. The lamb's legs are healing and nobody is sick now. Even the lambs who still have splints on their legs are dancing around the pasture. These are all reasons to celebrate. So with the help of photographing friends, here is a selection of celebratory lamb photos.

Smiling  kid by Jenny  Ellison                                           Kiss Kiss by Jenny Ellison

                                Cedar and Harte feed lambs

Monday, March 9, 2015

After dawn

My favorite time to check for new lambs is first thing in the morning. The sun is just rising, the air is clear, the ewes and their lambs sleep peacefully in the straw. Even during the bad times, walking from the house to the barn at dawn renews me, hope seeps into my bones.

Friday morning, I stepped in the barn door and saw Mouse, one of our Jacob ewes, with a grapefruit sized mass protruding from her vulva where a golden bag of amniotic fluid should have been. Rats! A prolapse.

I grabbed her ankle and pulled her down. For such a little ewe (barely 60 pounds) she was incredibly strong. I lay on her body and tried to examine the prolapse. I couldn't even see it from where I lay, much less manipulate it. I would have to wake Dave. After a month of waking for an hour or two at 3 a.m. every night, his body had shifted to a schedule, waking around ten in the morning. Dave struggled to open his eyes when I kissed him awake, but put his feet on the floor and began to dress.

We caught Mouse and Dave held her down, a job he could almost do in his sleep. I washed my hands and pushed the prolapse back into place. The inside of a ewe's vagina and uterus is soft and warm. Folds of firm tissue make up the vagina. The inside of a uterus feels more like my fingers are searching through silken veils. My hand was definitely inside Mouse's vagina. I ran my fingers across the surface, feeling for a lamb part - leg or head, but instead found a tiny button, her unopened cervix. No wonder she had a prolapse. Her cervix wasn't effaced, or thinned, and the opening through her cervix was less than a fingertip in diameter. No way a lamb could make its way through that opening.

I pushed my finger tip into the center of her cervix, steadily pressing, hoping to enlarge the opening. Half an hour later, I had two fingers through the vaginal side of the cervical opening, but I could feel the opening on the uterine side still tightly closed. Dave and I traded places. My fingers ached.
Dave worked for another half hour. "I think I have a fingertip through the second opening," he said. "but I'm not making any progress." I took over. Finally I had two fingertips through the cervical opening, but as hard as I tried to spread my fingertips, I couldn't seem to make any more progress.

I laid my head on Mouse's thigh. "Okay, let's make a decision here. We don't know exactly how long she's been in labor, but we've been working for over an hour. If she has had unproductive labor, we could be getting to the end of the lambs' tolerance. I think we need to make a decision on whether or not to do a caesarean." I squeezed one of her nipples. A stream of milk squirted out. "She's close enough to have milk. If we call Dr Weckwerth now, we might get a live baby. If we wait, we might lose everything."

The ewe we lost to a caesarean last weekend cost us $500 in vet fees, as much as we would earn from selling five lambs. She had had two babies and they were both doing well and would each bring about $100. We had just bought $500 worth of feed with added calcium in an attempt to solve our problems. This had been an expensive lambing with fewer lambs than normal. We really couldn't afford to spend any more money on the sheep.

And yet, Mouse was a beautiful gray and white spotted ewe. Her fleece was soft and variegated, just the kind of fleece I had been breeding toward all these years. I couldn't bear to lose her. If we did nothing, we would certainly lose her. Calling Dr. Weckwerth gave her a chance. 

I slid across Mouse's body, my weight partially over her shoulders, and partially supported by my right arm. My left hand controlled her horns. Dave ran to the house to phone the doctor. 

Mouse and I lay there, and lay there, and lay there. Eventually, I began to worry that she was bloating, her abdomen filling with air. If that was happening, she might not be able to breathe. My weight might be making things worse. I grabbed a horn in each hand and we surged to our feet. Then Mouse and I fought our way across the barn to the hospital pen. I pinned her against a wall with my body and dragged the pen open. Then Mouse and I squeezed through. I released her horns and she surged forward, but she was trapped by 6 foot mesh walls. I straightened and relaxed. 

While Mouse and I waited for Dave and Dr Weckwerth, I fed the bottle lambs, fed the ewes in the jugs and the group pen, and let the rest of the ewes out into the barnyard. When I finished, I looked back at Mouse. She had a single black and white hoof protruding from her vulva!

