Farming is a lot like life, in that you may be wholly absorbed in one overwhelming problem but that doesn’t mean that just around the corner something else won’t go wrong. A gate may break, the water fail, a wall collapse. This keeps things lively.
Three weeks ago as I scurried to deal with selling, shipping, and butchering animals, an abscess suddenly ballooned on the face of my teenaged ewe Edelweiss.
Abscesses are alarming in sheep and goats because they can be a symptom of dreaded CL (Caseous Lymphadenitis), a chronic disease caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis. Years ago I had a ewe with an abscess and was sick with worry. However my vet lanced it and tested the contents, and reassured me that it was not CL.
This time I was pretty confident I wasn’t dealing with the disease. As my grazing was exhausted and I knew I’d have to feed hay anyway, I had penned the sheep on Allen’s peninsula and the slope leading up to the garage. This slope was barren, rocky, and weedy. I figured a few weeks of hay waste, extraneous nibbling on weeds, and manure scattering could only improve it.
The only problem was the wicked red briars. I’ve never had a positive I.D. on this thick-stemmed, thorny weed that loves the poorest soil on my farm, but I believe it may be a variety of wild blackberry. (Though I’ve never seen a berry on it, either.) In researching the plant on the internet, I found one colloquial reference to “red rippers.” That seems right. The thorns are so brutal they make raspberry canes seem cuddly.
Now when I spotted the abscess on Edelweiss I suspected she had an infected thorn puncture. Searching for the treatment on the internet, I found that one vet, in Great Britain, has named this problem “cruels.” (Here is a discussion on another blog.) Day after day I watched Edelweiss’s abscess develop. When the skin was stretched so tight over the swelling that the abscess appeared to be bald, I knew it was time.
The next morning before leaving for the barn I sterilized a razor knife and packed a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, a clean washcloth, and a hypodermic loaded with the antibiotic LA-200. Then I drove to the farm and brought the sheep in.
The timing was perfect. From the stall gate I could see that the abscess now had a head on it. However Edelweiss seemed to sense immediately that I was after her and evaded my crook by plunging and leaping into the back of the flock. It took me almost a minute to catch her by a hind leg and pull her out of the group into the small lambing stall by herself.
In the panicky melée the abscess had ruptured. The head was gone but the abscess had not drained.
One of my challenges is that I most often work alone. Holding an animal still for treatment can be dicey. In this case I decided I would use my gambrel restrainer. With the rigid arch passed over the neck and a foreleg hooked into each V, an animal supposedly cannot move. The restrainer is advertised as “a quick, inexpensive and dependable method of restraint that keeps your sheep, goats & calves so tranquil they will even feed.”
Tranquil? Not really. At least not my nervy, athletic Clun Forest sheep. Here is Edelweiss in the restrainer.
Notice the hay on her head? Moments earlier, while in the restrainer, Edelweiss had somehow managed to heave herself up to walk on her hind legs like the faun Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe — all while her front hooves were clapped to each side of her face, a la Munch’s The Scream.
Unfortunately this gymnastic maneuver ended with Edelweiss teetering and crashing to the ground, plowing a small furrow in the bedding. (Thus the hay.) This happened two or three times. After that I sat astride her.
With the razor blade I made two small cuts in an X over the abscess to drain it. A CL abscess is typically filled with cheesy white pus, resembling toothpaste. Edelweiss’s abscess was filled with blood and serum. I pressed out as much as I could, until the skin was flat. Though I was splattered with blood and gunk, after our original wrestling match Edelweiss was surprisingly calm.
She blinked at the fizz when I used a syringe to flush the cavity with hydrogen peroxide, but did not struggle. Nor did she move when I injected her with the LA-200.
A moment after I released her, she was on her feet eating a treat of grain.
For the next week I caught her every few days to drain and flush the shrinking abscess, and administer another dose of antibiotic. Edelweiss seemed reasonably tolerant of these attentions.
However, after the third and final treatment, she was definitely suspicious of my motives. At the sound of the grain can the whole flock stampeded into the barn — except Edelweiss. Her desire for sweet feed propelled her forward, even as her fear she might be squeezed and poked held her back. The result of this indecision was that she bounced stiff-legged in place, straight up in the air. Sproing! Sproing! Sproing! Alex, the teenaged boy who occasionally helps me after school, collapsed laughing.
In the end I had to bring out her mother, Blackberry, to reassure her and lure her in.
Yesterday I snapped a picture of Edelweiss’s right cheek as she pulled at her dinner hay. The abscess site appears flat, dry, and scabbed over. I hope in another two weeks all signs of it will be gone entirely.
Meanwhile I have used gloves and loppers to cut and bag for the trash all the wicked red briars I can find.