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.

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