Finally Some Twins!

February 28, 2011

Yesterday evening I got a return call from my shearer.  “I’ll be there Friday morning, between nine and ten.”

When I went down to the barn last night, I informed the ewes, “Better shake a leg, girls! Roger is coming and you definitely don’t want to be put on your bottom for shearing when you’re carrying a wide load!”

Very early this morning I opened the barn to hear the reedy cry of a newborn lamb. Two lambs, in fact. And naturally, yes — Bean, my only pregnant ewe not in a jug, was the mother. Very funny, God.

I threw all the animals in the barn a flake of hay to distract them and then lured Lily out of her jug and into the barn aisle, while carrying the two damp lambs into the empty jug to lure Bean in. The lambs wailed in distress, Bean bleated to them anxiously, the older ewes baa-ed sympathetically around their mouthfuls of hay. There was a bit of chaos when Lily, nervous to find herself alone in the aisle, tried to jump back into the small jug with Bean, almost squashing the newborns. However I managed to get everyone sorted.

The lambs are both rams. The first born weighed 6 lbs 10 oz, the second, 7 lbs 2 oz. Together they are only slightly heavier than Blossom’s big single ram. Like her mother, Blossom, Bean has a small udder with tiny, tiny teats. As I struggled to get the lambs latched on for the first time, I reflected that I now had three generations of this frustrating udder/teat combination: Blossom, her daughter Bean, and (presumably) her granddaughter, Chai. Both Blossom and Bean have been fine mothers in the past — and very precocious: both lambed as hoggets. However this is the first set of twins. I will want to watch the lambs to make sure they get enough milk to thrive. I will not be keeping any more ewe lambs from this line.

Still, it’s an impressive job on the part of Vanilla Bean. She’s now given me three lambs before her second birthday.

My new homemade stanchion worked perfectly to hold her while I trimmed the wool around her hindquarters, to make her bag more visible. Twins 04 and 05 both nursed without fuss or drama. What a relief!

Lucy is sad because she knows that starting this year, I will only be retaining purebred Clun Forest ewe lambs. It’s possible that both Lily and her mother, Blackberry, my two pregnant Clun ewes, will  give me ram lambs. In that case, I will not be retaining any of this year’s offspring. My hope is to eventually have a flock of pure Clun Forest ewes.

No Lambs… Again

February 26, 2011

Not just the suspense is killing me. So are the broken nights, pulling on coveralls at 9 PM and 3 AM and driving down to check the barn.

I’m also starting to worry because we leave for Florida in 13 days. My dear friends Alison and Tom will be taking care of my farm. Tom works two jobs. Alison works full time plus is going to graduate school. They are very savvy farm folk but have no time for incessant barn checks or bottle lambs. Everything has to be under control before I leave.

Note to Blackberry, Lily, and Bean:

Your lambs MUST be on the ground in the coming week! Please make my life easier, and cooperate.

Thank you.

The Manager

Enough Snow Yet?

February 25, 2011

We had about ten inches of fresh powder when I brought the animals in, early, at evening chores. The cattle and Birch had prudently stayed under the run-in shelter but the sheep sat out chewing cud in the thick of it.

The sheep rushed into the barn, scattering fat wads of snow. They did not appear bothered by it, but my nerves couldn’t take the strain any more, trying to keep my eye on the three older ewes still to lamb (presumably this week). I’ve been driving down to the farm during the day every two hours to scan the snow anxiously.

In the past at this time I have separated my young ewes from my heavily pregnant ewes with a gate down the middle of the stall. When I went to pull it out, I discovered that the gate, stored against the side of the barn, was buried under a five-foot wall of ice. The deep thaw and refreeze last week had solidified the snow-slide from the roof into a block that I would have to chip out with a pickaxe for hours. Instead I spent $13 and bought three 2x4s for a temporary barrier.

This made a very small enclosure on the left side of the stall. Sheep are suspicious of anything new but with the horse and cattle stampeding into the barn on their heels they bounded in. Once all the stall doors were shut it only took me a few minutes to sort the three older ewes out of the jammed group. It is still a tight squeeze for five but it should only be for a few nights.

Now I can open a gate and let all the teenaged ewes out for the long day outside without worrying that my pregnant girls will accompany them and drop babies in the snow.

Speaking of babies, my first three lambs are all strong and vigorous now. Bottles stopped days ago. Lamb 02, my dopey slow learner, did suddenly wake up and get with the program. All the lambs have been eartagged, had their tails banded, and the boys are castrated.

