Correcting A Misperception

Thank you to everyone for your very kind comments on my delivery of Mango’s breech lamb. The impression certainly seems to be that I’m a shepherding genius.

This is far, far from the truth. Actually I’m a fool shot through with luck.

Writing in a hurry between unloading a shavings delivery and watching over my next ewe in labor, I left out crucial details.

1. A lot of livestock farmers end up doing their own basic vet care. This is partly because large animal vets are increasingly rare and increasingly expensive (my vet is 45 minutes away so a farm call is $100 before he steps out of his truck).

But it also partly due to the law of numbers. If you’re dealing with two dozen animals — or a hundred — it simply isn’t practical to call the vet with every twinge and worry. So you collect helpful books, and, for me in the case of my cows, lean heavily on the advice of internet friends. Laura Lawson’s Managing your Ewe and Her Newborn Lambs is the go-to book for shepherds because it is loaded with information on every health problem you might possibly encounter at lambing season. Lawson tells you the meds you need and the doses to deliver. The book is often consulted by vets.

2. Looking at Mango lying deathly still with her neck stretched out in the straw I felt a cold clutch of panic. It was obvious something was very wrong. I was scared to death.

3. The two maladies most likely to befall ewes before giving birth are pregnancy toxemia, also called “twin lamb disease,” and hypocalcemia. Both are killers. The year before I took over the school farm, the farmer at the time lost a beautiful ewe and unborn twins to pregnancy toxemia. The farmer even drove the comatose ewe to the vet, but the ewe (and thus the babies inside her) died before being treated. I have been paranoid about it ever since.

Cattle raisers will recognize these metabolic disorders if I use their “cow” names:  ketosis and milk fever. The difference in sheep is that because the incidence of multiple births is higher in sheep, each problem is far more likely to strike before, rather than after, delivery.

When I saw Mango’s glazed eyes and shallow breathing I was terrified she was dying of ketosis (pregnancy toxemia).

Katika, my dear cow and very patient instructress, has had ketosis. I knew how to treat it, even without Laura Lawson’s detailed directions. However, I realized in horror, I didn’t have any of the meds on hand.

Of course, there was also a possibility Mango might have milk fever (hypocalcemia). Katika and I have learned through painful experience all about how to treat that deadly problem, too. But — oh, help! I didn’t have any of those meds either!

I was very, very lucky that the issue turned out to be simply a breech birth, involving only a single lamb. Very little thanks to me, Mango dodged a bullet.

Today a friend who is heading to the city an hour away will stop to pick up for me some bottles of calcium gluconate, tubes of cal-mag gel, and a jug of propylene glycol. Next time I’m worried, I’ll be prepared.

6 Responses to Correcting A Misperception

  1. Bonnie Morgan says:

    You are doing a great job, Selden, and it is not just luck. You are armed with experience, good advice from a great collection of books, and the guts to get messy, follow directions, and “get ‘er’ done.” The lucky ones are your sheep! Happy lambing.

    • Alison Riley-Clark says:

      Missy and Bonnie are right – you may not be a ‘genius’ but I expect being educated and taking action are what lead to most great achievements – not luck! A lesson for us all. And if you recall James Herriot was often nervous and unsure – YOU DID GOOD – TAKE a BOW!!! (HI Bonnie!!!) Alison

      • adkmilkmaid says:

        Thank you, Bonnie and Missy and Alison. I just didn’t want anyone to think I was puffing myself off as some great shepherd, when in fact I knew I was lucky that it played out the way it did. If it had been one of the metabolic disorders, I’d have had to call the vet simply because I hadn’t replenished those meds in my medical kit after Katika’s calving last July. And if I’d left calling the vet too late, I’d have lost the ewe.

        Missy, I do try to “jump in” if I can, if I have any idea what’s wrong, and if I have a book that tells me what to do. 😉

        I too was taught by bad experience. Ten years ago when I was first working with sheep at the school, I had a ewe start to deliver a lamb when something went wrong. The lamb’s head was sticking out of her rear end but labor had stopped. I now know that the legs were back. At the time I panicked.

        I hopped in my car and drove down to the apartment on campus of my friend Larry. It was the middle of the night. I rapped on his door but I couldn’t wake him and was too shy to do any more.

        Back into my car, back to the barn, where now twenty minutes had gone by and that lamb was dead. I STILL HAD TO DELIVER THE LAMB.

        So now I try to nerve myself to take action. I’m sure sometimes it’s the wrong action, but I know that doing nothing rarely helps either.

  2. Missy says:

    Nah, sorry to burst your bubble, but I don’t think it’s that you’re a shepherding genius, just that you are sensible and take action. Since having Midnight I know that things can go wrong very significantly very quickly with animals. I now also know that if you don’t “suck it up” and do something, even if you’re not too sure how to do it, that it may be too late very soon. I regret the mistakes I made with my first foster calf. I didn’t suck it up quickly enough or act decisively enough because I was scared and worried that I’d do the wrong thing. Turns out that doing nothing much is about as bad as the possibility of doing something wrong. Ended up that I had to have him euthanized. My bad. An expensive and heart breaking lesson which I hope never to repeat.
    My congratulations and praise is because I perceive you to be a do-er. It’s encouraging. You can be freaking out on the inside but still be cool and calm – cool and calm is evidenced by action, IMHO.
    Good on ya. Don’t feel like you’re a fraud. We’re all terrified when we have to ‘vet’ our animals.
    You just did good, that’s all. 🙂

  3. Missy says:

    PS, do you know of an equivalent cow book to Lawson’s sheep book?

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      My husband gave me Heather Smith Thomas’s Essential Guide to Calving which is a terrific reference for cows. Smith Thomas has another book out on cows that I want to ask for this year for my birthday, called The Cattle Health Handbook. It’s supposed to be great!

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