I always have great ambitions for Lambing Organization. It should be easy. I put a crayon harness on my ram. He breeds the ewes. The crayon on his chest marks their wool, I write down the date, I know when lambs are due. Simple, right? For me, somehow it never is.
I put a blue crayon in a harness on my current ram, Royal (someday I must write a post about all my purebred rams), on September 21. Normally I put on the harness around Labor Day, but this year I was buried in contractor quitting problems, the start of school, building sheep feeders, finding a bull and a bull calf, plus wedding plans.
I’d had to build feeders because back in 2014, when my college helper Luke was home on spring break, I’d hired him to help me finish the sheep addition. First, while I was at work he had carefully followed a pattern and built the front dutch door. This required a lot of math because the addition is shorter than the main barn, so the door had to be shrunk proportionately. Together, we hung the result. Luke did a beautiful job.
Next, we had sweated to carry the sheep feeders out of the main barn. My farm plan at the time was to raise foster dairy calves for beef, which meant moving my sheep flock entirely to the addition. Each feeder, made of treated wood, treated plywood, and galvanized wire panels, weighed a ton. But together, puffing inch by inch, we got them in.
My farm plan had worked like a dream until suddenly everything went wrong at once: cows calved with milk fever, then ketosis; finally the foster calves brought in a vicious dysentery virus that threatened to kill every calf in the barn. All of this happened during the frigid temperatures of lambing season 2015. I was driving down to the farm every few hours day and night, loaded with meds for cows, bottles for lambs, and a drenching syringe with quart jars of warm electrolytes for calves, around the clock. In between I mucked stalls like an automaton. I never stopped working and I rarely slept.
Then within one 48-hour stretch, Allen died. Three lambs froze and died, simply because I wasn’t there. A foster calf was crushed into a wall by Moxie and despite my desperate efforts, I could not save him.
My heart was numb. When I could think again, I realized that my farm plan — a dozen cattle and fifteen sheep with their attendant lambs — was not workable for a lone farmer with an outside job. My new plan is to (eventually) keep two beef cows and calves, plus a smaller flock of ewes. I dismantled the steer stalls and turned them back into a single large sheep stall in the main barn. But: now there were no feeders. I certainly could not, by myself, drag the weighty feeders back from the addition. Anyway, it would be good to have two sets in two large stalls. I could move the flock from one stall to another depending on need. So, month by month, I slowly purchased the materials. And last September, after work, I built the new set.
At last I had the two new feeders finished and open for business.
It was at this point that I struggled to get my ram, Royal, into his marking harness. “All is well though I barked my knuckles which bled profusely,” I wrote to my friend Alison. “I’m only three weeks late — who knows who he has already bred but you know it is the (organizational) thought that counts.”
In breeding season, ewes come into estrus roughly every seventeen days until they are bred. On a well-run farm, the crayon in the marking harness would therefore be changed out for a new color every couple of weeks. That way, one could tell if a ewe were being bred repeatedly and not getting pregnant.
I had a second crayon on hand — red. However, October was even busier than September. Wrestling the 200-lb ram into new clothing did not make the cut. Thus all fall I was left peering at blue-smudged rumps and wondering, “Is that a new, darker blue mark?” I had been dutifully writing down breeding dates but as fresh smudges proliferated, at last I threw up my hands and said to myself, The lambs will come whenever.
Still, I foolishly assumed no one had been bred early. As it turned out, Pixie was — she lambed with twins the evening we moved down to the farm, February 13. I thought nervously that I might be in for a deluge of lambs from other ewes bred early, but days went by and no more appeared. After three days in the jug, I turned Pixie and her lambs into the addition. In the past Pixie would have been shrieking and frantic with loneliness, separated twenty feet from the flock, but motherhood has settled her. She munched hay and fed her babies.
At last, over a week later, Geranium lambed. She had a pair of big, strapping ram lambs. This is nothing new. Geranium is not quite six years old. She has given me ten ram lambs in a row.
This is only frustrating because Geranium is such a good mother, I’d like to keep one of her daughters someday. It doesn’t seem statistically probable that this will happen.
Another week went by. When one is anxiously rushing to check the barn multiple times a day, only to find nothing is happening, it is easy to get the idea that nothing will happen. There will never be lambs, your brain whispers. However, again on the 8th day, Cranberry lambed just before evening chores. Another pair of big twins, a ram and a ewe.
