Made It

February 28, 2015
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frosted cattle breath on the inside of the hayloft window at -23°

 

I survived this tough week of no sleep, tight deadlines, and extreme cold. There was no time to jump-start the frozen truck; every day I took the car and prayed not to get stuck. Hurry, hurry, hurry! Last night when I finished chores at 7 PM I felt as if I had battled through rough seas and finally pulled myself exhausted onto shore.

I’m tired bone-deep, beyond the reach of coffee.

I have a huge amount of work to accomplish this weekend. Mucking the barn thoroughly, mucking the sheep stall’s deep bedding, digging out snowdrifts and setting snow fence, cleaning the neglected apartment, folding a mountain of laundry, paying bills, writing 59 academic reports. However I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and I am cheered.

One more week and the term is over. The weather is due to warm into the 20s. And best of all, tonight DH brings home my baby girl.

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Pulling Through

February 27, 2015

Mulberry’s lambs seemed a bit stronger yesterday morning. They no longer stood stiffly like cold toys, but were lying together in a limp heap. After bottle-feeding each a couple of ounces as a jump-start, I climbed into the jug and tried to teach them to suck at their mother’s udder.

Mulberry is not particularly tame but she has been remarkably tolerant of my fiddling and fussing with her private parts. She seemed to understand that I was trying to help. I gave her some sweet feed and while she ate her breakfast, I got to work.

I’ve done it a million times. Face in the thick damp wool, hands reaching under the ewe by feel. The trick is to hold the lamb in position with one hand, get a teat into the mouth with the other hand, and then tickle under the tail. Yes: you need three hands, which is what makes it tricky. Generally when you remove either hand to tickle, the lamb collapses or the teat slips from the mouth. However with a weak lamb the tickling is crucial. It mimics the mother’s licking under the tail and stimulates the sucking reflex.

Finally, finally, after ten minutes of sweat and fumbling, the little ram lamb got the idea. While I held him up, he latched on and began to suck. This is always an exciting moment. The life tide is turning! A friend happened to be in my barn four years ago at the exact second and captured my happy relief.

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Another ten minutes with the ewe lamb and she, too, had colostrum in her belly.

I dug out the snowdrift over the paddock fence, turned out the cattle, drove home, pulled off my coveralls, changed my clothes, and raced to a doctor’s appointment (no shower, no breakfast, brushing my teeth in the car). Then I raced back, warmed another bottle, pulled on my coveralls, and checked the lambs again before work.

This time, after their bottle jump-start, both lambs staggered to their feet and headed for their mama’s udder.

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Hooray!

I bottle-fed the lambs at 5 PM at evening chores and again at 9:30 after my last shift of teaching. By then I was a zombie of exhaustion. I looked at Mulberry and told her that it was her job, now.

It’s -21° this morning.


Mulberry Keeps It Going

February 26, 2015

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My ewe Mulberry lambed at 5 PM yesterday, approximately fifteen minutes before I got to the barn. She had not passed the afterbirth yet. Again, I was lucky to find the lambs so soon, as these twins (another pair of twins!) were soaking wet, cold, and small. It was too hectic to take the time to weigh them — I’ll do it today — but I believe they are about 7 lbs each. They looked tiny compared to Lily’s 12-pound whoppers in the jug next door.

I often used to get small lambs but my feeding regimen has improved so much they are the anomaly now. Mulberry has given me three sets of twins in three years. (Yes, I know I wrote differently yesterday, but as I always teach my students, written history is generally simplified. I’ll explain soon.) Despite the careful feeding, small lambs are the norm for Mulberry. I’ll have to figure out what keeps her lambs from gaining in utero. But not today. Today’s job is to keep these alive.

I had a warm bottle under my coveralls and within twenty minutes I was able to get the babies mostly dry, iodined, jacketed, and fed. Unfortunately the lambs did not respond by searching for their mother’s teat, as lambs usually do, or by relaxing into sleep. They continued to stand stiffly like small, cold toys.

Mulberry knew they had not nursed and so she pawed them repeatedly. This pawing looks (and is) rough — the uninitiated may even think it’s an attack — but it is driven by the powerful maternal instinct that tells a mother babies must eat. Mulberry’s pawing was flipping the twins onto their backs and scraping bare wet spots in the deep bedding, but still they did not try to nurse.

