It’s been a busy time. On Sunday, three weeks ago, morning chores began as usual. I fed the horses Birch and Punch a little grain to keep them peaceful, milked Katika, and then let Charlie, my bull calf, out of his stall to run clean-up on her udder for his breakfast. The sheep, knowing that they don’t get grain in the morning, were quiet.
I lugged two bales of hay outside and began spreading them in flakes all over the snowy paddock, as I do every morning. I walked back inside, let the sheep out, and opened Punch’s stall door so he could follow.
Punch, my brave pony, whom nothing rattles, stood as if he were planted, refusing to move. His little furry ears were pointed forward so hard they quivered. His neck was arched, his eyes like saucers. He blew out his nose in fright. Clearly he was scared to death.
“What’s the matter, sweetie?”
I followed his fixed gaze and saw two lambs stumbling around the sheep stall. Oh dear.
Every year my farm life gets a little smoother and more organized. A barn, more fences, then more gates, then a grain room, then piped water, then electric lights, and regular vaccination and worming schedules. Every year I feel a bit more together, a bit less as if I’m flying by the seat of my pants. But the love life of my sheep is a last holdout of disarray.
I knew in early September that I should separate Ioan, my ram, from the girls if I didn’t want mid-winter lambs. But of course I wasn’t sure if, after last year’s near-fatal illness, he was even potent. A real shepherd would have replaced Ioan or at least bought a back-up ram. But I was busy clearing brush, working with Allen, harvesting chickens, and managing the breeding of the cows. As usual money was tight, and I am a softie. I decided to give Ioan a chance and gamble on another season. Then, with everything else going on, I never got him separated. I first saw him attempt (his balance is wobbly) to breed a ewe September 21, so I figured the possibility of lambs would begin 145 days later, February 12.
That Sunday was January 31. Obviously Ioan was an Undercover Lover. (And, yes, obviously all the uncertainty would be moot if I’d only remembered to buy a $20 marking harness that would leave a crayon mark on the rump of any ewe he bred.)
The good news was that the presence of twin lambs meant Ioan was firing on all cylinders. The bad news was that there was no mama to be seen.
The lambs were brockle-faced (smudgy black and white). So I knew that the mother was a white ewe. Because they were abandoned I figured she was an inexperienced mother. It occasionally happens that a young sheep is so terrified by the pain of labor that the moment it’s over, her instinct is to flee. That narrowed the field to either Mango or Kiwi. I got a lead rope and led a terrified Punch past the sheep stall, turned out the cows, and went in search of the wayward mother.
Ah. Sure enough, there was Mango with a bloody bottom, eating hay. When I approached her, she looked up as if to say, “Who, me?” When I tried to chivvy her toward the barn, she dodged. However when I got my shepherd’s crook and caught her by a foreleg, she collapsed heavily on the snow. Uh-oh. Something wasn’t right. I had to get her into the barn. I looped a lead rope around her neck and pulled. It was like trying to drag a woolly 140-lb dead weight; I was afraid she would choke. In the end, lifting and pushing and becoming smeared with blood in the process, I got her onto her feet, into the barn, and back in the sheep stall.
Mango stood there apathetically, her head down, her eyes glazed. She didn’t pay any attention to the lambs. I’m not sure she even saw them.
Worried, I turned my attention to the lambs. They were stumbling around the stall silently. Their silence concerned me. Normally a ewe will whicker to her lambs in low “baby talk” tones and the lambs respond with a high meh! meh! It seemed clear that the tired lambs had given up on crying for their mother. I picked each one up. They felt light and hollow; they hadn’t eaten. The bigger twin was a ewe lamb, the smaller a ram. Though their coats had mostly dried, their tails and his testicles were half-frozen lumps. I toweled them roughly to warm them up.
Mango had just enough energy to stagger away from me. I tied her, and with scissors began sawing away at her woolly coat. She and Blossom and Kiwi are 1/2 Lincoln. Lincoln sheep have long, curly coats like poodles. Her maiden udder was small to begin with, and, hidden under four inches of thick dirty wool, it was almost impossible to locate. I finally got the udder exposed and put the lambs in the proper position to nurse. Mango kicked at their heads and lurched away, her bleary expression clearly saying, “What are those? Get them off me!”
The lambs had to eat or they would die. Starvation (and the resulting hypothermia) is the number one killer of lambs. It was only about 8° in the barn. Moreover the lambs had to have colostrum, their mother’s first milk, to ward off infection. I jumped in my truck and hurried home to get a bottle. When I returned I cornered Mango in the stall, hunched my shoulder into her wet wool, and pinned her to the wall. For leverage I was stretched almost full-length in the dirty bedding, feeling blindly for her teats. (How many times have I done this? Too many. Each time I tell myself I will build a little sheep stanchion to make it easier — but each time, the crisis passes, I’m on to the next problem, and I forget. Welcome to my life.)
Mango’s teats were tiny, the size of the last joint of my little finger, like a doll’s nipple. With one hand holding the bottle, two fingers milking, and my face buried in her side, I got four ounces of thick yellow colostrum. I fed the lambs two ounces each and they immediately perked up. The curly pelt on newborn lambs sags loosely, like an elephant’s. With just one feeding they seemed to inflate and gain vigor.
But their mother continued to be out of it. She had no interest in hay or water. She stood in one place, head down, only moving to get away from the lambs which now had the energy to bumble over to her, crying. She made no response. All the possible problems ran through my brain. Milk fever, toxemia… none of the symptoms fit. I jumped back in the truck and raced home to consult my sheep veterinary book. Following all the flow charts, it seemed to me that Mango was suffering from post-partum shock. She needed warm fluids and dextrose. I had no dextrose on hand.
I hastily mixed up a solution of hot water and molasses in a Nalgene water bottle to carry down to the barn. The book also recommended electrolytes — and if one didn’t have any, to use baking soda. I added a teaspoon of baking soda, started to cap the bottle, and in my hurry, shook the bottle to mix it. Bad idea! The solution exploded, shooting the cap off and spattering brown molasses froth all over the kitchen. Ten minutes later I had cleaned up the sticky eruption, boiled more water, and mixed up (this time with a spoon) more solution.
With an over-sized, needle-less syringe I got a quart down Mango’s throat. (I told Jon that I drenched Mango and he asked in alarm, “Won’t she freeze in this weather?” Drenching livestock does not mean throwing a bucket of water over them. It means forcing liquid medication down their throats.) She hardly fought me.
All day long I pinned Mango to the wall to milk her, drenched her with warm molasses water, and fed the lambs colostrum. I had my breakfast at 2 PM. Mango’s milk supply was so scanty and tortuous to acquire that after several feedings, when I was sure they’d had colostrum, I switched to giving the lambs bottles of fresh whole milk from Katika. By late afternoon, I was sticky with molasses, blood, manure, and milk, and stiff from bending over, but the crisis seemed under control. Mango turned her head to murmur to her lambs.
She pulled a few wisps of hay and munched them. I held her steady while the lambs nursed and she could become accustomed to this strange feeling.
That night Punch came into the barn on tiptoe, whirling on his haunches at each tiny whimper, clearly expecting a lamb-Heffalump to grab him at any moment.
When I pulled the barn doors shut that night, the heat lamp in the lamb stall glowed in the darkness. By morning Mango’s eyes were bright again, the lambs were nursing on their own, and Punch’s head was hanging over the stall wall, watching them intently.
Three weeks later the twins rocket all over the barn and then collapse together to snooze. It was an unexpectedly early jump start, but lambing 2010 is underway!