Another Long Week

February 4, 2018

This was a long week and I was grateful to get to the weekend. A thaw and re-freeze turned the driveway into a luge run of glare ice. A later snow dropped two inches of fluffy powder on top, making it even more treacherous. Creeping down to the barn to check for lambs felt like an assignment from Mission: Impossible. Even walking the dogs on the icy lawn was frightening. DH stepped out of his car and took a major fall. Thankfully, he was only bruised.

My ewe Rose lambed Wednesday afternoon with twins. The ewe lamb was up on her feet bawling when I found them; the large ram lamb was still covered with the amniotic sac and barely lifted his head from the hay. I pulled them into the jug, scrubbed both dry with towels, and enticed Rose to join them. In his first hours the ram lamb was too stunned and slow to get the hang of nursing, but after a couple of feeds on a bottle to prime his engine, instinct kicked in and he began searching for his mother’s teat like a champion.

A week ago my black hen began to look droopy. During the day I kept her shut in the bull stall with food and water, so the geese couldn’t harass her. I thought the issue might be worms, so I wormed her. However she ate less and less. When I finally picked her up to tube-feed her, she was hardly more than feathers — and I felt a strange hard growth in her neck. That made the outlook seem hopeless, but it’s hard for me to give up. I tube-fed her three times a day for several days. Yesterday morning she was dead. I don’t know what killed her. It wasn’t “sour crop” (the growth was so hard it felt almost bony). My life in the barn is full of these mysteries. I buried her in the manure pile.

Yesterday a businessman from Vermont drove over and bought one of my two rams. Tag #16 is a pretty boy of Pixie’s, from the first set of twins born last year. He will have a good life in a flock of fifty ewes.

The buyer was friendly and obviously bright but had zero sense with chickens. He was entranced by Ambrose; he focused on him, crowded him, and then reached for him. (Was he thinking of cuddling my rooster?) Frightened, Ambrose raised his hackles and jumped at the buyer. I hurried us down the aisle to the rams. Ambrose followed us and struck at the legs of the buyer’s wife.

The only time I have ever had a rooster strike at anyone was years ago when Lucy at age seven or eight wore her snowsuit into the barn — swish, swish, swish! — terrifying my rooster Russell Crow. Ambrose had clearly decided these interlopers were a similar threat and was doing his best to drive them away.

The wife screamed. She was not hurt: Ambrose is only a teenager and his spurs (which can grow to two inches long) are still only nubs. But she was frightened. Apologizing profusely, I shooed Ambrose and his hens into the heifer stall and locked the gate.

I explained how I was always careful never to alarm my roosters because it is a rooster’s duty to defend his flock. Whenever I have to handle a hen and it is likely she will scream, I lock the rooster outside the barn, deal with the hen (who squawks bloody murder), then put her back on the ground and open the door. By the time the rooster races in to the rescue, the hen will be calmly adjusting her clothes; the rooster will look around in bewilderment for a moment and then forget the episode entirely. In this way I have had friendly roosters since 2002.

“Really?” said the wife. “We have to butcher our roosters every year.”

“Hmm,” I said, thinking to myself: No wonder, when your husband is a fool.

I know this is uncharitable, but it is hard for me to be patient when people blame animals for a situation they themselves have created.

Four ewes have lambed, four ewes to go.


Belle’s Lambs

January 29, 2018


Yesterday my ewe Belle crowned the day with twin ewe lambs at evening chores. Belle is not quite two years old, but she’s instinctively a wonderful mother. Her half-sister Foil, initially a disinterested party on the arrival of her son, had won my praise for standing to allow her boy to nurse. Belle, however, was all out, whickering constantly low in her throat, licking the babies all over, talking, talking: Welcome to the world! I am your mama! Welcome, welcome!

Belle is a pretty ewe and I’m happy to think she might have produced a daughter who looks like her. Here’s Belle at six months.

Meanwhile Geranium in the jug next door continues to eye me like a fat Sphinx. Repeatedly I am sure that she can’t go another hour. Then she reaches out to grab another mouthful of hay. (Ewes in labor are rarely eating at the time.)

Three ewes down, five more ewes to lamb. I reposted my rams on Craigslist and may have late buyers for both.

Coyotes howling around the barn at 3:45 AM.