I love to lean on the stall gate and watch them jumping and leaping, playing tag and running in and out of the protective lamb creep.

I think my ewe Blackberry will be next to give birth. Her beautiful black udder looks like a balloon. Though I am always stricken to lose a lamb, I would be devastated to lose one of Blackberry’s. She is one of my three purebred Clun Forest ewes (and the mother of the other two). Just to be safe, I jugged Blackberry tonight, so that if she lambs in the wee hours she will be able to care for her lamb(s) in peace without the flock crowding around.

Clun Forest sheep are a hill breed, very smart and very flighty. I was only able to get Blackberry into the jug with a significant sweet feed bribe and some wily maneuvering. To keep her calm I then repeated the maneuvers to put her daughter, Lily, beside her. Lily is enormously pregnant, too, but her maiden udder is tucked high under her fleece and I can’t judge how close she is to lambing.

Of course “judging” anything under all the wool is really just guessing and hoping. It may be God’s little joke and I will open the barn doors at 4 AM to find that Bean, the ewe I left with the flock, has been the one to lamb.

I Heard The Owl Call … well, not MY name

February 24, 2011

Two days ago it was -25° F. Yesterday it was -22° F. This morning it is -15° F. Tomorrow the forecast is for high winds and up to a foot of new snow. It is hard to imagine that spring is on its way.

But it must be. Yesterday mid-morning I heard a barred owl calling. I was deep in medical returns at my dining room table, absentmindedly listening to the sound from outdoors, when my brain finally registered, That’s an owl. Calling in broad daylight. I heard him again at dusk.

It’s owl breeding season! Forget this tedious cold and ice! Spring is coming! Hooray!

**  I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven is a wonderful young adult novel about the destruction of a native culture.

Quick Sheep Stanchion

February 23, 2011

So now I had three lambs, but two required care and feeding.

Lamb 02 continued to be slow and uncoordinated. Though she had finally begun to suck at the bottle when I slipped the nipple in her mouth, she was half-hearted. She wobbled on unsteady legs. I had never seen her try to nurse her mother, Blossom. Blossom did not know what to do. She licked her lamb and made encouraging noises in her throat, but 02 did not answer. Ewes and their lambs bond in an instinctive call-and-response exchange; 02’s lack of response left Blossom bewildered. The moment any other lamb bleated, Blossom was ready to abandon this strange, silent lamb and go to the one crying. Only the confines of the jug kept her focused on the job.

I decided I simply had to keep feeding 02, praying that her brain eventually would switch on.

The issue in the other jug was not with the lamb. Lamb 03 was huge, cheerful, and strong. He roared for food every half hour. The problem was with his mother, Mango, who would not stand still to let him nurse. After just two feedings 03 recognized that I came bearing warm bottles and would scramble to me the moment I appeared. He sucked so enthusiastically he gobbled six ounces in less than a minute. I was sure that if I could just get him latched onto a teat, he would be home free.

His dam, Mango, had been a good mother to twins last year. Now that I thought about it, though, I’d had the same problem with her then. I’d needed to bottle her lambs for two days until they got strong enough to persist and pursue her. At the time I had believed it was due to her inexperience with motherhood. But perhaps it was edema at freshening, causing udder soreness.

Whatever it was, last year’s struggle had left me wishing for a sheep stanchion to safely hold a ewe immobilized. Now I decided to throw a quick one together out of scraps. I gathered a few pieces of 2×4 and a couple of bolts. For the sake of speed and simplicity, I would build my stanchion into my hay feeder.

A stanchion works by having one stationary bar and a second bar that opens and closes around the animal’s neck, pivoting on a bolt at the base and locking with another bolt at the top.

My friend Natalie stopped by just as I was starting the project and took these pictures. It was only slightly above zero, and the bit smoked in the cold as I drilled holes for the top and bottom bolts.

Enticing Mango to stick her head into the open stanchion with a pan of sweet feed, I closed the bar against her neck and pushed the locking bolt home. She was not pleased. There was a pause while she kicked and threw her hind legs around, bleating furiously.

Once she was calm again I began sawing off wads and wads of fleece with a pair of scissors. The task was complicated by 03, who was determined to climb into my arms for the bottle he could smell in my breast pocket under my jacket.

Finally the udder was clear of wool. However now I had to convince 03 to cooperate. He did not want to duck his head under that dark damp fleece; he wanted me to pull his bottle of my pocket! His response to having his mother’s nipple stuffed in his mouth was outrage. His legs collapsed in protest.

