Tuesday, February 23, 2016

20 orange

Yesterday, 20 orange lambed. It was almost anticlimactic; it had been  over three weeks, since I'd spent 36 hours worrying that she would die  if I didn't figure out what was wrong with her.

This time it was obvious that she was in labor, not just tired of being pregnant. She groaned and grunted. Her head went up during each contraction. When I did a pelvic exam, I didn't feel baby lamb parts, just the thin, filmy tissues that float around a lamb in the uterus. She wasn't quite ready to lamb yet.

I fed hay to the ewes and milk to the bottle lambs. I poured corn into buckets for each ewe in a jug and refreshed their water. Then I rechecked 20 orange's status. I could feel feet at the tips of my fingers.

I moved the dirty straw out of jugs we had just emptied of sheep. I rebedded those jugs, ready for the next moms to lamb. I hung a heat lamp over the jug I would use for 20 orange. I rechecked her pelvis.  Way back as far as my hand could reach into her uterus I could feel two hooves and a head. They weren't positioned correctly and I couldn't reach far enough to determine if they were all part of one lamb. When I pulled on the hoof, it pulled back. No matter how hard I pulled and how hard I held on, the little hoof slipped from my fingers

20 orange had now been in labor for at least two hours. I start to worry after about half an hour for experienced mothers. Two hours was way past my worry date. When Dave came out to see how we were doing, I turned the obstetrician's job over to him.

Slowly, steadily, Dave pulled on the lamb's two front legs. The head moved with them. "I think they all belong to the same lamb," he said. "Yes."

I watched from 20 orange's head as he pulled the lamb from her vulva. He handed the baby to me and I laid her in front of her mom. Then I grabbed a towel and cleaned the amniotic sack, mucus and amniotic fluid off the baby's face so that her first breath would be air.

20 orange began to lick her lamb. She licked whatever part was closest to her tongue. I moved the lamb so that she would be working on it's face as I rubbed it's abdomen to encourage those first shuddery breaths.

"This next one is tangled," Dave said. He worked one handed, eyes closed in concentration.When he pulled her out of her mother's uterus, she looked perfect, but her body was limp.  She didn't have a heart beat and I couldn't make her breathe, even by swinging her over my head.

"There's something wrong with this lamb" Dave said as he eased lamb number three out into the cold air. It was definitely dead. Small and dark brown, it hardly looked like a lamb. Dave sat back on his heels, head down.

"Well," I said, speaking through my sorrow, "at least we have one live lamb. That's really more than I was expecting after giving her the dexamethasone to induce labor all those weeks ago."

Dave slid his hand back inside of 20 orange one last time and pulled out a small brownish lamb covered with muddy brown mucus.  This lamb wasn't limp. It's body twitched. She swung her head up and sneezed. When I rubbed, she shuddered and began to breathe. In minutes she was standing, looking for her mom's udder.

Even though we use it to induce labor, the bottle of dexamethasone warns not to give it to pregnant animals. Three weeks ago when I realized that 20 orange was not going to lamb any time soon,  I began to worry what the effect of that drug would be. We'll never know why out of four lambs, only two were live births. We'll never know why one of the dead lambs seemed grossly malformed and why one looked perfect and yet they were both dead. We'll never know how the little brown lamb survived in an amniotic environment that looked more like mud than anything that belongs in a living animal.

The one thing we do know is that after thirty years of lambing and hundreds of births, we still don't know what to expect when we go out to the barn to help a ewe give birth to a lamb.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The trouble with teasers

A teaser is a ram with a vasectomy. We turn the teaser in with the ewes 17 days before we turn the fertile ram in. The teaser will, being a ram, begin mounting ewes and the ewes will begin cycling into estrus. When we take the teaser out of the pasture and put the ram in, the ewes will get pregnant rapidly.

Teasers are just like rams except for the fertility part. They are aggressive toward people. You never walk into a pasture with a ram in it without keeping an eye on the ram. They are also aggressive toward other rams. One minute they can be sharing their morning corn and the next minute they might be trying to kill each other. And finally, teasers and rams will frequently go over or through a fence to get to a flock of ewes in estrus. We spend a lot of time repairing fences that the rams have torn down.

The final trouble with teasers is that you don't realize how important they are until it's too late. Our teaser died several years ago. We didn't replace him and didn't think anything of it. Our ewes always lambed right on time.

This year, we planned lambing early so that we could go hear our daughter Laurel sing with the St. Louis Symphony on February 28. When the week of January 15th came and went without any lambs, I redid my calculations. I'd been a week off. Our first lambs weren't due until the 22nd. By February 14, only three old ewes had lambed. Finally, on February 15, 21 days after we should have had the first rush of lambs, three more ewes lambed. This morning, we had thirteen lambs in the barn. By 2 P.M., we had 16. Lambing has actually begun.

