Sunday morning, the news wasn’t good for little 427: he was hungry, he was thin and he was crying. 94 had dried blood on her hocks indicating that she had recently lambed, meaning she was probably the mother of 427; but she butted him away when he tried to get to her teats.
I can’t fault a ewe who has had a hard time lambing for refusing her lamb, most don’t refuse them no-matter-what, but some do. Perhaps 94 will reconsider caring for 427 if she is confined with him in a jug, a small area (~24 sq. ft.) that is private and away from the other sheep. Sometimes after several hours the ewe’s maternal instinct returns, the pair bonds and all is well.
We moved 94 & 427 to a jug and made them comfy by putting out hay, water & a little grain. The next, and perhaps the most important, order of business, was to get 2 ounces of 94’s colostrum into 427. Delivery with a stomach tube is the most expedient way of getting colostrum into a newborn. Colostrum, the first milk from the udder, carries antibodies that will ward off disease for 6 weeks until the lamb’s immune system develops.
Fortunately 94 had a good full bag; some ewes are dry at birth and you must use colostrum from another ewe who has recently lambed, if you have one.
Dominique tubes 427, or places colostrum into the lamb’s stomach with a tube connected to a large syringe.
Then as insurance against the possibility of 94 continuing to refuse 427, the lamb must be trained to a bottle with a nipple on it; this is easy with a day old lamb but the older the lamb gets the more difficult training becomes. 427 took to the bottle better than any other lamb I’ve ever had; he was a real goer and filled himself quickly. And this was good because after a day together 94 still ignored 427.
Dominique even smeared 94’s afterbirth on 427 to enhance his scent. This is a modified slime graft, an old-world technique, which usually involves a ewe who has one of her lambs die. The shepherd skins the dead lamb and cuts leg holes into the pelt; he places the legs of an orphan lamb, like 427, into the holes making a Persian lamb coat for the orphan. This familiar smelling pelt fools the ewe into thinking the orphan is hers and she cares for it. After a day or two when the ewe has accepted the orphan the pelt coat is taken off and discarded.
But no slime luck with 427; he was going to be a new-age bottle baby, a fat and friendly little guy whose mother is the world.
On Friday 94 walked better but she still hadn’t had her lamb. For several days, I’d been afraid for her, afraid she'd go down, wouldn’t be able to get up, be too weak to lamb and die in birth.
Saturday is always a day of crossed fingers, you hope the weather is with you, you hope you do well at market and you hope the sheep back home are safe. Saturday night after market we go back to the farm and transfer the unsold lamb from the coolers to the freezers. As we pulled up to the barn, Dominique grabbed the Maglite and said questioningly, “I’m going to see if 94’s OK.” It had been a long day. When I’m this tired, everything—good or bad—can wait until morning; but I don’t like to say “no” and say nothing.
I began to unload the truck as Dominique, her flashlight bobbing its yellow ray across the fields, disappeared into the dark. I waited; I knew the longer she was away the worse it was going to be. 15 minutes later I saw the yellow light bobbing back. “There’s a dead ewe—but it’s not 94—and there’s a new lamb without a mother.” I took the light, “Where’s the ewe.” We went over the fence; the ewes and lambs parted as we made our way through the flock.
I shined the light on the ewe; her eyes were dead-open; she was still supple (no rigor mortis) when I rolled her over (to see her number, 385) meaning that she had probably died that afternoon. I was relieved to find no teeth marks on her; coyotes hadn’t breached the fence. She was a healthy, young ewe. How her back was arched in death made me suspect enterotoxaemia from Clostridium Perfringins Type C commonly called “overeating disease.” Usually enterotoxaemia affects lambs, but occasionally one sees it in mature sheep.
“I’ll take care of her in the morning, where’s the lamb.” I swept the light over the sheep and found the motherless 6 lb. newborn lamb in the middle of the flock going from ewe to ewe, being butted away. Ewes only accept the lambs they've birthed; they know their own lamb by smell.
Dominique picked the lamb up, saw that it was a ram, dipped his navel in iodine, put a tag in his right ear, number 427 and spray marked his back orange to identify him from a distance. The thing to do now was to leave 427 there with the hope that his mother would find and accept him. Dominique put him down and we turned to go but 427 stumbled after us, “maa, maa…” I picked him up, carried him to a group of ewes, possible mothers, and let him go there. Looking over our shoulders to make sure he wasn’t still following us, we walked quickly to the fence and crossed it.
