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Monday, August 8, 2011

Rambo's sneaky little trick


Our rams, left to their own devices and sense of seasonal timing, always want to begin the mating rituals when the weather turns cooler in early August. As soon as we catch them in this annual dance, we lure them into the barn and lock them up in a pen until December. If we don’t, we’ll have full-on lambing season in January–February. And trust me, that sucks.
Lambing season in February is freezing cold and depressing. The lambs are so busy fighting the cold that if they aren’t the strongest of the bunch, they don’t make it. Also, as sheep farmers we are wise to stay home during lambing season. That makes it very difficult to take a vacation on the university reading week if we’ve got “lambs on the ground” in February.
We always miss the first couple of “dances” in August, however, before we catch the rams and put them away. As a result, we always end up with a few lambs in the barn in the middle of winter. If we’re lucky, they are born during the Christmas holidays, when it isn’t quite as frigid yet.
Ideally, we have lambing season orchestrated to happen in April through May. But the ram decided to play a trick on us this year, and impregnated a ewe in April (must have been one of the ones who gave birth at Christmas—or didn’t get asked to dance at all last winter). The other day the Farmer noticed a ewe with a particularly bulging udder. Sure enough, yesterday morning, we heard the unmistakable sound of a newborn lamb crying for its mother. The little one was standing outside the barn, near Chelsea’s doghouse. He appeared to be attempting to communicate with the sheepdog.
The Farmer and I looked around for the ewe. The rest of the herd was already down in the pasture. Eventually the new mama was found in the barn, where she was attempting with great difficulty to give birth to another lamb.
The Farmer, who was already in his university professor garb (save the rubber footwear), squatted down in his dress pants and reached up inside the ewe to deliver the lamb. I kept thinking thank goodness it’s short sleeve season. That at least might save his shirt.
A few agonizing minutes later he was still groping around in the ewe, attempting to reposition the surprisingly large lamb so that he could deliver it. Sweat was pouring down his face from the effort. The first lamb settled down in front of his mother’s nose, in silent reverence. The ewe bore down and grunted with discomfort. I held her head still so she wouldn’t try to get up. I also held my breath, I think.
Finally, my husband delivered the forelegs and gave a gentle tug. The lamb slid out onto the barn floor, looked up at us and blinked.
“It’s alive!” I shouted.
“That’s amazing,” the Farmer agreed.
The lamb probably suffered some oxygen deprivation while stuck in the birth canal but hopefully we got it out in time so the damage may not be permanent.
I actually managed to milk that ewe so that I could feed 50 mls of the valuable colostrum to the lamb. It had a strong sucking reflex, which is good. Typically the weak lambs just loll their tongues around and don’t take a bottle very well.
Later that first day the weak lamb greeted me when I entered the pen. He tried in vain to gather his limbs under him to stand. He took another 20 mls colostrum but I didn’t think he’d make it if I couldn’t get him to get up.
This morning, the lamb was on his feet. The Farmer gave it a shot of vitamins and selenium, and advised me to mix a bottle of milk replacer. Again the lamb greeted me as I entered the pen. He was lying in a corner by himself. His mother seems to be trying not to get too attached to him, which is often the case with sickly animals.
The lamb took the bottle with a suction that was quite impressive. He drank 350 mls of the stuff! Then he stood for just a moment, all by himself. He may make it after all.
I hope the Farmer doesn’t take this mid-season miracle to mean he can have our ewes giving birth twice a year. And just to be sure, I’m putting a calendar on the wall of the barn so Rambo doesn’t forget what month it is, and when he is supposed to be doing his business.

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