Catch-Up on Lambing

January 28, 2018

Life has been so rushed I have not kept up this blog. Ten days ago at morning chores I discovered that Pixie had given birth. To my relief, because I had isolated her she and her lamb were already safe in a jug. I swooped in, toweled the lamb dry, iodined his navel, and put a jacket on him. The lamb was big and healthy, about ten pounds. A single ram, I thought; too bad. I had wanted to keep a ewe lamb from Pixie and with her serious issues it seems likely that this will be her last season.

Worryingly, Pixie could not get to her feet. I hauled her up and she flopped immediately, almost crushing the lamb.

I raced up to the house. January 19! The earliest lambing in my memory. Naturally, I had scheduled time the following day to organize my lambing supplies, scattered in the move.  Now I was climbing over boxes in the garage, looking for a lambing bottle and milk replacer. Go, go, go! I was due at work in half an hour.

Ten minutes later I was racing back to the barn, a bottle of milk warm next to my skin inside my coveralls. When I reached the jug I discovered that Pixie had given birth to a second, much smaller lamb — a little ewe.

“What a good girl you are!” I exclaimed to Pixie, immediately toweling and jacketing the new shivering mite. I jump-started each lamb with a few ounces of milk replacer and then had to leave for work. (Peeling off my barn clothes, I washed the amniotic fluid and iodine off my hands, pulled on clean jeans and turtleneck, and decided: good enough! I brushed my teeth in the car and reached my classroom just in time.)

I worried about the lambs in my absence. Pixie was struggling to rise, swaying, and falling. I prayed she would not smother them before I could return. I was brainstorming slings to keep her on her feet.

I was able to find someone to cover my lunch table and returned at noon. Pixie was swaying but she was standing, and the lambs had been fed.

Still, she collapsed quickly and several times I pulled free a wiggling lamb pinned between her weight and the wall. I had all sorts of ideas involving a canvas log carrier rigged as a sling, but in the end I decided Pixie was a great mother who would do her best, and the lambs were becoming stronger and more nimble every minute.

 *   *   *

Five days later I heard the weak bleating of a new lamb at morning chores. No ewe was answering the call, so I suspected the mother was one of my two inexperienced maiden ewes. Sure enough, my young ewe Trefoil (she was a triplet) was dragging afterbirth behind her. I filled the grain feeders to distract the flock, scooped up the wet lamb, moved Geranium out of the spare jug, and put the lamb in the jug under the heat lamp. Normally when I carry off a newborn, a ewe will follow her baby, nickering with anxiety. Foil, however, remained in the main stall gobbling grain with the crowd.

I dried and jacketed the ram lamb, and dipped his navel in iodine. On the other side of the aisle, Foil continued to evince no curiosity about what had happened to her lamb, or even to realize she’d had a lamb. At this time of year I generally travel to the barn with a bottle of milk replacer under my sweatshirt. Thus I was able to feed the lamb before going to retrieve his feckless mother.

Here is Foil in the jug. She had not even sniffed at her son under the heat lamp.

She yelled on and off most of the day. Help! I’m imprisoned here with an alien!

Thankfully, Foil was clueless, not mean, and she had a sturdy milk supply. I milked her briefly to accustom her to the sensation; and, jump-started with 3 oz of warm replacer, her lamb was soon strong enough to stagger after her to nurse. By evening his belly was full and Foil seemed mildly interested in her little stranger. (Now she’s a devoted mother and would be indignant at the suggestion that it had ever been otherwise.)

The next day, as the sheep addition was crammed with the unfortunate hay delivery, I moved Pixie and her lambs back to the main stall. Sadly Pixie’s balance has not improved after lambing as I had hoped. She was immediately knocked over in the crowd and trampled, her legs thrashing in the air. Meanwhile the yearling rams were attacking her lambs and she had no ability to protect them. I spent all afternoon creating a makeshift lamb creep and dividing the stall in half with a gate from the back field, separating the rams and allowing Pixie some peace with only three other ewes.

At the same time I moved Geranium back to the empty jug. Geranium is massively pregnant. I keep thinking she can’t go another hour. Though her fleece is long, I can see moving lambs rippling across her distended sides. She grinds her teeth with discomfort. And yet the lambs still have not arrived. This photo was taken three days ago.

Damon stopped by yesterday with his son-in-law to replace the tractor tire. While he was here he kindly fixed the hay elevator chain which I’d been unable to figure out. It took him under 90 seconds. I love people with mechanical ability!