Sunday, we’d be there in the morning—our day off—to see if ewe and lamb got together—sheep never take a day off.
The ewes are at pasture now, but lambs can still arrive as late as the 28th. Mornings and evenings, I walk through the flock looking for newborns; with me I carry my lambing bag containing iodine for navels, ear tags and spray marker.
This evening when Poem and I approached the lambing paddock the sun was low in the sky. I told Poem to stay as I awkwardly hopped over the fence. I could feel her eyes on me as I walked toward the sheep. If I were to call her she would glide over the fence as if on wings and bound to my left side, look up then back at the sheep and await a command. She waits on the other side of the fence and I'm proud of her. The sheep remain calm, I can look at them undisturbed. And Poem is there if needs be.
I slowly make my way into the flock. The ewes know me and ignore my presence, but the lambs stare at this odd, upright, two-legged creature among them.
No newborns that I can see, and the old pregnant ewe I've been waiting for is still a day or two away from lambing, but she is moving better today. The weather has improved, the temperature is in the 60's and it sprinkled this afternoon. The lambs look good and the pasture is lush.
It's a great day to be a sheep.
I turned away from the flock to see Poem with her prick-ears waiting for my call. Lucky dog, me. I started back to her and came upon this little family.
Mama and her three week old twins
When lambs wag their tails, or swirl them as they do here, it means they are getting milk from the ewe's udder. After these week-old lambs have emptied mama in about 10 seconds, she will take a step forward ending brunch for the lambs.
In two hours, when her udder is full of milk again, she will call out, "Maaa..." No matter where they are or what they are doing, the lambs will run through the flock like little halfbacks deftly cutting back and forth between other lambs and sheep to get to mama.
Even in the din of a hundred same-sounding voices, the lamb knows the call of its mother and she knows the voice of her lamb.
Life Cycle of Internal Parasites
• Loss of appetite
• Weight loss
• Change in wool condition
On Sunday we dewormed the flock; 400 sheep got a Sub-Q injection of Ivermectin and the 100 plus rams got their annual CD/T vaccination (against overeaters disease & tetanus) in addition to the anthelmintic. Then we put Electronet fence out around the 2 acre paddocks where the two groups of sheep were to be moved. By the end of the day, Dominique and I were where fatigue feels heroic.
Here I am on Monday with a lamb, born earlier in the day, lost in the sheep move that afternoon. The lamb's belly was full of milk, evidence of a good mother, but where was “Maaa,” the lamb cried and cried.
Two weeks ago Dominique and I pulled the rye-straw mulch off the garlic. The shoots were pale, spindly and 2 inches tall, now look at these “little soldiers.” Garlic will grow 4 feet in height and flower in what is called a scape just before harvest in early July.
In the photo, behind the garlic to the left of the nearest silo is a lean-to shed that we call the shepherd’s room; it is also where we dye the yarn. Further left of that you can see the boys hanging out in a barren area (sheep will eat grass down to dirt) around a round bale of hay. This year the grass is slow coming on; it has been cool and dry. But yesterday, after a dry spell of two weeks, it did rain; in a day or two, when the soil temperatures rise, the grass will begin to grow faster than the sheep can eat it and at pasture they’ll be.
On the horizon, you see silos which are next to the barn where the girls are lambing; they are due to finish up Sunday. On Monday or Tuesday, with eager Poem, we’ll slowly drive the ewes and their baby lambs down the hill to the green pasture at the left of the garlic field where they will graze through the summer months. We got through another winter.
And the livin' is easy,
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high.
Oh yo' daddy's rich
An' yo' ma is good lookin'
So hush, little baby,
Don't you cry.
George & Ira Gershwin
Porgy and Bess
The first sheep chore of the day is to check for new lambs in the barnyard. It is not unusual to have 10 or more lambs born in a day during the first 20 days of lambing. There were no lambs born this morning, nor were there any born yesterday morning, but I did have two sets of twins yesterday afternoon. I look in upon the lambing ewes at least three times a day.
To check for newborns I walk quietly into the flock to not unduly disturb the 100’s of week-old lambs and their mothers. I look for quivering, wet lambs and listen for that gurgling call of a just-lambed ewe. Finding a ewe with a newborn, I look at the vigor of the lamb: is it standing, is it going to the teat, is it calm, etc. I also note what the ewe is doing: is she attentive to the lamb, is she licking it dry, is she gently nudging it toward her teat, etc.
