Poor Lily

February 29, 2012

My ewe Lily lambed yesterday afternoon. A single lamb, which is a disappointment, and a ram, which is another. Lily had twins last year and my guess is she may have singled due to my mismanagement in not weaning and separating the lambs, allowing her body time to recover and rebuild. Sadly, there is often a lag between my learning curve and my ability to get things done alone.

Lily is one of my favorite sheep. She is purebred Clun Forest ewe, though not registerable as she is the oldest daughter of Blackberry, who is purebred but not registered. She was the first purebred Clun ewe lamb born at Fairhope Farm. Lucy and I named her Lily because at birth her fleece was white with black flecks like the throat of that flower. She will be three this spring.

Her ram lamb was a whopping 12 lbs, 4 oz., bigger at birth than the three-day-old half-siblings (and simultaneous aunt and uncle) in the jug next door.

Lily had the lamb up and dry by the time I found them after lunch. All seemed to be well but as usual I climbed into the jug to dip the lamb’s navel in iodine and weigh him. Automatically I put my hand down to strip Lily’s teats and make sure the lamb had fed.

That’s when I discovered the problem.

Lily has severe mastitis in half her udder.

I have seen mastitis in cows and Lily’s case is far worse than a little stringiness or clots. The bag on that side is hard and hot. The teat is completely clogged all the way up into the udder. I can express a very little and that comes out in tiny noodles of pus. It resembles greenish-white, cheesy toothpaste. When I feel the teat it feels as if it has a spine. I assume that the “spine” is a column of this hardened pus.

I took her temperature: it was 103° F, slightly feverish. The other half of her udder was unaffected, so far, but seemed to have little milk… I’m guessing down to poor let-down due to discomfort. Lily was still eating and drinking, however, and was responsive to her lamb. The lamb was obviously hungry, not getting much from the one good side.

I raced home to consult my Laura Lawson sheep bible. Among her other recommendations, Laura warned to dispose of any contaminated milk safely. “It contains millions of bacteria and toxins that could be a source of infection to other ewes.” Yikes. I had wiped my hands on my coveralls! In my barn full of lactating sheep, cows, and bottle babies, I suddenly felt like Typhoid Mary.

I called the vet, and they were willing to come out on a farm call, but as usual I was torn. When it comes to basic sheep care (not a surgical intervention or a lab culture) I can often find the information online and attempt to take care of it myself.

Last night I put out an S.O.S. on my sheep email list, threw all my barn clothes in the washing machine, and after getting home from an evening meeting spent a couple of hours googling for solutions on the internet. I have downloaded ewe mastitis treatment instructions from the Cornell University Sheep Farm as well as from the Pipestone Veterinary Clinic in Minnesota; happily the suggestions are congruent, they agree with my guru Laura, and wonder of wonders, I have most of the meds on hand.

Today I will be busy. Tonight we are due to get up to a foot of snow.


It’s Raining Lambs

February 27, 2012

Three of my ewes were due on Friday, and between Friday midday and Saturday at midnight, five new lambs arrived. Naturally, this bonanza occurred during our first real snowstorm of the winter.

Naturally, also, the first to lamb was Madeleine, my two-year-old cross-bred ewe that I’d left in the melée of the big maternity stall. The night before, after sorting the other two impending mamas into jugs, I had given Madeleine another look. Were her flanks suddenly sunken? Hmm. It’s hard to discern much of a girl’s figure when it’s muffled under a four-inch-thick wool coat but I always try to pay attention when anything catches my eye. Often I can’t tell what I’ve seen but my eye has registered something different.

Sure enough, at morning chores Madeleine was lying down with a strained expression as young lambs bounced off her back, playing King of the Hill.

It wasn’t hard to convince Blackberry to leave her jug, though rather harder to convince Madeleine, in labor, that she wanted to get up and walk across the aisle. However she went with my urging — “No children there!” — and my encouraging hands under her bottom, then labored with soft bleats and groans while I mucked out the barn.

Within an hour she delivered a pretty 9 lb ewe lamb. Madeleine is Mango’s daughter and appears to have the same good mothering instincts. She was on her feet licking and pawing the new arrival immediately. It was clear to me that she was about to deliver a second lamb. Every once in a while a distracted look would pass over her face and she would pause briefly as a contraction hit. But she ignored it and kept on.