Cranberry is a daughter of my dear first Clun Forest ewe, Blackberry, and is the only offspring I ever kept from my ram Cadbury. I actually sold Cranberry as a six-month lamb and drove her to Vermont for delivery. However, after an unnerving interaction with the potential buyer, I changed my mind. The sale was off. Cranberry waited in a crate in the car while Lucy and I went to the dentist, and then came home again with us. Cranberry is five years old and has twinned every year.
This past Friday I was due to drive south to look at wholesale hardwood flooring. Damon was going along for the trip, for an opportunity to get out of his house. We had to leave by 9 AM.
“Don’t be late!” he growled.
“I won’t,” I promised.
Naturally, when I arrived at the barn I discovered that my smallest ewe, Cider, had lambed with triplets! The sheep are late being shorn this year and from what I could see of her figure under her heavy wool coat I had not imagined Cider even to be close to lambing, much less with triplets. For ease of handling I’d divided the sheep stall in half — and I’d put Cider in the half with the ewes due later. Oops.
Sadly, one lamb was dead. It appeared to be the last lamb born and never to have lifted its head from the straw. (This happened to Geranium last year. Do these last triplets somehow smother in utero? I don’t know.) Cider’s other two small lambs were hunched in the deep cold.
The cows and sheep were all roaring for breakfast. It took me twenty minutes to get everyone calm and fed, to tag the ears of Cranberry’s lambs and let them and their mother out of the jug, and to catch Cider and her lambs and get them into the jug. (I buried the poor, dead, perfect ewe lamb in the compost pile.) Cider’s triplets weighed 6.7 lbs (dead ewe), 6.4 lbs (ewe), and 7.11 lbs (ram). After the 11-lb giants I’d been handling, the two surviving triplets felt like Tinker toys. Cold Tinker toys, too cold even to shiver in their jackets. They seemed stunned.
When I went to clear her teats I discovered Cider’s milk had not come in. Not a drop. Meanwhile I realized I’d been in such a hurry that I’d automatically let Mel Gibson, my bullock, out to nurse Moxie. There was no way I could muscle aside a six-month-old bull calf. I’d have to buy some milk replacer. Luckily, last year a Tractor Supply store opened only twenty minutes away. However, I didn’t think these lambs could wait another hour for me to make the trip. Jackets and heat lamp were not enough. The little ram lamb had collapsed on his side and lay with his eyes closed.
I raced up to the garage apartment and mixed electrolytes in warm water in a bottle. I fed each lamb 2 oz of warm electrolytes. I commanded, “Don’t die now!” and was just about to pull the barn doors shut again and head for Tractor Supply when I realized that my young ewe, Rose, was bawling her head off.
“What’s the problem, Rose?” I inquired, and then noticed the birth sac protruding from her rear end. Oh, dear.
I quickly cleaned the second jug, grabbed my crook, and pulled Rose out of the stampeding flock and into the jug.
In town, I picked up Damon at his house. “You’re late!” he snapped as I stowed his wheelchair in the truck, but then laughed. Needling me is one of his favorite entertainments.
We drove to Tractor Supply, then back to my house so I could mix the milk replacer, then back to the farm. I ducked into the barn while Damon waited in the heated truck.
“Rose had a big pair of twins, a boy and a girl!” I ran out to report, before getting to work toweling, iodining navels, and pulling on jackets. It was so cold that I decided to give Rose’s twins each a slug of warm replacer also, to make sure they got off to a good start. I hated to leave all these new babies. One of my two heat lamps had been fried in the recent power outage, so I had only one. I decided to give it to the two little triplets.
When I returned at 3 PM, everyone was alive but hunched in the cold. Rose’s twins were both husky but seemed not to get the hang of nursing; they simply stood miserably. By evening Cider’s milk was finally coming in, but her lambs, too, did not understand the program. It was due to drop below zero. I knew I would be feeding these lambs through the night.
Yesterday the high was 2°. I kept the cattle in the barn to share their body heat, but still water froze in all buckets in under an hour. After a midnight feed, I bottle-fed the lambs again yesterday morning. However, by evening (when it was due to drop to -15°) I’d witnessed all the lambs nursing on their own.
Cider and her wee lambs…
… and Rose and her two big bruisers.
They’ve all turned a corner and tomorrow the bitter cold is due to break. Hooray!
Five ewes down, four to go.