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Monday, August 22, 2011

Lamb-baby goes to the cottage

The Professor has been on vacation for a week but the Farmer has been working like a dog. I’m not sure why he uses that particular expression—he must be referring to the sheepdog and not our lazy watchdog. Anyway, in order to get the Farmer to relax while on vacation, I must spirit him away from the farm.
We were invited to my sister’s fiance’s cottage in Quebec for a few days. This is a great idea. We don’t have to spend a lot of time planning and packing camping equipment and food. We just throw some clothes in a bag and drive for a couple of hours.
Our only problem was we had a lamb born two weeks ago, and the mother won’t feed it. That lamb-baby is more mine than the ewe’s, because I am the one who mixes bottles of milk replacer, offers it words of encouragement and scratches its back while it feeds. I even know the sound of its call. I can pick it out of dozens of other lambs calling from the barn. It needs me. So we had to bring it to the cottage with us.
On the morning of our trip, I packed everything in the truck, then brought some old ripped sheets and blankets up from the basement. A lamb on a completely liquid diet makes quite a mess. When we were just about ready to hit the road, I scooped the lamb up from its pen in the barn, fed it the rest of its bottle and gently shoved it into a dog carrier that I had put in the back of the Explorer. The lamb baaaed as it skated around the plastic floor of the carrier on its high heeled hooves. I opened the crate door and pushed one of the towels in there with him. Finding traction, he settled down for a nap and off we went.
We chatted on our drive, my Farmer and I. I also sang along to the radio. I noticed that the lamb cried when I was quiet for more than a few minutes so I made a point of saying something every once in a while. I’m sure the Farmer is worried I am becoming too attached to this lamb.
At the cottage, my animal-loving sister had already set up a corral of doggy gates (she owns two large Basset Hounds) within a screened dining tent. I set the lamb crate down inside this corral and tied the bottle brace to the side. There. Quite a nice set up, at the top of the hill, overlooking the lake. There was even a lovely breeze just there, under the pine trees.
I went into the cottage and set up the blender to make my lamb some more milk. The blender dial must have been jostled on our ride, because it was turned to “on”. I didn’t notice this until about one second after I plugged the thing in—without first putting the lid on it. That corner of the cottage kitchen is now extremely clean.  
Everything went quite well during the day on our cottage visit; the hounds spent much of their time nose-to-nose with the lamb, keeping it company. A bottle of milk replacer was strapped to the side of the corral so the lamb could feed on demand. But when night fell, it was a different story.
Lambs hate to be alone. When the dogs retreated to their beds for the night and the loons began to call over the lake, the lamb started to cry for his mama. And his brother. And his aunt and uncle. The Farmer suggested we do what he did when he adopted a puppy that wouldn’t stop crying. Feed it, make it a nice bed, and lock it in the back of the truck. So that’s what I did. It seemed cruel and neglectful to me at first, but I could see the lamb settling down right away in its cozy space. In the morning, I brought it back out to the corral again.
All in all, it was a successful outing. The Farmer and I had a nice break, we have good tans and we both managed to finish our books. The only problem is I now have a lamb who calls for me from the barnyard, thinking I’m its mother.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Farmer, get your gun.

There aren’t too many things that would make me want to give up sheep farming. I’ve only wanted to quit a couple of times so far. I wanted to throw in the towel during my first winter lambing season, when every second lamb born, died. It was just too cold for them and they didn’t make it. I bottle-fed the ones that didn’t seem to be getting enough of their mothers’ milk but they just weren’t strong enough.
The only other time I remember thinking, ‘that’s it! I quit!’ was just the other night. I was doing the nightly check on things, making sure the new lambs were ok, the chickens had enough water and the turkeys were still in their pen. A gathering noise outside drew my attention to the far side of the barn. Sheep noise.
Instead of settling down for the night against the wall of the barn, the sheep were all standing in the spotlight, staring down the field. I grabbed my flashlight, hopped over the gate and went to see what they were looking—and hollering—at.
I saw two sets of eyes, one considerably taller than the other. Donkey and Misty. At their feet, another set of eyes blinked at me from the grass. A lamb was down.
The horse and donkey were flanking the lamb as if protecting her from something. I swung my flashlight around at the darkness but saw nothing.
Upon inspection, the lamb appeared to have at least one bloody foot. I wondered if a coyote had bitten her in a failed abduction, or if the big horse had accidentally hobbled her. I couldn’t leave her there in the field; we had had too many coyote kills lately and I knew he was probably watching from the wings, waiting for us to leave his snack untended.
The lamb looked small enough, so I squatted down, put my arms around her and lifted her up. Ugh. She was heavier than she looked. I panted my way to the barn, donkey and horse on my heels. My breathing was scaring the other sheep out of my way, and the flock parted like the red sea as I staggered to the lambing pen. We had a gate wired across the open door in summer, so I had to gently plop the lamb down on the inside before running around through the other barn door to meet her. I kept thinking that a coyote was waiting for me to leave my lamb alone for a moment so he could scoop her up and spirit her away.
Once inside the lambing room, I had to lift the lamb again to lower her into the lambing pen. I noticed that she hadn’t moved a muscle since I first discovered her. She was using her only line of defense (besides stomping feet). She was playing dead. I told her she was safe now, and the mother of the new twin lambs came over to inspect her. That’s when I noticed that the blood was not coming from her foot at all. It was coming from her neck.
The Farmer had told me that when a coyote kills a lamb, it rips its throat out. Sometimes a sentry animal like Donkey will scare the coyote away, but it usually comes back later to collect its meal. I worried that the coyote would come to the barn to get my lamb at night. I have heard of farmers finding coyotes in their barns, but the ones on our property rarely make it all the way up to the barnyard. This one had been within 50 metres of the fence.
I parted the wool around the lamb’s neck and found some tiny insertion points, like vampire bites. The bleeding had stopped. The Farmer gave her a shot of penicillin, and we will watch her closely. When I left her for the night, she was cuddled in to sleep beside the ewe, having eaten her fill of sweet hay.
We have had six coyote kills this year. Normally we leave the coyotes alone to hunt mice in the back fields, and they leave our sheep alone. Donkey keeps them away from the herd. But this is getting ridiculous. We may have to call in some of the Farmer’s hunting buddies to get rid of this fearless predator.