As I hurried through the rest of my barn chores the lambs continued to look small, stunned, and withdrawn.

After dealing with the cattle I climbed into the jug and stripped Mulberry’s teats. She has a fine milk supply and was reasonably tolerant of my attentions. I could not get the lambs to suckle.

I drove back to the barn at 7:30, 9:15, 11:00, and again at 3:30 AM. The dilemma was whether to bottle feed the lambs to keep them alive at -15° F, or insist they nurse and have them freeze to death if they weren’t successful. I decided to bottle-feed them.

At 3:30 AM the lambs were still living but still off. Mulberry is worried, and so am I.

This morning I will take two bottles to the barn. The first will be the usual warm bottle of milk replacer. The second will be empty. I will try to milk a few ounces of colostrum from Mulberry and get it into those lambs.

I have a crazy schedule and teach until 9:15 tonight. It will be a long day.

 


Lily Has Twins

February 24, 2015

I put my ewe Lily in the jug Saturday night. She seemed ready to pop. However she always carries enormously and she has fooled me before, huge and lumbering and happy to eat extra grain in the jug for a week. I checked her regularly. No lambs.

At chores yesterday morning Lily was looking pensive. I leaned on the jug and wondered.

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As a test, I put her breakfast sweet feed on top of her hay. She ignored it. A hen jumped into the jug to gobble the free treat.

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That clinched it. Now I knew she was in labor. Lily is an insatiable chow-hound and for her to allow a chicken to steal her grain meant something momentous was underway.

My teaching schedule has been flipped for the week so I was able to return to the barn two hours later, just in time to greet the soaking newborns, shivering in the -7 ° cold. A strong and healthy ram and ewe pair, 12.3 and 11.1 lbs, respectively.

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Lily was nickering softly to them and licking their wet and steaming coats devotedly, but they would have frozen before they dried. Lily is quite tame after her bout with mastitis three years ago. She watched calmly as I scooped up each lamb, rubbed it dry with a towel, dipped its navel in iodine, pulled a fleece jacket over its head, and fed it an ounce of warm milk as a jump-start.

Most shepherds I know do not bottle-supplement their lambs. I am aware that my interference may be unnecessary. However I’m also aware that studies show most newborn lambs that die succumb to simple starvation. Hypothermia, a major threat in these mountains, is the second leading cause of death. I can avert both with the warm bottle of milk I carry inside my coveralls. It’s tedious to be constantly heating and washing bottles (and washing my jacket when they leak) but it’s easy insurance ready in my pocket. The day I skip the bottle is inevitably the day I find cold, limp newborns and need one.

In Lily’s case I’m even more vigilant. Lily is my oldest ewe. She was the first purebred Clun Forest lamb born at Fairhope Farm, the daughter of my foundation ewe Blackberry and my first purebred ram, Ioan. In 2012 Lily survived a terrible bout with mastitis but was left with only one functioning teat. I was urged by professionals to cull her. Life was hard and sad, and I couldn’t do it.

In 2013 Lily had a single lamb, so there was no problem. Last year she happened to lamb with twins at the very moment Mulberry lambed with a single. Both ewes were confused by the plethora of wet babies; I played God and gave Lily’s twin to Mulberry to raise.

Now Lily has twins again and there is no foster mother in the wings. My vet, David, assured me back in 2012 that a ewe could nurse twins with one teat. I’m praying he is correct.

In the meantime, until the lambs are alert enough to avoid the blind left teat and make their way to the milky right side, I’ll be ready with a warm bottle.

Here they are at the usual late night check. (Every night I drive down to the farm before bedtime with my coveralls over my pajamas.) I topped the lambs up with a few swigs from the bottle, just in case, but they were already warm and fed. Lily is another good mother.

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It was -21° F at 4 this morning. Looking at the forecast, the frigid cold appears to be settling in for another week. I will be keeping jumper cables, dry towels, and milk bottles ready.


A Break in the Weather

February 23, 2015

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Yesterday was a brief, beautiful respite from our frozen winter. The temperature soared to an amazing 24° F. The barn eaves dripped, the iced-over condensation on the indoor walls melted and fell, and I let the four-month calves outside for the first time.