I raced to the house. "She's lambing," I gasped. "Call Dr. Weckwerth and tell him not to come."
I dashed back to the barn, gathered towels and prepared for a delivery. Dave grabbed Mouse and wrestled her to the ground. I washed my hands and knelt behind her.  I felt around the single foot. It disappeared into the centimeter wide opening of her cervix, an opening just wide enough for a foot, still not open enough to deliver an entire lamb. 

"Call Dr. Weckwerth and tell him I was wrong, we still need him," I said to Dave.
"You call him," Dave said. "I've already called twice.  I'll feed the sheep." 

Dr. Weckwerth arrive an eternity (actually 15 or 20 minutes) later. We explained our thought processes. "We'd really like you to try to save her lambs," I said, "but also her if at all possible." Dave held Mouse down again. Dr. Weckwerth knelt behind the ewe's small body, splashed disinfectant water over her vulva and inserted his hand. He looked up at us and began to grin. Then he pulled a black and white spotted lamb from her womb.Her cervix was effaced and open. The lamb kicked. I grabbed a towel and began rubbing her speckled body. After a moment, she took a shuddery breath. I looked up as Dr Weckerth pulled a second lamb. He handed her to me across her mother's body and Dave's body. 

As I dried the lambs and Dave held Mouse down, Dr Weckwerth stitched her vulva almost closed to keep her uterus from prolapsing again. "Will we be able to breed her again?" Dave asked.
"I think this prolapse was due to the calcium deficiency, not to structural problems," Dr Weckwerth said. "I think she'll probably be fine next year."

We left the barn at 11 am. Mouse was on her feet, sniffing her lambs as they learned how to nurse. No dead moms, no dead babies. The sun was high in the sky. Hope grew in my heart.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Why don't the ewes eat as much hay as we expect?
Why don't the ewes eat their salt and mineral mix at the right rate?
Why are most of our ewes lambing in the last week they could possibly lamb?
Why do we have five lambs with broken legs this year?
Why does our sink have three days worth of dirty  dishes piled next to it?

Everything, including the dirty dishes, may be due to an insufficient intake of calcium, phosphorus and/or vitamin D, a result  of decreased hunger for our salt and mineral supplement combined with the oat hay we are feeding this year.

Sheep need a certain amount of calcium for their muscles to contract properly, for their nerves to work properly, for their bones to be strong enough. Our working hypothesis is that our hay didn't have enough calcium. We thought we had it covered by feeding them a salt and mineral supplement with calcium. But I read last night that when the sheep have to eat snow or drink very cold water, they don't take in as much water and so they cut down on their salt. That means they haven't been getting enough of the minerals that we add to their salt. Not enough minerals means they become hypocalcemic (low calcium levels). Hypocalcemia means that they lose their appetite, can't labor as well,  and sometimes just lie down and die.

If the ewe's hypocalcemia lasts long enough or is severe enough, she can't provide enough calcium for her babies' bones when they are in utero or when they are nursing. Then her babies have fragile bones and stand with hunched backs because they are uncomfortable. They don't nurse as well because they are uncomfortable and that means they don't grow as well. It seems to be a vicious cycle with no exit.

After blood tests, x-rays,  and long conversations with Dr Weckwerth, our local vet, we hope that we can start reversing the problem. We will supplement the ewes' feed with calcium, phosphate and Vitamin D as well as adding soy meal for protein and molasses for palatability. We will start feeding the lambs their creep feed as soon as it is delivered in stead of waiting until they are three to six weeks old. That way we can increase their calcium concentration too.

As for the dishes, I washed enough before breakfast so that we could eat our cereal. It's a start.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Behind the black silhouettes of the trees, the rising sun stains the sky gold. As I approach the barn, I hear the low grumbling mutter of a ewe with a new baby. I step inside the door. Three  lambs circle their mother, tiny moons revolving around their own mother earth, tethered by her calls.

These lambs are up on their feet, well licked, healthy. I move them to a jug and their mother follows, calling to them the entire way. Clip, dip strip. I hang the water bucket in the pen and drop in a slice of hay. Then I inject each lamb with 0.25 cc's of selenium. Chores done for the moment, I open the big door to let in the day. A fresh breeze eases around the corner of the barn, lightly touching my cheeks.

I pause, take a deep breath. The weight on my shoulders eases.