Eventually the contractions were so strong she had to lie down. Nevertheless the moment the first lamb made the slightest sound, Madeleine would jump back to her feet. Up, down, up, down. It was a relief when the second twin was born. This was a ram lamb, 8 lbs 4 oz.

For the first hour the little ram made a wheezing noise like a klaxon horn, something I’d never heard before. I worry that he may have aspirated fluid. But by lunchtime everyone was dry, fed, and warm.

Now, you would think, since I had only one more jug and two ewes still to lamb, I would have bent my problem-solving skills to this dilemma.

Sadly, no. I was distracted by the realization that Madeleine, also exactly like her mother Mango, appeared to have an inadequate milk supply for twins. All the babies had received their lifesaving colostrum, thankfully, but as the snow continued to fall through the day Saturday I drove back and forth to the farm to top up both sets of twins with warm bottles of Katika’s milk.

(It’s a dicey thing with supplementing. You want to give the babies enough to keep them strong and warm and vigorous, but not so much that they stop searching for milk from their mothers. It is the suckling that increases milk supply, as much as is possible.)

I was also distracted by the glum realization that I was a classic hobby farmer ruled by foolish sentiment, that I’d originally kept Madeleine simply because she was so friendly, that I should have realized she would inherit her mother Mango’s poor milk supply, and that especially when Madeleine barely had adequate milk for a single lamb last year, I should never have wintered her over. It felt like a last straw now to discover that, again like her mother, Madeleine for all her friendliness was too nervous to allow me to trim around her woolly bag.

So it was that when I drove back to the barn at 9 PM, fighting through wind-whipped snowdrifts, I was not surprised to find both Briar and Blackberry in labor — but I was also unprepared.

As prey animals, sheep tend to hide their suffering, so as not to attract the attention of a predator. Briar was a notable exception to this rule. With every contraction she screamed at the top of her voice and threw herself against the walls of the jug, panting. The bedding was soaked and churned into a mess.

In the crowded main stall, Blackberry stared stolidly ahead, grinding her teeth.

The first thing to do was to build a temporary jug for Blackberry. With the yearlings penned in the aisle I had few options there. I climbed up into the hayloft and groped around blindly in the dark. The wind howled. Why hadn’t I done this in daylight? I found the stake rack panel for the back of my truck and lowered it through the hatch of the hayloft. After several trips up and down the ladder to gather more scraps, I screwed together a quick, narrow pen to block Blackberry from the rest of the flock. It was ramshackle but it would work.

Then I went to see to Briar, climbing over the yearlings in the aisle, and then over the stall wall into the jug while loaded with towels, navel iodine, scissors, and lamb jackets. At 10 PM Briar delivered a nice 10 lb ram lamb. Its wet coat steamed. The temperature was 4° F.

Briar needed no help, nor did the lamb. I dried him, dipped his umbilical cord in iodine, and put a jacket on him. He staggered to his feet, instinctively searching for a teat.

Briar’s udder also needed no trimming. She is only half Clun Forest, but she has zero Lincoln blood. I am coming to the conclusion that I may want to get rid of all the Lincoln ancestry in my flock. The woolly udders are problematic with my lambing vs. shearing schedule, significantly increasing my hassle and work. Of course, another option would be to change my schedule.

Meanwhile I heard the sharp cry of a newborn in the direction of Blackberry’s thrown-together jug. I climbed out of Briar’s jug, clambered over the yearlings, and went back to Blackberry.

There in the hay was a nice little purebred Clun ewe lamb with dark points. Twenty minutes later, Blackberry delivered a second lamb, much larger and lighter in color but also a ewe. In four years Blackberry has given me six lambs, five of them ewes. Blackberry is my foundation ewe, and I love her.

It was very cold. The temporary jug for Blackberry adjoined the lamb creep and the other lambs repeatedly bounced in to investigate. Eventually I took one of my towels, wet with birth fluid, and draped it over the opening. It froze into place, blocking access. This was convenient but made me worry even more about the newborns.

I had only one heat lamp, currently hanging over the jugs far away across the aisle. I had to gamble that Blackberry was such an experienced mother that she would keep her babies close and warm through the night.

By now it was wearing on toward midnight. After a week of insomnia I was so tired that my brain seemed hardly to be working. Every time I went out to the truck for more dry towels — I was too foggy to remember to bring them all in at once — the force of the wind and blowing snow almost knocked me down. I was aware of smiling at the cliché: It was a dark and stormy night.