Rick had said he would return yesterday and we would move the hay together. Damon snorted. He and I have heard that song before.

By night I had moved all the bales to the hayloft and stacked them. I was tired but satisfied … until I remembered that all this work simply returned me to the exact spot I was one week ago, before the hay delivery. I still have to muck out 320 square feet of deep bedding.

Maybe Geranium’s lambs will arrive today. Last checked at 3:45 AM.

Almost the Weekend

January 25, 2018

0° F and -10° wind chill. Life is hectic.

Lambs are being born — crazy early, due to my lack of organization last summer with our move. The barn is not ready for them, ditto. I’m problem-solving on the fly and haven’t lost any lambs yet, but anxiety for them is tapping like a pulse under my day as I hurry to teach classes, grade exams, and write mid-term reports.

Yesterday after work I waded out to the back field to drag a 12-foot gate back to the barn through the snow. Rick, my hay man, due to deliver hay in early December, showed up last Sunday while I was out and rather than put the bales in the hayloft as usual, dumped them in the sheep addition, stacking it almost to the ceiling for most of the stall’s 32-foot length. That evening when I saw them I wanted to burst into tears. The sheep were due to be in that space. Just what I needed! Another big chore!

I never ask DH for help on the farm but I could not move the hay elevator by myself. He came down the next morning and I threw open the door to show him the bales. “Holy crap!” he said, now understanding my distress. We got the hay elevator into place and both hurried off to our jobs. After work I moved about 25 bales to the hayloft between snow and rain squalls. Then the chain jumped off the track. I can probably fix it, but not in the dark. Maybe Friday afternoon.

However lambs are arriving, more are due, and the two unsold rams, now full grown, want to crush and kill them. With the hay commandeering the sheep addition, I have had no spare stall to keep the rams separate. Thus yesterday I spent an hour with a handsaw and a screw gun, hurriedly installing an improvised lamb creep in the barn stall. Then I dragged the gate from the back pasture to divide the space in two. Accommodations are tighter than I would wish, but the rams and lambs are safely on opposite sides of the gate.

After checking at bedtime, I got up at 3:30 to check again for new lambs. Not yet. I’ve got a long day of double periods and am showing my 8th graders the movie ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT tonight until 9 PM. Chocolate chip bread for movie snacks is baking in the oven. From the swollen look of the ewes, I think I may get 2-4 new lambs today.

Keep moving. The weekend is almost here.


A Providential Thaw

January 12, 2018

Yesterday morning before work I spent an hour digging out the deep snowbank around the barn paddock fence. Over the day the temperature rose into the low 40s. The snow everywhere ebbed quickly.

Somehow a couple of dozen robins appeared and were hopping around the new bare patches in the fields. Robins? In January? Normally I first spot them March 30, plus or minus a few days. I found the sight of them at this season frightening, but when I inquired of a local naturalist he told me a few male robins often overwinter in town, surviving on crabapples. Though I saw closer to 20 than “a few,” I was comforted to hear that they were not necessarily harbingers of the apocalypse. (Note to self: buy some crabapple whips in the spring from the county Soil and Water Conservation service, which sells landscaping trees for about $5 each).

By evening the driveway was plate ice, running with water. Today it is raining and the high wind in the trees sounds like a passing train. The temperature is due to climb to 55°. Tonight it is supposed to switch to snow, and tomorrow’s storm is predicted to bring 4-6″ of powder and overnight a return to 15° below zero, with a windchill of -27°F.

Today is my short day at work so I should have three hours of daylight (grey, rainy, and gloomy, but still light) to work outside. Yesterday afternoon, an unexpected meeting in town bumped my “Things to Get Done in the Thaw” list, so today I have a double load. I need to:

  1. pump up the truck’s flat tire and pick up some mulch hay*
  2. rearrange materials on the front porch before it is snow-covered again
  3. fix the barn paddock hydrant
  4. straighten and hammer down snow fence posts leaning in the thaw
  5. muck the deep bedding out of the barn addition while it is not frozen.

The deep bedding in the addition should have been mucked out last June when the sheep went out on pasture, but I was moving us then. The addition is 10′ x 32′. The foot-thick bedding is now dried and petrified to something like adobe. For the past month it has been frozen adobe and in passing I’ve glanced in at it from the main barn, mentally wringing my hands. I could have lambs in as little as two weeks and will need the stall to be clean and fresh. (Ewes go from the main stall to the lambing jugs, and then from the jugs with their lambs to the addition.) Today’s thaw is a gift from God.