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.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How to deal with a bumper crop. Of kittens.

I’m sure by now you people are tired of reading about my cats. Well, I will try to make this the last cat story for a while. Just think of this as a wrap-up to the cat season.
On April 1st, our tame calico Penelope gave birth to 4 kittens. For the next month, her 9 sisters and cousins gave birth to their own litters. Not all of them lived. Some were just too little and didn’t survive. But by the middle of May, we had about 40 new, healthy kittens on the farm. It was a bumper crop, to be sure.
Now, most farmers will tell you that the feral barn cat is an absolute necessity on the farm. They control the rodent population, particularly when grain is being stored in the barn. Most barns have at least two or three cats on site. Larger farms need 6 to a dozen cats to get the job done.
Typically, the cats are fed once in the morning, and that’s it for the day. The farmer doesn’t necessarily measure out an exact half cup of feed per cat. He just puts one big bowl down and if they miss chow time, tough for them. Fights occasionally break out, and dominance is asserted. Males reaching adulthood have to prove their superiority, or they are quickly run off the farm by the resident alpha male. Mother cats just keep having kittens, sometimes two litters in a summer season, until they are worn out from childbirth and nursing. Kittens born in the colder months rarely last until springtime. Many get viruses that, left untreated, spread and wipe out the younger farm cat generation. Some people call this survival of the fittest. I call it depressing.
Before I arrived on the farm scene in 2007, my Farmer’s cat population was “managing itself”, by the aforementioned processes. But when I saw the first kitten stagger past me with infected eyes, I put gloves on and caught the scrappy little thing. I administered Polysporin eye drops and homeopathic respiratory remedies. When that didn’t work, I smuggled the cat to the vet. Yes, I know I was going against the typical farm system, but I couldn’t bear to see that kitten suffer. Two hundred dollars later, I had antibiotics to cure my kitten. He is now the large orange alpha male in our barn, and the main source of my kitty problems. The Farmer said he told me so. I interfered with nature and look what happened.
So? What to do. Those kittens are now my responsibility. I allowed them to be born. I took care of my 40 new kittens, their eye infections and their stuffy noses. I took one of them to the vet and shared his medicine with everyone else until they were all better. But 40 kittens, plus the 10 prolific mamas and handful of adult males we have on the farm are too many, even for a crazy cat lady.
After the kittens had passed the 8-week stage where they could be weaned, I put an ad on In the first week, 18 kittens were adopted out to what I determined to be loving homes. The adopters discussed plans and even provided appointment dates for getting their kittens immunized and eventually spayed. This made me feel good.
After another couple of weeks, 10 more kittens were picked up. Now it’s August and I’ve got just 7 kittens left. Three are in the “taming room” in the basement and 4 still roam the barn, too big and wise now to be lured into my cat carrier. Two adolescent males were shipped off to live on a new farm. I am still trying to catch the dominant orange male. The Papa Garfield. Big Daddy of them all. Of course, catching and finding homes for my surplus cats isn’t going to solve my problem. I realize this, so you can stop writing that email to me right now, cat activists. I know I have to get them all fixed. The problem is the cost, not the ideal, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have $2,000 to throw around. Maybe when I sell my Farmwife book I can put part of the profits toward the cat situation. But in the meantime, it would be really nice if the municipality, along with some local veterinarians, would pitch in and help to solve this problem. I’m sure I’m not the only farmer in the area with a bumper crop of kittens this year. Or am I?

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