I could not see under Mango and was feeling for her nipple and guiding 03’s mouth with my hands.

“C’mon, sweetie — this is The Source of all Goodness!”

He spat it out.

I tried milking a tiny stream to give him the idea. His head was soon dripping with milk but he remained uninterested and indignant. This went on for twenty minutes. With my face in Mango’s wool and my arms full of lamb, I was sweating profusely.

“You are so patient,” Natalie observed. I laughed. I have no patience, but I do have a lot of tolerance for confused babies.

Of course Freddie arrived to supervise and lend his support.

I sweated on, shucking hat and jacket. Then, suddenly, finally — success! Lamb 03 started to suck!

It was the breakthrough. As I suspected, once 03 understood the location of the permanent milk bar, he was off and running without a backward glance.

The next morning I cut and added a few more scraps to make the stanchion sturdier. It’s not a thing of beauty, but a steel one from a farm store costs $130 and this cost me nothing.

I’ve already realized several ways I might improve it — but chances are I’ll never get around to making those upgrades. One thing I always remember when looking around a farm is that most of the projects and repairs have been done by someone who was busy with something else at the time.

Two More Lambs!

February 22, 2011

Two nights ago at chores it seemed to me that Blossom (formerly Mango) was looking thoughtful.

I’m actually a little weary of trying to evaluate the thoughtfulness of a ewe’s expression … but Blossom’s udder was suddenly curving below her wool coat and I realized she’d bagged up. Blossom is next, I thought. But since she was eating hay, I figured it was safe to go home for supper.

Sure enough, when I returned, there was Blossom in the midst of the flock, a lamb staggering beside her. I scooped up the lamb and with some difficulty enticed Blossom out of the busy sheep stall and into the quiet of a lambing jug. I looked everywhere for a twin — she had been so huge! — but there was only a single, big ewe lamb. Rats! I dried the lamb with a towel and weighed her. 10 lbs, 15 oz. A nice hefty girl, with her mother’s lop ears.

However the lamb seemed worryingly “off.” She did not bleat. Her muscles were flaccid and reflexes slow. She would not stand and had no interest in the teat. She was a big, slack lump. In concern I raced home for a bottle and nipple.

Back in the jug, I pinned Blossom to the wall, milked her tiny teats into a bottle with two fingers, pulled the lamb into my lap, and tried to feed her some warm colostrum. The lamb had no sucking reflex. Only by squeezing the milk into her mouth and stroking her throat could I get her to swallow. I had toweled her dry but she did not stop shivering. Though I’ve been spooked by recent reports of barn fires caused by heat lamps, I plugged in my heat lamp and pushed the lamb into a fleece jacket.

Captain Freddie was extremely interested in all this commotion (Freddie is vitally interested in everything going on in the barn). He jumped into the jug with me. Here you see Blossom eyeing Freddie. All the ewes seem to take a dim view of barn kittens.

Moments later Blossom rammed Freddie away from her baby. Undiscouraged, he climbed up the stall wall and sat observing from above. Meanwhile my steer calf Rocky and heifer Moxie in the next stall had their noses pressed to the boards, watching my sheep ministrations through the cracks.

I was a bit stymied. The lamb was not 100% or even 90%, but other than feeding and drying her, I wasn’t sure what to do. At home I had Nutri-drench and Vitamin B-12 injections, but for the moment I just sat in the jug with the lamb in my lap, warming her with my body heat. The cattle lay down again next door, chewing their cuds placidly.

When I left for the evening, the two ewes and their lambs were safe in their jugs. Lamb 02 still seemed dopey, but at least she had some colostrum in her belly and had stopped shivering. Blossom was standing guard. I promised myself I would check again at 4 AM.

As I reached to snap out the lights, I looked over at the big sheep stall and noticed that Mango (formerly Blossom) was looking thoughtful.

At 4 AM it was snowing hard when I drove down to the farm. The highway was unplowed and deserted. I was on automatic pilot, wearing my pajamas under my coveralls. Even in my sleepy state, I admired the pattern of falling snowflakes caught in the twin beams of my headlights.

In lambing season, all the animals are happy to see me turning lights on in the night. They know I will throw everyone an extra flake of hay.

Aha! Mango was pawing the ground. Yet I didn’t have another lambing jug free — how to separate her from the rest of the flock? She was grimacing in early labor and the young ewes were jumping all over her. OK, Sel, it’s time to be creative!