First I had to dig out the electric fence buried in Saturday night’s vicious wind [photo above]. In the drifted snow the fence was only about eight inches high, and shorted to dead strings. After an hour of digging, post-holing, and wads of cold snow down my boots, I had a weak 3000-volt charge all the way around the paddock. Not ideal, but it would have to do.

I let the steer calves, Luke Bryan and Conway Twitty (named by country music fans of different generations), out to join the herd. The calves stepped gingerly into the white stuff they had never seen or felt… and took off.

Yee-haw!

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Though they’ve run up and down the long sheep stall, and in and out of all the stalls while I’m mucking the barn…

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… they had never had so much room to get up speed. Such fun!

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The unaccustomed warmth had the big boys feeling mellow. They chased the calves a bit to investigate but soon returned to their hay.

The little boys kept running. Whee!

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A brief pause at Moxie to see if she wanted to nurse them again after all this time. No.

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Conway stopped to inspect the water trough alongside Harvey, the leader of the young guns.

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Next both boys trotted through the snow to check out the run-in shelter.

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But mostly it was a day for running and bucking.

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By evening chores the calves were tuckered out and happy to come in with the gang.

Today’s high will be -6° with a -28° windchill, so they’ll be stuck inside again.


Heading In For the Night

February 22, 2015

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Every winter evening I lean out the back door of the barn, swing open the gate, and yell, “C’mon, cows!” *

The cattle huddling under the run-in shed immediately race toward me.

Clean dry stalls in the warmth of the barn! Dinner is served!

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All the stall doors are open and I simply stand out of the way. After the occupants gallop in and peel off to their proper places, I walk down the aisle and slide the bolts closed.

It all happens like clockwork unless I’ve neglected the joker in the deck: my gander, Andy.

If I’ve forgotten to lock up Andy for the night he has been known to attack an incoming cow, pinching and honking and flapping his wings. Chaos ensues as the cattle panic and jump out of his way, bang into walls, and head to the wrong stalls. Meanwhile I must leap to catch the furious gander — whap! whap! his wings beat my face — and rush him to safety. (Andy is inevitably trampled and hurt in these ruckuses that he himself causes — which in turn increases his cattle-hatred. Don’t look to a goose for logic.)

Once the gander is safely disposed, I must sort out the anxious cattle and shoo them away from their neighbor’s dinner and into their proper stalls. The cattle know their own places and are jumpy and nervous in the wrong stalls, but greed wins out and between worried glances at me they will gulp sweet feed as fast as they can.

“Out! Out! Out!” I yell. Cattle hate yelling and I rarely do it.

The offenders startle, spin on their haunches, and run into their own stalls. Then I shut the gates and slide the bolts.

The commotion is sorted out in less than three minutes, but with two tons of muscle and adrenalin crashing and wheeling in the narrow aisle, it’s always a heart-thumper.

I try hard to remember to lock up the gander.

*    *    *

* Cattle are one of the few animals I can think of that have no generic singular noun.

We say: one rabbit, two rabbits, the male is a buck, the female is a doe. We even say one deer, two deer.

However, there is no such thing as one cattle. Adult cattle are inevitably plural. If we speak of them singularly, we must sex them, and usually specify their reproductive status. A female is a heifer until she has given birth, when she becomes a cow. (Often farmers don’t consider her a cow until after her second calving.) The male is a bullock and then a bull. A castrated male is a steer, until he’s three years old, when he becomes an ox. Only calves can be singular without sexing: one calf, five calves.

Therefore, when I lean out the back door of the barn, I should yell, “C’mon, cattle!” because my herd is of mixed sexes, ages, and reproductive status.

I don’t.

But I think about it.

I love language.

 


Now It’s a Crapshoot

February 21, 2015

From here on out with this year’s lambing, it will be a guessing game as to who is due when.

While I saw most of the rest of the ewes bred in late September and early October, my teaching year was underway, my schedule was hectic, a family crisis consumed my attention, and I stopped marking the dates on my calendar. Arrgh!

I will have to fall back on the old-style method of scrutinizing each ewe’s expression from day to day. This is very far from an exact science. I pray I can keep everyone safe and breathing in this weather.

It was -17° F when I got up at 4 this morning and the wind is buffeting the house. I slept in wool socks last night.