Still No New Babies

February 28, 2013


This is an overhead view of my seven-year- old ewe, Blackberry, two days ago. I am going crazy.

Every morning I think, She can’t go another day. But she does. When I stand and stare at her I can often see the lambs moving under her skin. Blackberry’s oldest daughter, Lily, is only slightly less distended.

Yesterday we had 40 mph winds, whipping snow, sleet, and rain. It was such a mess that I was sure I would have a rash of lambs to cope with on top of the storm. Nope.

Lucy and I leave town in seven days. I pray these lambs get a move on.

Blackberry has some sort of scurfy skin condition across half her back. It looks almost like cradle cap. I don’t know if it’s a result of having had lice — she was my worst case — or if it’s a rain-rot infection (caused by the bacterium Dermatophilus congolensis, spread by insect parasites such as lice), fleece rot (Pseudomonas aeruginosa, caused by moist conditions), or what. Two of my other ewes have much smaller patches of the same thing. They, too, had lice.


I asked Roger the shearer about the scurf and he was unconcerned. I do think it will clear up as soon as we have sunshine again. However the treatment for both rain rot and fleece rot is the same thing — disinfecting the skin with a 4:1 dilute mix of water and the bactericide chlorhexidine. Chlorhexidine is Nolvasan, the veterinary disinfectant. (Anyone who has ever walked into a vet’s office can recognize the scent.) I have mixed up a jam jar of this solution and will take it to the barn with me this morning.

It’s always something.

Even The Hay is Greener

February 27, 2013

… on the other side of the fence.

Poor Moxie. I don’t think she’ll ever get over her first year of sickness and malnutrition, which left her at fifteen months the size of a five-month calf (minus her tail and one ear).

She reminds me of a child of poverty who, even after rescue, cannot sleep unless clutching a roasted chicken leg. Since coming to me, Moxie has always had good food and plenty of it. Nevertheless she remains anxious that she might go without.

Here she is, on her knees to reach under the lintel of the calf stall, eating Cooper’s small flake of hay.


Right behind her, she has five flakes of her own hay, but she can’t let Cooper’s small mite get away.

Coop is philosophical about his foster mama’s emotional quirks.


He munches quietly on Moxie’s hay.

Andy White Has Lost His Mind

February 26, 2013


After the dark somnolence of winter, the hours of daylight are gradually lengthening and my poultry have started to ovulate again. The hens are laying, the roosters are crowing, and my goose Kay is preening and flashing her tail feathers. This signals the annual mental breakdown of my Pilgrim gander, Andy White.

Once again he is trumpeting and flapping his wings and seeing enemies in all corners.

One reason I like Pilgrim geese is that they are mild-mannered and unaggressive. Normally my gander Andy is Clark Kent, polite and devoted to duty. Neither snow nor sleet can keep him from his appointed rounds…


… supervising the sheep.


All winter long I see him out there lecturing the girls, sharing their hay, and giving them nibbly massages.

His wife Kay is less enthusiastic about spending hours outside in the below-zero cold, talking to sheep, but if the weather is not too fierce she will follow him out, at least for a little while.


Still, she spends quite a few winter days in loneliness at the barn, while Andy communes with the girls.

However, all this changes once ovulation starts. Suddenly Andy is transformed. Forget passing casual hours with the sheep! He’s a man with a mission: to serve and protect his fragile bride from danger.

In pursuit of this, he hisses and screams, flaps his wings, and runs at all perceived threats with his head snaking along the ground. His orange-rimmed blue eyes — normally quite pretty — develop a mad gleam.


The other day I came in the barn to find poor Birch running around his stall in frantic circles, chased by a flapping, honking, hysterical Andy. I have no idea what Birch did to arouse the gander’s ire — perhaps stepped on him accidentally? The geese have slept in a back corner of Birch’s stall for years. But no more. Andy is now fixated on Birch as The Enemy, and the minute he spots him, the gander races to attack.

On one level it is rather amusing to see a fifteen-pound bird in pursuit of an 800-pound horse. However poor Birch is a nervous wreck, and I can’t let an old man be terrorized. I cut a scrap of 2×4 to make a Goose Excluder Bar beneath Birch’s stall gate.


Today I am going to build a gate in the calf stall, to pen the geese up at night and during chores when I am away.

Though I pay little attention to Andy’s chest-beating histrionics, I think a holding pen will make it easier for others to cover the barn without worrying about Mad Gander attacks.

Waiting, Waiting

February 25, 2013


No more lambs yet.

I am so anxious to have as many lambs as possible arrive before we leave for Florida that I find myself standing at the sheep stall, gazing at the ewes for twenty minutes at a time. Is this one breathing funny? How puffy is that vulva? Why is she staring at the wall — is it the start of labor?