I climbed up in the pitch-dark hayloft, felt around for hay bales, and threw four down. Rapidly I built a wall of bales to block off a corner, backing the bales with a couple of short wire fence panels. The rest of the flock stopped being curious about Mango, her grunting and pawing, and fell to pulling apart the outermost bale of hay.

I sat on a bale for a while and watched Mango. Her lips curled back from her teeth with contractions. However, confounding all my theories of ewes laboring with singlemindedness, in between she stood up, stretched, and snatched a few bites of hay.

It seemed to be going very slowly. The temperature was 4° F. A little before six o’clock I drove home to wake up Lucy for school, gulped a hot cup of coffee standing at the kitchen counter, and drove back.

Nothing seemed to have progressed. Mango was still in the same position. Then I stepped closer to the hay bales and saw the large, motionless lamb lying behind her in slime on the hay. It was not breathing. Oh, no! After all that waiting, I missed it, and the lamb is dead!

In books they say non-breathing lambs can sometimes be kicked-started by swinging them vigorously overhead by the ankles. This is harder to do than it sounds. A newborn lamb’s legs are like reeds, slippery with slime; the fragile sticks want to squirt through your fingers. I lifted the big lamb by the hind legs and tried to swing him (without hitting either the low ceiling or the alarmed flock transfixed in a semi-circle three feet away).

“Breathe, damn it!” I grunted as I pivoted on my heels, swinging the lamb in an arc.

The lamb’s ribs heaved. He started to breathe.

I laid him down, cleared his face, and ran for a towel. Mango pulled herself to her feet and chewed on my knuckles excitedly as I rubbed the ram dry. He was a big, vigorous boy: 12 pounds, 10 ounces. (Again, alas, a singleton. Perhaps my six older ewes will give me only six lambs this year!) This lamb was eager to suck, staggering to his feet and poking his nose blindly toward Mango’s udder, but he could not find the teat in all the wool, despite my guiding fingers and the trimming I’d done around her bag a month ago.

I’m sure the difficulty is due to the endangered Lincoln Longwool genetics I was so proud to introduce to the flock ten years ago. These days I wonder how Lincoln lambs ever survived. Lincolns are the sheep equivalent of string mops.

Now that daylight was up I could move the sheep. My barn stalls and gates are not ideal in lambing season.  In a complicated game of musical chairs I turned out the main ewe group from the big stall; got Smoky and her lamb out of the far jug and into the empty stall, and replaced her in far jug with Blossom and her lamb. Then into the near jug I ushered Mango and this latest lamb.

Mango was a bit perplexed by her new boy and though she licked him and talked to him non-stop, whenever he came close to her teats she nervously kicked him away.

When I tried to help she jumped away so frantically that she almost squashed the lamb. She would not let me anywhere near her udder with scissors to further cut back the forest of wool. Finally I was able to push her into the wall and milk her into a bottle.

I decided to bottlefeed 03 with colostrum just as I had 02. I hate to interfere unnecessarily, but I hate dead lambs even more. Starvation is the number one killer of lambs. I felt confident Mango’s problems would be sorted out eventually, but I wanted to be sure. A bottle of warm yellow colostrum provides easy peace of mind.

By mid-morning, both Blossom and Mango were quiet in their jugs — with warm, sleepy lambs at their sides.

Who He?

February 21, 2011

Harold Ross, the founding editor of The New Yorker, used to scribble questions and comments in the margins of writers’ submissions. Whenever an author failed to adequately introduce a new character, Ross would jot a brisk note:  “Who he?”

I have no idea who this gentleman is. The other day I was leafing through an 1895 book of poetry owned by my great-grandfather, Joseph Christian Brown, and this tiny, 1/2″ by 3/4″ photo fluttered out of the pages. I have blown it up on my scanner. Joe Brown died at 65 in 1917. Could this be a photograph of him?

I know very little about my great-grandfather, except that my great-grandmother, Mammee, for whom I am named, married him, and my grandmother, Mama, loved him. My older sister remembers that Mama called him “Papa.”

When my grandmother was in her late seventies, a series of small strokes due to arteriosclerosis rendered her almost a child again. I was about fifteen when she came to live with us, and was often called on to look after her. Mama would tell me about walking to school with her brothers in the very early 1900s with baked potatoes in her pockets to keep her hands warm. I wish I’d thought to ask more questions, and to record her answers.

Instead I look at this tiny photograph, hidden in a book for a hundred years, and wonder. Who are you — and what are you, to me?