I told myself I’d just make sure all the lambs were dry and had some colostrum and then I’d go home and fall into bed. At one point I was holding a lamb in nursing position with my face pillowed on Blackberry’s woolly back and I felt myself nodding off.

*  *  *

In the morning the driveway was drifted in snow almost to the truck fenders. I rolled back the barn doors with worry in my heart. Had the new babies lived through the night?

They had. Madeleine and her twins.

Briar and her single boy.

Blackberry and her twin girls.

Eight ewes have given birth and we have twelve lambs. Three more to go.


So Much for My System

February 24, 2012

I have six ewes still to lamb. Three of them are due today: Blackberry, Briar, and Madeleine. I kept them in the barn yesterday, just for insurance.

Since the numbers were shifting in favor of mamas and babies, I wanted to reconfigure the big sheep stall. Yesterday afternoon, attended by curious sheep and lambs, I took down my 2×4 divider and re-installed it at a different angle, creating a small triangular stall for the three ewes due next week, and a roomy, large stall for the maternity ward.

I only have two jugs. Before letting the rest of the flock in, I put Briar in one jug overnight and Blackberry in the other. Madeleine is so tame that I knew I wouldn’t have trouble pulling her out of the maternity group if need be.

My plan worked perfectly. When I brought all the animals in for the night, the seven ewes still outside rushed in to the small triangle stall. The four yearlings backed out to wait at the triangle stall’s door. The horse and cows trotted by. I let the yearlings out and penned them at the end of the aisle. What a genius!

I was just congratulating myself on my fabulous and resourceful shepherding skills when my big two-year-old Clun Forest ewe, Black Raspberry, who is a heavy-set carbon copy of her father, my old ram Ioan, looked over the barrier at the hay in the far feeder of the maternity ward. This hay was exactly the same as the hay in the feeder in front of her nose, but Raspberry did not think so. She lifted her front legs like a steeplechaser and sprang at the wall.

Well, not exactly like a steeplechaser. 150 pounds of ewe landed squarely on the top 2×4. Its deck screws gave way with a splintering sound and the rail hit the bedding. The barrier was suddenly reduced from 3.5 feet to 2.5 feet. Raspberry and the other three ewes popped over it casually.

I now had nine ewes and seven lambs bouncing around the big stall. There would be no re-sorting. My system was officially shot.

With a sigh I retrieved my screw gun and removed all the rails. Ironically, now that spring is on its way, we are due to get six to ten inches of snow today. Only the unbred yearlings will be going outside now.

*   *   *

After stowing the 12′ 2x4s in the hayloft I stood leaning against the gate watching the lambs at play (one of my very favorite time-wasting activities at this season). My eye was caught by something hanging under lamb tag 19. My goodness, what could that be? I peered more closely. Well, even an idiot could see that it was a scrotum full of testicles.

I have no idea how I could have scrubbed a lamb dry, weighed it, jacketed it, and banded its tail, without noting a woolly bag the size of my thumb. But I clearly had. 19, whom I had recorded as a ewe lamb and tagged in “her” right ear as a ewe, is a ram.

I can only think that my lack of sleep this week due to insomnia has fogged my brain. 

Meanwhile, when I took the cozy fleece jackets off 19 and his twin sister 18, now three days old, I discovered they both looked peaked. Their skin still had the baggy folds of a newborn. They looked … under-inflated. They stood with their backs curved in a slight hunch. This miserable look is almost always due to starvation.

I had seen both lambs nursing their mother, Blossom. She has tiny, tiny teats, but her milk supply had seemed adequate. But for whatever reason, these lambs were not thriving. I milked Katika into a baby bottle, knelt in the maternity stall, and offered it to the twins. They were so hungry the lamb not nursing the bottle sucked frantically on my knuckles.

With any luck, just a couple of days’ supplementation will get these babies over the hump and they will be fast and aggressive enough to get adequate milk from their mother.


The Bean Mystery

February 23, 2012

Yesterday morning my ewe, Vanilla Bean, reared up on her hind legs at the jug gate and bawled in my face for the umpteenth time. “It’s all a mistake! I know nothing about babies!”

According to my records, Bean was due to lamb a week ago. It seems unlikely a sheep could go seven days past her due date.

“OK, OK,” I addressed her. “Let’s look into it.”