My ewe Lily looks so bulbous (above) that I put her in a jug beside her mother, Blackberry. My hope is that these two will be the next to lamb.


But I’m perfectly aware that it could easily be one of the inexperienced maiden ewes in the big stall. Blackberry is almost seven years old and Lily almost four. Having carried multiple sets of twins in the past, they both look ponderously gravid, whereas the maiden ewes, probably carrying singles, are more often from the Princess Diana school of pregnancy, perky and lithe right up to the moment they give birth.

So I stand at the sheep stall, watch, and worry.

Meanwhile Geranium’s two ram lambs are healthy and strong. They have been tagged, docked, and castrated, and released into the large stall to begin to learn about the wider world, including strange ewes who butt them and the safety of the lamb creep.

Geranium is a perfect mother. Yesterday she stood at an opening of the creep, pawed the ground, and called to her sleeping lambs. They both woke and staggered out obediently to feed. What a good girl she is.



February 22, 2013


Roger came Thursday and sheared the sheep. I always dread the long hours of shearing and my inevitable aching lower back at the end of the day — but this year was different. It was 5° with a mean wind blowing snow, and even in the closed barn it was cold. (Yes, I did think of the irony of removing the girls’ thick wool coats on such a day, but I couldn’t change the schedule.)

However it did mean that my back was spared, as the moment I took off my gloves my hands were numb. It was clear I could not wrestle the sheep into the holding chair and trim their hooves. I am so clumsy that my hands end up bloody with nicks even in the best hoof-trimming conditions; with my fingers barely able to operate I could picture myself dripping blood like a horror film.

I had already decided that I would not worm the sheep, as I usually do on shearing day. I had to treat them for lice — two doses of insecticidal meds in one day seemed unwise. So while Roger labored steadily and patiently in the aisle, I had nothing to do but stand and watch, bag the fleeces, and then squirt the measured hypodermic of lice meds down each girl’s back and massage it in.

I wore rubber gloves for this, and again my hands were so icy I could barely manage to squeeze the hypodermic. My feet were gradually turning to painful frozen lumps.

“Are you warm enough?” I asked Roger at one point.

“Oh, yes!” he replied cheerily. Roger is about half my size and weight and seemed to be wearing about a third of the winter clothing, and he never utters a cross word. I decided not to complain.


Roger works so calmly and smoothly that the sheep almost always seem to fall into a trance of quiet while the clippers whisper down their sides, the fleece falling away in a creamy ruff. It is a peaceful scene under the shop light.

Occasionally, however, a ewe will squirm and kick. Roger was shearing Edelweiss, who twisted nervously. “Is this the ewe I had such trouble with last year?” he inquired.  “It was a lamb.”

“I didn’t write it down,” I replied, “but it must have been Edelweiss or her half-sister, Mulberry. They were my two lambs last year.”

Twenty minutes later Roger was shearing Mulberry, whose feet slipped and clattered on the plywood platform as she attempted to break dance to get away from the clippers.  She writhed and heaved and kicked him in the stomach.

“It was this one,” Roger said mildly. I am always impressed by Roger’s sang-froid. He never blows up, curses, or shows the least impatience. After fifteen minutes of struggle he merely straightened his back, stood up, and breathed deeply for thirty seconds. Then he bent to the task again.

At last all the ewes were shorn and treated for lice. Roger complimented me on their nice condition. It is always tricky to gauge condition through a heavy blanket of wool.  This year my hay was less than ideal and I’d decided to feed a bit more grain. It was satisfying to learn I’d got it right.


The bad news is that I have seven ewes still pregnant, not six (my yearling Georgie is also bred), and from the look of some of their udders it seems definite I will have lambs born while we are in Florida.

“I really need all these lambs to be born in the next two weeks,” I had said to Roger as he clipped carefully around a bag.

He turned his head to look up at me and smiled sympathetically. “Maybe induce?” he joked.

Ugh. My mind is churning as I try to think of solutions.

However Blackberry and her daughter Lily both look close. I moved Blackberry into a jug, just in case.


A Happy Post-Script

February 20, 2013


Oh, happy day! At chores tonight when I leaned down to check Geranium’s udder, stripping a teat, a stream of milk sprinkled across my glasses!

It seems, as suggested in Laura Lawson’s book Managing Your Ewe, that the shock and pain of giving birth for the first time could have delayed Geranium’s milk let-down. But thirty-six hours after lambing, the supply has now come in.

The twins are obviously fed and happy. They even made stumbling little prancing efforts.


I do want to start to test for OPP, but not, thank goodness, today.


First Lambs of 2013

February 20, 2013


Yesterday I found my first two lambs at morning chores. I had already fed the horse and cattle before I noticed them. The twin lambs were up and dry, tottering silently in a corner of the big sheep stall.

