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Friday, May 6, 2011

Warning: Graphic Birthing Tales from the Farm


Here’s how it’s supposed to go. Ewe starts to feel a little pressure, takes herself to a quiet corner of the communal pen, lies down. She spends a few minutes in labour on her side, turning her nose skyward with every contraction. Then she will shift around and maybe stand up to give birth. Lamb emerges nose and two front hooves first. Slides out easily onto fresh, dry hay, and mother immediately begins clearing the airway and stimulating the lamb to breathe by licking its face clean. Ewe continues to lick the slimy wet off the lamb until it is completely clean and dry. Fluffy, even. Lamb, invigorated by all the massaging, is prompted to get up and seek out milk. It stands up, wanders to the back of its mother and, guided with gentle prodding from the mother’s nose, finds the milk and drinks. Mother stands stock still until baby has had its fill. Baby then wanders into a warm dry corner of the pen, curls up and falls asleep. At this point I walk in, discover the newcomer, congratulate the mother and reward her with her own cordoned-off area of the pen and a handful of sweetfeed. It often does go like this, thankfully. But with 45 ewes scheduled to deliver, you can be sure there will be a few catastrophes in the bunch. These are what keep me awake at night.
In some cases, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. I will head out to the barn to feed and check on everyone and this is what I will find. A lamb is stuck halfway out of its mother, its second hoof pointing inward instead of out. Maybe the ewe has already been pushing for a while and she is exhausted, so she is lying down. On the unborn lamb’s head. I have to don arm-length plastic gloves and assist. I don’t like this job. I’ve only done it once, when the Farmer wasn’t home. I worry I will cause a prolapse of the uterus. I think that’s what it’s called, when the ewe’s insides try to follow the birth on the way out. Nasty. I read on The Pioneer Woman website that she keeps a big bag of sugar at the ready during calving season. Apparently if a cow begins to prolapse, you can shrink the uterus by putting it in a bag of sugar, then gently push it back into the mother. And hope for the best. I haven’t had to try this yet, and I’m hoping I never have to.
Occasionally one of our ewes will deliver a stillborn. Sometimes these lambs are deformed in some way but usually they appear to be completely normal. Often they are big, beautiful babies that had a very good chance at survival, and there is no reason for them to be born dead. That’s frustrating.
Our ewes normally have one or two lambs, but when they have multiples there can be serious problems. Often one will be deprived of oxygen and born a bit “stupid”, without a will to thrive. It’s heartbreaking, to watch these little ones fade away.
Sometimes the lambs are born without the suckling instinct. We’ve recently discovered that this is due to a lack of selenium in the soil in Eastern Ontario. An injection may be all it needs to begin suckling normally. Other times the mother just gives birth to the lamb and lets it lie there, neglected. The lamb needs to be dried off, stimulated to breathe and to eat. It’s very difficult for a farmer to replace the ewe at this stage. The lamb also needs the first milk, or colostrum, in its first 24 hours. If we can’t get the colostrum from its own mother, we will try to steal some from someone else who gave birth the same day, and feed it to the lamb with a syringe. This stuff is liquid gold. I have seen limp lambs come to life on colostrum. It’s an infusion of energy.
Currently I have two that lambs that are pretty much completely dependent on me for their survival. One bites instead of sucking. I don’t blame her mother for running away when she approaches. The other lamb is very good at suckling, but her mother doesn’t have much milk. She will have to learn to steal from the other mothers when they have their heads in the feeder. We have to try to get these weak lambs through the next few weeks with milk replacer until they are old enough to survive on grain, hay and water.
Lately, these are the two that keep me up at night. I haven’t named them, but I know them by their markings. They know me by the bottle in my hand, and the smell of milk.

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