As I opened the jug gate, Bean’s demeanor suddenly switched from demanding to alarmed. She feinted and dodged, then barreled past me into the barn aisle. I spread my arms like a soccer goalie.  Finally I had her cornered. I launched myself at her in a flying tackle and pushed her into the wall.

Buried in her warm, damp fleece, my glasses immediately fogged over in the cold. I shrugged them down my nose so I could see and, careful to keep Bean pressed to the wall with my weight, worked my way around to her bottom. I lifted the dirty wool under her tail to look at her vulva.

Yep. This is why I have a college education. To inspect a sheep’s private parts!

Bean’s vulva was not puffy and soft, as it should have been if she were about to give birth.

I lifted the ragged hem of wool at her flank and groped her teats. Though it appeared that she was starting to bag up, her udder was not full.

I sat back on my heels, letting her go. If Bean was pregnant at all, she did not appear to be about to lamb any time soon.

How could this be?

It seems likely that Bean did not conceive when she was bred September 24. It’s possible that she came into heat again and was bred three weeks later, October 15, and I simply didn’t notice the renewing of the mark from the ram harness. Shepherds with more expertise than I change the crayon color every few weeks for just this reason.

If Bean was bred October 15, I should be watching for lambs March 9.

I opened the gate and let Bean out of the barn. She galloped out to her comrades, baa-ing happily.

She had indeed been wrongfully imprisoned, poor girl. But I consoled myself that she’d eaten very well.


Another Pair of Twins

February 21, 2012

My ewe Blossom had twins yesterday, bang on her due date: two nice-sized ewe lambs, 9 lbs 2 oz and 9 lbs 10 oz respectively.

Sunday night Blossom had seemed awkward and puffing when she hurried in with the rest of the outdoor flock. I decided that she needed to be jugged. Unfortunately my jugs were occupied by Chai and Bean. In the end I crammed the four yearlings in with the outdoor flock, set up a smaller stall in the aisle, and jugged Blossom there.

Unlike Bean, who at five days overdue continues to rear up against gates and complain that she has no intention of ever having babies, Blossom seemed grateful for the peace and quiet.

At morning chores there were no lambs. Since the temporary jug blocked the door, turning out the rest of the outdoor sheep for the day required a complicated shell game. I put Katika in her stanchion and let out Opie, the bull calf, to nurse. I took down the welded wire of the temporary jug and, using grain, enticed Blossom into the calf stall, where I locked her in. I carried out the morning hay and spread it in flakes around the paddock. Then I opened the door to let the outdoor flock out, lured Blossom back to the free half of the big stall, and added complaining Bean plus Chai with her lamb from the jugs.

After feeding the chickens and milking I went home to strain the milk and eat breakfast. On my return an hour later I heard the high cry of a new lamb and the anxious nickering of Blossom. I quickly freshened the bedding in one of the jugs and put some grain in its feed pan. I carried in the slimy wet lamb. Then I went to get Blossom.

Bean, however, was crowding the gate. The one thing she has learned in her week indoors is to become fanatically attuned to the rattle of grain. The moment I opened the gate for Blossom, Bean barreled through, jumped across the aisle into the jug, and began greedily gobbling the sweet feed treat, incidentally trampling on the new lamb. Argh! I swooped to rescue the lamb and shoved Bean out of the jug. Blossom, meanwhile, was frantic and confused. Didn’t I just have a baby?

At last I had everyone sorted. I dried the lamb, whose wet coat was steaming in the 2° cold, weighed it, and dipped its navel in iodine.

Blossom has never been one of my favorite ewes. Three-eighths Romney, three-eighths Corriedale, and one-quarter Lincoln, she is lop-eared and homely, does not have a nice fleece, and despite years of contact with me continues to be exceedingly nervous. Now she would not allow me to trim the wool around her udder, jumping away frantically from the scissors. However the minute I went to milk her tiny teats she became dreamy and still (I recognize the mother’s nursing reverie). I milked her into a clean wide-mouthed jar and then poured that into a nursing bottle. It is my habit to bottle-feed all lambs with an ounce or two of their mother’s warm colostrum before leaving them to their mother’s care.

While I was bottling the baby, to my surprise Blossom lay down and pushed out a second, larger ewe lamb. What a good girl.