It was 10° F.

I could see one of the ewes nuzzling the newborns, but in the noisy chaos of jostling sheep as I poured the breakfast grain into the feeder I could only tell that it was one of the ewes I bought from Kimberly last year. I scooped up the lambs and carried them to a jug in the lambing stall. Then I went back to the ewes and tried to figure out who was the mother. None of the ewes had the usual tell-tale bloody bottom. Was the new mom Geranium, or was it Magnolia?

To make separating easier, I dumped some sweet feed in a pan in the jug. Hearing the familiar rattle of grain, all the ewes rushed the gate and tried to stampede into the lambing stall. I had to swoop quickly to rescue the lambs from trampling. Holding them in my arms I shoved out all the girls except Geranium and Magnolia. Geranium was nickering to the lambs between frenzied gobbles so I knew it was she. I pushed Magnolia out and closed the door.

After dipping their navels in iodine I weighed both lambs. 7 lbs, 1 oz and 7 lbs, 8 oz, a nice set of twins. However both were listless. They did not struggle or cry. They had the lightweight feeling of empty-bellied lambs.

Geranium is two years old and this is her first lambing. She had great instincts, nickering encouragingly and pawing at the lambs to rouse them, but once on their feet the lambs just stood with their backs hunched. They seemed too wan to search for a teat.

I put jackets on both lambs and reached under Geranium to palpate her udder. Everything felt round, warm, and normal. However when I tried to express some milk, I could only bring a drop to the end of each teat. Geranium appeared to have almost zero milk. Five minutes of effort on two separate tries gave me a scant tablespoon of thick yellow colostrum.

I raced outside, grabbed Moxie’s halter, and brought her, protesting, back into the barn. While she ate a snack I milked twelve ounces of warm foamy milk into a bottle, mixing it with the colostrum. I fed this to the lambs, aiming to get an ounce into each boy.

The larger lamb, in the red jacket, immediately perked up after feeding. He began to stagger and cry. The smaller lamb, in blue, had a limited sucking reflex and I had to stroke his throat to get him to swallow.

While they collapsed for a nap under the heat lamp, I went home for breakfast.


I topped the lambs up with an ounce of cow’s milk apiece every four hours through the day. By early afternoon, little Red Jacket had found the udder and was butting his mother for colostrum.

By early evening, little Blue Jacket had also figured it out.


Geranium has excellent mothering instincts. She paws the lambs to their feet every forty minutes or so for nursing. However I checked her teats at the end of the day and while she is now giving more than a drop at a time, it could still be measured in half teaspoons.

I am not sure what is causing her low milk supply. Clun Forest sheep are normally very milky. Geranium is well-nourished and has plenty of water. Because my mind always leaps to catastrophe, I immediately thought of Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP), a “silent” disease in sheep that among other symptoms causes little or no milk at lambing. Please, no.  I resolved that on his next farm call I would have my vet draw blood samples from Geranium and two other random ewes to test for OPP, just in case.

However for now I am hoping the problem is simply “new mother shock” and will resolve itself with rest, good food, and lots of udder stimulation (nursing from the lambs).

I gave Geranium a treat of beautifully leafy green second-cut hay and added a bit of molasses to her drinking water. She is perfectly alert, eating well, and devoted to her lambs.

By the end of the day the new family was cozy in the barn corner.


One ewe down, six to go — I pray in the next two weeks.

Jaunt to West Point

February 18, 2013

photo-7Yesterday I packed a cooler with lunch, supper, and snacks, and DH, Lucy, and I drove down-state to see my niece Ashley compete for the Navy in the track championships at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

I found it very funny that I, a devotee of American history with a lifelong interest in Benedict Arnold, would finally visit West Point, the scene of his infamy… to watch a running race.

Poor DH and Lucy endured a long soliloquy on Benedict Arnold, West Point, the British officer and go-between Major John André, the illiterate thugs who mugged André for his socks and boots, thus discovering his secret papers, which they could not read but thought might bring them more money; Arnold’s escape in a rowboat, André’s request to be shot as a soldier and Washington’s decision to hang him as a spy, André’s charm and bravery, etc., etc…

Luckily for them the indoor track was small and we soon found Ashley.


Ashley was competing in two events, the women’s 4 x 400 relay and the women’s 800 meter. She did very well in both races. As she shot by, I screamed, “Go, Ash!” while DH attempted to catch her split times and Lucy tried to take her picture.


We were extremely proud when all the heats were completed and the scoreboard showed that Ashley had come in fourth overall in the 800 meter — particularly impressive as she was a freshman running against older girls. She won 4 points for Navy.

The coach spent twenty minutes chatting with us between races. She has her eye on Ashley’s younger sister and her younger brother, too.