Sometimes I find a lamb born hours ago with a full belly asleep at the ewe’s side. This is nice to see. Most births go well and usually I find vigorous lambs with attentive mothers. But before I leave the lambing flock, I dip the lamb’s navel in 7% iodine to ward off bacteriological infections like tetanus and I ear tag the lamb noting the ear tag number of the ewe.
Twins can be more complicated for the ewe as lambs begin walking minutes after their births and sometimes they stagger off in opposite directions. But a good ewe will go from one lamb to another, gurgling away, and bring them both to her teats. The world usually works if you don’t get in its way.
Sunday when I saw the ewe having a hard time delivering her lamb I thought of lambing last year.
Something was wrong. A ewe had broken her water, but instead of laying down to lamb in the paddock, she followed the flock as it moved away from me. If we were in the barn I could have easily caught her and delivered the lamb if it was ready. Catching a sheep in an open field is nearly impossible.
I went back to the paddock that afternoon hoping that she’d lambed; but the ruptured amniotic sac still protruded from her vagina. I was almost certain the lamb was dead inside her. If I didn’t get it out, she would die too. I moved slowly into the flock: one by one the sheep parted, staying just out of my grasp. If I couldn’t catch her I wanted to spray mark her if I found a dead ewe in the paddock. Closer and closer I came, not looking directly at her or any other sheep, pretending I wasn’t there so they would pretend the same; I got close enough to lunge and spray a red squiggle on her rump as she ran off.
Early next morning the alluring fragrance of honeysuckles touched me sweetly as I drove past the vines on the way to the paddock. I cautiously approached the ewes who were still bedded down together. There she was, red rump, off to the left, down on her side facing away from me. Was she dead? She didn’t move as I came up close. She lifted her head and my hand struck like a rattlesnake. I took hold of her hock as she started to get up; she pulled me to my knees, then onto my belly. “Drag me through shit honey, but I’m not letting go of you.” I managed to get my other hand under her neck to control her and got to one knee, dirty but proud of myself—an open field catch.
I put my fingers slowly in her vagina and felt a lamb’s two front feet. Surprisingly the ewe’s body temperature was normal, no fever—a good sign. I smelled my fingers, nothing—another good sign. There was no odor of that horrible soup, a decomposing lamb inside a feverish ewe. I went back in her, aligned the head, took hold of the small hooves and pulled the lamb out swinging it around so the ewe could see it on the grass before her. It was still, I shook it, it was dead.
I released the ewe and stepped back. She started to lick the lamb, then she pawed it trying to make it get up. She was a good mother. What you feel is what I felt, but there is more than sadness here.
Its head dangling at my side, I carried the lamb off the field by its hind hooves. On top of a small rise where I could see the fields below me, I began to spin; I swung the lamb round and round. I let go and over the honeysuckles it flew, over the elm grove, over the men haying the fields below, over the village steeple, through the clouds and into the welcoming sky.
baa, the Catskill Merino Newsletter Vol. 2 No. 50 May 28-June 3, 2007
Ewes gestate for 149 days. Lambing is to start this coming Monday, based on when the rams were put with the ewes. At noon I went to the lambing barn to get the pens in place before the lambs come. But I was beaten there by a lamb who arrived 3 days early.
The lamb was born in the yard next to a big round bale; the lamb was large with a good covering of body fat, which meant that it had been carried well. I could see horn buttons that only a ram would have. His mother was attentive and took on a protective air when she saw me looking down at him. I could read her eartag number, 258, as she licked his head. The lamb was calm and healthy; I said what I always say, “You got a good looking man, mama…”
I went into the barn to get a bottle of iodine to dip his navel, a yellow plastic eartag, numbered 1999, and an eartag punch. The lamb was still quite wet (meaning just born) when I picked him up by grabbing his front legs just below the hooves to expose his belly and navel which I dipped in a 7% iodine solution, now hard to find because it is an ingredient used for making what was called “bathtub crank” in the 60’s, or methamphetamine.
The lamb winced a little as I pierced his right ear with the eartag. When I put him down and stepped away, his mother came back to him. She was a good mother. I took out my Blackberry and addressed myself an email: “ram 1999, 258.” At home, on my desktop, into my lambing spreadsheet, I will paste the sex and eartag numbers. The ewe’s number will tell me which breeding group she was in and consequently who the lamb’s sire was.
Lambing has begun, more lambs to come in April, the earth spins on.