Lambing and Lactating and Crashing and Burning

Let me tell you about lambing season. It has been quite an intense time. Things got off to a rolicking start a full week earlier than expected and the pace is only now starting to ease up. I’m coming up for air to give you the run down.

Papaya kicked off the season with an easy-peasy, “look, Barb, I don’t need your help” birthing of a strapping single ram lamb. A string of smooth deliveries followed: a darling single ewe born to Blaze (her first lamb!); lovely pairs of Cormo lambs to Aberdeen, Chloe, Corona and Dune. Add a pair of Moorit ewe lambs (courtesy of Bailey) to the mix, our first Moorit lambs ever. All straightforward, no worries.

Last week, another round of Moorit ewe lambs – a set of triplets born to Cognac. After two years of trying for the elusive brown color trait, we have it in five ewe lambs this season. I’m over the moon.

There have been a few hiccups. Early on, Tupelo handily delivered an adorable pair of Cormo lambs. Then I sadly discovered she has only one functioning teat. Apparently some scar tissue from a previous lambing had sealed off the duct from the milk gland. So she and her lambs are in the “special needs” category. Mother, to make sure mastitis didn’t bloom received hot compresses and round the clock bag-balm massages. Her lambs receive bottle supplements.

At 11:30 one night, I went over to the barn to see what was up with Tansy, a Cormo ewe who seemed to be pushing longer than what should have been necessary. I haltered and tied her in a pen, scrubbed my right hand and arm up the the elbow, lubed up and went fishing.

EEEK. Four legs and two heads all heading for the exit at once! I brought the leg that seemed closest out to daylight with my right hand, held on to that foot for dear life with my left hand, then went back in to see which leg, neck and head belonged to that foot. Fortunately, a contraction shifted the log jam slightly and the matching foot came forward with the head and shoulders of a ewe lamb. I went right back and to fish out her sibling, a ram lamb, and then back again to see if there was a third. There was not. Both lambs were just fine once on the ground. It was scary, until I had sorted out the feet and got alll of them on the ground. I went back to bed after seeing that both lambs had nursed, relieved that all had turned out well.

Our first catastrophe hit the barn when Calypso, a matronly Cormo ewe, went into labor. And then stopped at 3 cm dilation. I spent the better part of a day waiting for her to move things along. When it became apparent that things were not moving right along, I got hold of a vet. Doc diagnosed her as having a case of hypocalcemia, otherwise known as “milk fever”. It’s common in dairy cows after birthing. Less common in sheep, though when it does occur in sheep, it’s just as they are getting ready to deliver. The body tries to mobilize calcium for milk production and in the process, the ewe’s strength gets tapped out. The only way to reboot the labor is through massive infusions of calcium, directly into the abdoment. Doc came, administered 300 ml of calcium gluconate, and said Calypso should kick out her lambs before morning.

Calypso delivered her lambs about 2 hours after Doc left. The first was born dead. The second was born with a heartbeat, but despite my efforts to clear her airways, never drew a breath. A pair of Cormo lambs – lost. And a ewe who despite deep exhaustion, was in frantic maternal overdrive looking for her lambs after I had removed them from her birthing pen. Even Crackerjack was distraught. I could see him glancing into her pen quizzically then glancing around the barn as if to say, “Where did they go?”. The only thing in the pen that smelled like her babies were a pair of leather gloves I had been wearing while trying to revive her ewe lamb. I had dropped them in a corner of the pen. When I retrieved them later, they were soaking wet, from Calypso licking them, as though it could somehow my gloves could bring her lambs back.

We rallied around Calypso with supplements and antibiotics (she never expelled the placenta) and took her temperature daily. Her udder looked like a fire ball, full of colostrum. We fed her first cutting hay and kept her quiet, until her milk subsided and her bag went slack – about a week’s time. She went from being down, to perky and is now her normal self again.

Disaster struck a second time a week later when Belle, another mature ewe, went into labor that came to a standstill before really getting started. By that time, I had read up on hypocalcemia and was nearly certain that we were seeing the early signs of a second case but was unable to persuade the vet “on call” that evening of this. One of the frustrations here is that there are few large animal vets and even fewer who know much behond the basics about sheep.

So it wasn’t until the following day that my own vet came to the barn to administer calcium, in hopes that Belle would deliver. I watched and waited. As the day wore on, it became clear that her lambs weren’t forthcoming. I wearily watched as her fatigue set in. By that time, my vet was out straight with other emergency calls, unable to make it to my barn. I knew Belle wasn’t going to make it until morning. I called my back up vet and asked her to come right away to perform a c-section in my barn.

By the time the vet arrived, I had converted the milk room a surgery. Belle had to be wheeled in on a wagon, as she was too weak to walk. We deliberated – whether we should simply put her down because the prospects of live lambs were slim at that point, but decided to sedate her for the procedure, in hopes of salvaging something. I tied her and kept her calm until the sedative took hold. Dr. B. retrieved a live ewe lamb from her womb and passed her off to me to work on getting it going. She then pulled out a second lamb, a ram, who was not alive. We could see Belle was in very rough shape and make the decision to put her down. I would raise her ewe lamb as an orphan.

And that is how I came to have an adorable but very needy housemate. Here she is sleeping in her crate in the kitchen. We have named her Snug because she spent her first night snugged right up against my chest in bed (until I had to go to the barn at midnght to deliver more lambs and then I handed her to Mike – she spent the rest of the night snugged up against him). It’s been touch and go with this one. She seemed to lag developmentally at first, understandable after a long, shaky journey.

I am reeling after an intense, exhausting three weeks. I don’t mind the work. I don’t mind being tired – sleep deprivation comes with lambing season. The emotional piece has hit me hard. Losing lambs. Losing a sweet ewe. Making difficult decisions under duress. Second guessing. I’ve had several moments of wondering if I am tough enough on the inside to bear when things go wrong with my flock. Part of raising livestock is coming to terms with the reality that there will sometimes be deadstock. And sometimes there will be tough decisions. And sometimes, you will want to throw in the towel, but you can’t, when your animals depend on you.I guess the self doubting also comes with this job.

All you can do is keep moving – and to try to learn what you can from the times when the shit hits the fan.

We’re now up to 22 lambs in the barn. I’ll have to list their names in a separate post, as I can’t remember them all. Everyone on the ground is thriving. Snug has moved from my bed, to the kitchen, to the barn starting last Sunday. I adore her. Tupelo’s ram lamb, Cobweb, is also on the bottle, teetering closely into the realm of permanent pet, as he too is adorable. Sigh. I am such a sucker. My time for getting anything done not involving sheep (like eating, laundry, food shopping, sleeping, shipping yarn) is chopped up into four hour intervals. But feeding adorable lambs is not a bad way to punctuate one’s days (and nights). Only for 8 more weeks.

I am waiting to see if two ewes, Galveston and Stella, are holding out on me or if they somehow escaped breeding and have just put on a few pounds this winter. If they are going to lamb, it really should be this week. I need to get back home, to my own bed.