It was fun after the races to hear Ash talk about the Navy and her future. She is currently thinking she might go into the Marines after she graduates from Annapolis.


I listened and tried not to let my mouth fall open. The Marines! What?!

In my mind, Ashley is still a little young for that.


Jon and Ashley, 1995

Ugh! Sheep Lice!

February 16, 2013


As if I didn’t have enough worries, it appears my sheep have lice. Ugh!

These crawling, biting insect parasites, pictured and described here, cause sheep to rub and scratch themselves on every available surface. The more athletic ewes reach around and chew their backs with their teeth for relief from the maddening itch. Naturally, all this not only indicates sad discomfort for the poor sheep, but destroys the wool. An affected ewe looks as if she is covered in long dreadlocks. In biting at these pests, she may also pull a bald spot across the top of her flanks.

Three of the worst cases seem to be Blackberry and her daughters Cranberry (born 2012, seen above) and Mulberry (born 2011). This would be significant save for the fact that Blackberry and four of her daughters make up exactly half my flock. The other two bad cases are the two unrelated ewe lambs I brought in this fall, Bess and Georgie.

Even in sheep, lice carry such a stigma that it is always tempting to pin blame. Surely it was the purchased lambs that brought in this scourge! However it seems that last year’s mild winter and long drought saw a large outbreak of sheep lice across New England. I find myself wondering and worrying if the sheep I sold carried lice to other farms.

Sheep lice are species-specific. They may, in very crowded conditions, transfer to goats, but this is rare. They will not affect cattle, horses, birds, or people. Their affections are entirely ovine.

GetThumbnail.aspxA sheep friend recommended Ultra-Boss pour-on insecticide, which I dutifully ordered and has finally arrived. My ewes will be shorn next week and I will treat them then.  The meds are guaranteed not to be teratogenic (harmful to developing fetuses) but I must say, after reading all the cautions to wear gloves, etc., I’m not excited at the prospect.

However I do want my poor girls to have relief. It is said that a very lousy sheep may carry 100,000 biting critters. Certainly the ewes are itchy and unhappy.

Sheep Anxiety

February 13, 2013


I have no lambs yet. This is making me very, very nervous. In fact, when I think about it too much I feel a little sick.

Lucy and I drive to Florida in three weeks and a day. I need all the lambs safely born, up, and nursing vigorously before I go. Though I have seven fat pregnant ewes, none of them has yet developed that “any minute” waddle. I’m very afraid that some of the ewes may still be carrying when I have to leave town.

How did this happen? Now, when I consider the matter, it seems obvious but unfortunately last fall I was not mentally firing on all cylinders.

All I knew was that between family crises and the terrible drought, last spring and summer had been grueling on every front, and I was forced to drastically downsize my livestock population. Lucy’s horse Birch had to go to a new home. My cattle herd would be halved and the sheep flock cut by more than two-thirds — from 32 to 9. (In the end I kept a ewe lamb that I hadn’t intended to; I now have seven adult ewes and three ewe lambs. I also have Birch, whose scheduled departure was cancelled by Hurricane Sandy.)

In all the sadness and sheer drudgery of trying to find good new homes — and arranging for slaughter — for so many creatures of whom I was so very fond, I had no time, wit, or financial resources to buy a new ram for fall breeding. I made the decision that I would simply breed all the ewes to a strapping ram lamb I’d already sold that was awaiting pick-up in early November.

To sweeten the deal for buyers, I told them they could leave their purchased ewes at my place until that time, which would give the ewes their best chance at being bred by departure. I knew that by committing myself to an extra six weeks of feeding, I was eliminating any possibility of profit, but a happy future for those girls was my top priority. A similar calculation went on with my heifer sale.

In juggling all the dates, numbers, advertisements, and sales inquiries, I forgot one thing.

The ram was a teenager.

So although the sheep were disporting themselves happily from early September when the ewes first came into season, it is clear now that despite his size and enthusiasm, the ram was then too young to be fertile. As the saying goes, he was “firing blanks.”

I should have thought of this possibility, especially as it was my top concern as I bred the heifer to my young bull (I even brought up the question of the bull with my vet, who said, “Don’t insult him so! He’s a beauty!”) Unfortunately the issue didn’t cross my mind with the sheep. I have always put my ram into the flock by September 8 — and this year was no different except for that one, teeny, tiny, (oh, dear) crucial detail.

Therefore, my ewes were bred later. How much later? I do not know. But if I did not want any possibility of births during our vacation away, I should have removed my “keeper” ewes from the ram by October 9.

I did not do this. The ram was removed November 1.

Thus: Sheep Anxiety.

There is of course nothing I can do but hope and pray those seven ewes go into labor and deliver their lambs in the next twenty-one days.