I think cleaning the addition will take about eight hours. (Why do I have to have a real job?) Normally I spread these hours over a week. We’ll see what I can finish in ninety minutes . . . in the rain and wind.

It’s good to have goals.


* Of course, Rick the hay man still hasn’t appeared with the mulch hay he promised to bring in early December and several times since!


January 10, 2018

I’ve separated my ewe Pixie into the lamb stall for her safety. Pixie is five and a half years old, from a well-known breeder; she’s pretty, well-bred, and undersized. (Someday I’ll write about her background.)

In the late winter of 2015 Pixie came down with a mysterious illness that was never diagnosed, though mentally I’ve filed it under meningeal worm (a brain parasite shed by deer). At the time I was on the phone and computer to vets and to my sheep group. At their advice I treated her for, successively: milk fever, toxemia, selenium deficiency, and barber pole worm; and I investigated both polio and listeriosis. Nothing I did or any of the shots I gave her over the two weeks I labored made any apparent difference, except to preserve her life. She was left with wasted muscles in her hind legs that have kept her wobbly on her feet.

A real farmer would have sent Pixie to slaughter. I didn’t. Once she recovered, she ate eagerly and seemed happy to wobble along behind the flock. She gave me strong sets of twins in both 2016 and 2017.

This year she appears to be pregnant with twins again. However the weakness in her hindquarters has dramatically increased. Her forelegs slide forward and she collapses to the floor with any sudden movement. In the big stall the younger ewes (and the two unsold rams) shove her aside and then trample over her. Twice I’ve found her knocked onto her back, four legs in the air. A sheep will soon die of bloat in this position. Both times I rushed in and yanked her upright.

Once again the problem is mysterious. Her hooves are trimmed and fine. She has been wormed; she has access to a mineral supplement. My tentative guess is that the lambs she is carrying are somehow exerting pressure on her weakened muscles… but it’s only a guess.

For now I have pulled her into the lamb stall to keep her from being knocked around. Flock or herd animals can panic on their own so I put Geranium in with her for company. Geranium, who is six, injured a back leg years ago and has her own, less-serious mobility issues. The two are in the small lamb stall at night and, while the rest of the flock goes outside, in the big stall during the day. They don’t seem unhappy. I remind myself to be careful not to overfeed them in compensation; neither will be helped by oversized lambs.

I hope:

  1. Pixie can carry these lambs to term
  2. Pixie can deliver the lambs, despite her vastly increased hind-end weakness
  3. Pixie’s normal 70% strength will return once the lambs are born.

I know that’s a lot of hoping.

The Cold Has Broken

January 9, 2018

The two-week stretch of temperatures far below zero (-47° windchill on Saturday!) is over. Above is a photo of Moxie and her steer calf, Ike, after ten minutes outside over the weekend while I mucked stalls.

I had known on Thursday, when I chose to muck the damp sheep stall instead of putting up the snow fence in the cabin field, that the electric fence in the barn paddock would be buried in snow. It was. Yesterday before work, I spent an hour post-holing through the thigh-deep drifts to dig out the fence. Not only was the fence shorted, but if that snow melted and then refroze into a solid bank, the calves could scamper over the now six-inch barrier. Thus I had to address it immediately.

The temperature rose steadily all day. By afternoon, the temperature had see-sawed almost sixty degrees: from 28° below zero to 28° above. The wind rose equally steadily. When I got home after work, the fence I had dug out in the morning was nearly buried again.

Carrying rolls of plastic, I waded out to the cabin field and began putting up the snow fence. The plastic flapped wildly in the wind and repeatedly was torn from my gloves. Clutching it with both hands, I had to tighten the zip-tie fasteners with my teeth. I comforted myself (“it could be worse” is my mantra): at least I’m not trying to put up metal roofing! Isn’t it great that I’m not ducking wind-born slicers?

At last the fence was up. Only two months late, but… up.

Here are some of the snow-covered sheep waiting patiently to come in for the night.

Today the wind is even higher, whining at the windows. It will be 25° F today with snow, rising to almost 50° with rain by Friday, before falling back below zero over the weekend.

I will need to dig out the fence again, but after that I should be safe. At least from drifted snow. Today I woke up with some sort of virus, so digging will have to wait.