Blossom may not be my favorite ewe but as a mother she is on the job. I had the lambs dried and fed but instinct told Blossom, babies must nurse! She pawed at them roughly until they staggered to their feet, then nudged them in the direction of the forest of wool.

It wasn’t clear to me if they were sucking on her teats or on wool tags, but when at last they collapsed in a sleepy heap, she seemed satisfied.


This Snowless Winter

February 20, 2012

DH came down to the farm yesterday to commune with his cabin and took this photo of me leaving the barn after chores. I’m wearing my “Carhartt rags” (the patches at my ankles have rotted off). But more interesting is what I’m not wearing. No puffy down vest. No jacket. No gloves. It was over 30° F.

And see the ground? Bare, with scattered patches of ice.

Last year at this time I had to hire a big backhoe/loader to come push back the giant snowbanks. This year we haven’t had a real storm all season. The “vault of winter” never closed.

I look out at my heaped manure piles and feel a twinge, knowing that if I were a serious farmer, I could be loading and running my spreader over the frozen ground almost every day.

This morning it is cold again. 3° above zero. Yet tomorrow it is due to yo-yo back up in the 40s and stay there for three days, with rain.

DH can’t remember any winter quite as bad as this one, in the almost 30 years he’s lived here. Our ski town that depends on tourism is hurting.

I worry about the effect of the see-sawing temperatures on young trees. Last week I passed a nursery in Vermont where an acre of young arborvitae, unprotected by snow, appeared brown and dead. I also wonder about drought next spring, if we have no snow-melt.

We’re all scratching our heads.


Musical Stalls

February 19, 2012

I am loving having records of when my sheep were bred. Normally at this time of year I am driving down to the farm half a dozen times every day and several times every night, scanning the flock anxiously. I am always terrified one of my ewes will drop a lamb in the snow or in the melée of the group stall, the lamb(s) will die, and it will be my fault.

Of course this still might happen, but it feels less likely now. Because I have the breeding date of each ewe, I have been able to divide the flock into three main groups: the unbred yearlings, the pregnant ewes due later, and the heavily pregnant ewes ready to pop any day.

I have written already of training the yearlings to peel away from the flock; they spend their nights in a temporary pen in the barn aisle. Next I ran 2x4s across the big stall to split it in two, tying on some plastic mesh. The seven ewes due next week and the following week are in one 9’x12′ half. As you can see, these girls are crowded, but it is only an overnight space.

The ewes who have lambed or are very close to lambing lounge in the other half.

The last “group” consists of the ewes who might give birth at any hour or have just given birth. I keep them in the stall across the aisle, which has been divided into two jugs. Here is Mango (pre-mania) in a jug shortly before lambing.

Every morning I open the back dutch door of the barn and let the yearlings and the later-to-lamb ewes out into the paddock. They explode out the door in a noisy rush. It is nice to be able to have the pregnant ewes outside without anxiously inspecting the ice multiple times each day.

The system, though far from perfect (I need either more room or fewer sheep) has, so far, worked well.

According to the records, my almost three-year-old ewe, Vanilla Bean, is next up at bat. However, unlike the other ewes, who quickly settled down to enjoy the extra feed and quiet in the mothers’ stall, Bean has objected strenuously to being kept indoors, rearing on her hind legs at the stall gate to bleat, “Babies? What babies? I’m falsely imprisoned!”

Calculating on a 145-day gestation, Bean was “scheduled” to give birth Thursday. Thursday came and went. I knew she had been bred two days after Snowy; a logical lambing date thus would have been two days after Snowy lambed: that is, yesterday. Nothing. Last night I locked Bean in a jug. She looked cross. Her daughter, Vanilla Chai, is due two days after her mother. I pulled Chai from the outdoor group and put her in the remaining jug, for company. It’s musical stalls around here.

The ram harness and my records of breeding dates haven’t eliminated all, or even most, of the uncertainty around lambing. But they’ve introduced a new modicum of order, which is very soothing for a worrier and control freak. Though one still can’t know the day or the hour, it is comforting to know how the dominoes will fall.

*    *    *

Edited after morning chores to add:

… Except when the dominoes don’t fall according to plan!

This morning Chai presented me with a little 8 lb 2 oz ewe lamb, up and dried. All I had to do was dip the baby’s navel, weigh her, and slip her into a lamb jacket (it’s 16° outside).

And next door, Chai’s mother, Bean, still insists she knows nothing about any impending babies.