We've learned our lesson and already selected a lamb to be our next teaser. Not having a teaser will not be one of our troubles in the future. It remains to be seen whether we finish lambing before the 28th. Twenty ewes need to lamb in the next ten days. It's possible, but not something over which we have any control. Maybe that's the real trouble with teasers, they are just one more thing over which a shepherd has very little control.

Monday, February 8, 2016


Introducing reluctant lambs or reluctant ewes to nursing requires an immense amount of patience. Dave has it, I don't.

We trap the ewe in a corner, I use all my weight to press her shoulder against the wall. Dave kneels beside her and leans against her rib cage, pressing it to the wall also. Then he presses his head into the angle between her spine and her pelvis, leaving him two free hands  to manipulate the nipple and the lamb.

Sometimes the ewe tries  to escape repeatedly. Every movement of hers twitches the nipple from the lambs mouth. Sometimes the lamb doesn't suck. Dave wiggles its jaw, he wiggles the nipple, he expresses a little milk into the lambs mouth. He refuses to try the ewes most successful technique for recalcitrant lambs - lick the lambs bottom.

Although we enjoy bottle lambs, they make a lot more work for the shepherd. This year, our first two lambs became bottle lambs because their mom's udder touched the ground and the lambs couldn't find her nipples. Six times a day for the last three days, Dave has patiently connected each lamb to it's moms nipple. Sometimes they nurse and sometimes they don't, so after each sucking session Dave expresses more milk from the udder and we feed that to the lambs with a bottle.

Tonight for the first time, the little boy finally nursed enthusiastically on his mom. Her udder is tightening up and the nipples no longer touch the ground. If we can keep  moms milk supply up,  we may eventually wean these lambs from their dependence on the bottle, and give Dave's patience a chance to recharge.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


The first week of lambing this year reminds me a lot of our first ever week of lambing thirty-one years ago. Then we had no idea what behavior to expect of our sheep. We had watched them grazing and eating through the fall and winter, but we hadn't watched them sleeping. The first time I went out to the tiny shed we were using for lambing, and saw one of our ewes lying down and grunting, I assumed she was lambing. Dave was at work for the week, so I called an interested friend, and we spent the night sitting in a cold shed watching four sheep chew their cud, sleep, and grunt.

A week later, the first ewe lambed.

Over the years, Dave and I trained ourselves to recognize imminent lambing and the most common lambing problems - hypocalcemia and pregnancy toxemia. We knew to look for ewes who lagged behind the flock,for ewes who appeared sunken just in front of their pelvis, for ewes who seemed jittery, for ewes whose breath smelled like ketones. And we learned the techniques we could try to help the ewe lamb successfully.

A week ago, we began checking the ewes every three hours. That first night, Orange 20 wouldn't get up when I went into the barn. All the other ewes surged to their feet when I approached them; orange 20 just lay there. She came out when Dave fed them corn and hay, moving a little uncomfortably, but still moving, but at night, I really struggled to get her to her feet.  By Thursday night, I was really worried. A simple urine test would tell me if she had pregnancy toxemia
I found the keto sticks in the medical cupboard in the barn and slid one out of the tube. If I could catch a urine sample, I could test it for ketones. I pushed Orange 20 to her feet, She staggered a few steps forward and then paused, and peed. I pushed the slip of plastic under the urine stream, counted fifteen seconds and checked the chart on the bottle. The little pink square changed from a pale pink to a muddy dark pink. Positive.

Rats! Pregnancy toxemia happens when advanced pregnancy with multiple lambs makes a sheep's stomach too small to eat enough calories. The ewe can't get enough calories from her feed, so begins to metabolize her own fat for energy. That releases ketones into the blood. The ketones can cause brain damage, fetal death, lethargy and lung damage. Ewes often die from pregnancy toxemia. It is not a disease to ignore.

Dave and I gave her a shot to chemically induce labor and then gavaged her with a liter of water and propylene glycol for energy so that she would no longer have to metabolize fat. We would continue gavaging her twice a day until she lambed in 36 to 48 hours.

 Twenty-four hours went by. Dave left for a workshop in the Cities. Every three hours, day and night, I checked the sheep. I also began doing pelvic exams every time I checked Orange 20. At 1:30 A.M., thirty-six hours after we induced her, I began to worry. I checked our lambing books again. No new information suddenly appeared. I still expected Orange 20 to lamb soon.  I checked her half a dozen times in the next three hours; why was nothing happening? At one point I even considered doing a ceasarean section on this  poor defenseless ewe, even though I didn't actually know how to do one - where to cut, how deep to cut, how to hold down the ewe when I did cut. My mind was grasping at improbable straws.

And then on my sixth or seventh trip over night, Orange 20 stood up.  The next time I returned to the barn, she stood. And the next time. She wasn't afraid of me, she didn't run away, she just stood there. I grabbed a keto stick and checked her urine. Normal. No ketosis.

No ketosis, no delivery, but either Orange 20 was feeling better or we had trained her to stand up when we approached her.