Posts Labeled 'lambing'

March 2, 2014

Take the Polar Vortex; Fill it Up with Lambs

It was with nothing so much as mute horror that I observed a ewe going into labor on January 17th.  I had been watching the ewes blow up like blimps, or flying saucers, or basketball smugglers, for a couple weeks, and had thought to myself that it was insane that they already looked so large, when spring was still so far off. You see, I was under the impression – gleaned from my readings of several New Zealand-based sheep forums, of which I could admittedly only understand 70% of what was said due to a surprisingly vast language gulf – that lambs were born in the spring, on lush grass, under warm sun, with songbirds and flowers scattered about to complete the picture of gentle verdency.... This assumption despite the fact that, had I been paying appropriate attention to the fourth dimension last spring when we bought the sheep herd in March, I would have noticed that by then more than half the lambs had already been born.

So, there was a tiny wet lamb, defying my assumptions, bleating and miserable on the floor of the greenhouse, on January 17th, when it was 5 degrees. She was followed by twins who had the ill luck to be born on the 21st, when the overnight low was in the negative teens, and then followed again over the next few weeks by 16 other snowy-white, spindly-legged, almond-eyed beings.

My horror was quite understandable. Our sheep herd is outside, with only a greenhouse to break some of the wind and keep the snow off them. Lambs are born nothing more than skin and bones, plopped wet onto the ground, their survival left to the wiles of the mother sheep – the sheep being an animal not much known for keen smarts. I had visions of needing to bring them all inside next to the wood stove, setting up lamb play pens, being up at all hours nursing them each with a bottle.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried at all. What sheep may lack in problem solving skills and critical thinking, they make up for in spades with instinct. As soon as a lamb is born, its mother goes to work licking it clean, pawing at it gently if it isn’t getting up, nickering quietly and smelling the lamb from nose to tail. Within five minutes the lamb is teetering about on its long legs, trying to nurse all over the underbelly of the ewe (the front armpits are a spot they especially gravitate to at first), who gently nudges it back toward her udder. Within an hour or so, the ewe and lamb have learned each others smell and baa – so that they can call to each other individually, and smell out who belongs to them (it is endlessly amazing for me to hear one ewe among the forty “baaa” and have only one lamb – hers – answer the “baa” from across the yard, bound over to her and start nursing). All I had to do when I did chores was stick my finger into the mouths of the napping lambs – if their noses were warm and they sucked my finger, I knew they were doing ok.

We’re in a lamb-lull now; most of the very due ewes have gone, and a good number of the yearlings, and the lambs are off to a strong and vigorous start. Only one needed pulled by me – my first assisted lamb birth! – and that was a breeze. I had been studying pictures of malpresented lambs online, and had been rather skeptical of the drawings, which seemed to imply that the lamb was in a roomy bubble just inches inside the ewe, with plenty of room to maneuver legs about…but in fact that is just what it was like. The little guy was coming out nose first, with its front legs back, so I needed to push it back into the uterus and get its legs forward, which was easily done (once I got the ewe to hold still), then two gentle pulls and he was out – a huge twin, and still quite alive despite being stuck with his nose out for who knows how long before I found him during evening chores. Pulling lambs is happily quite a different experience than helping piglets; where you have tricky angles, narrow passages between hipbones, and two separate five foot long uterine horns to contend with.

Seeing as it is now March, a month when high temperatures should be in the low 40s, with lows in the high 20s, we should be out of the woods with birthing – both for lambs and piglets, the first batch of which arrived like clockwork on March 1st. However, this winter is apparently not yet ready to abandon its hold on the Clawhammer hill and vale. Tomorrow is set to be -20 overnight…we are not out of the woods yet, much as we long to be.

May 30, 2013

A Hands Off Birth, and a Hands On Birth

Or rather, I suppose I should refer to the second as a "hands in" birth...

But first, the first: The sheep are a relatively new addition to the farm, so we're still learning our way around them. This results in a lot of surprises, from how to catch them when they are roaming 30 acres (apparently, you need a dog), to how they view Beulah the milk-cow-in-training (as a threat if you are a nursing ewe, as a playmate if you are an older lamb), to how to hold them when you trim their toes (stand them on their rump and cradle them and they calm right down).


I found two very cute surprises of a different sort last Thursday.

As I was working on morning chores in the barn, I heard a sheep making a low grumbly baaa...not the normal, conversational baaa, and not the insistant, I-want-grain baaa. I had heard it before. A mama was introducing herself.


Pregnant sheep are very obvious...they look like they have basketballs glued to each side. But we don't yet know the "lambs within 12 hours!!!" signs, the way we do with pigs (in order of operations: "bagging up," nest building, giving milk when you squeeze a teat, swollen nether regions, loss of apetite, laying on their side and breathing deeply, discharge).

So, I had, in fact, noted in our sheep spreadsheet five days prior to surprises: "Q looking extremely pregnant." But it still took my breath away to find Ms. Q cleaning off two very spindly, shocked, pink nosed fluffs in the chill, rainy morning. I sat for a good long while and watched them to make sure everything was proceeding well. My reading indicates that the ewe-lamb bonding process is important; they have to learn each other scents and noises so they can keep track of each other. I didn't want to get in the way, so I just watched, mystified, as Quagmire cleaned them off and guided them toward her udder. They were nursing feverishly by the time I went back to the barn.

I noticed something else that morning. Myrtle, an accidentally pregnant gilt, was not hungry. 


On friday morning, I went down early to check the lambs (seeing them laying in a white heap from a few yards away I steeled myself to find dead lambs, but as I approaced they both arched their necks up and looked at me, unconcerned)  and Myrtle. I found her with one fresh stillborn piglet. The umbilical cord was still inside Myrtle, which was odd: usually (93% of the time, the internets informed me later) stillborns are stillborn because they have detached from the placenta. I noted the time and determined that if another piglet weren't out in 45 minutes, I would investigate.

It was also a very bad sign. If the first piglet is stillborn, it likely took awhile to birth (live piglets help somehow in the delivery; most of the time we've had to help out, it's been with a stillborn). If it took awhile to birth, all the presumed piglets behind it, lined up in the birth canal and detaching from the life-giving placenta would be suffocating. I decided to only give her 15 minutes before investigating.

15 minutes, it turns out, passes almost instantly. Long enough only to brew coffee and drink one sip.

When I checked on Myrtle, my coffee evilly cooling on the table back at the house, she had passed a placenta. That was very odd.

Pigs have more than one placenta; in our experience, they usually pass two, one for each of the two "horns" of their uterus. The fact that she had passed one meant that it was likely that a horn was already empty.

I gave her another 15 minutes of pushing before I donned the shoulder-high gloves, liberally doused all things pig and human in baby oil, and did some investigating. Usually, just the presence of a hand where a hand should not be strengthens the contractions; only about 40% of the time that manual intervention has been initiated have we had to pull the piglet.


This piglet though...was STUCK. I found it wedged right behind her pelvis, and I could not get it over and through.

The worst part about the ordeal, as I was feeling around, twisting and pulling, was the growing certainty that this piglet was also already dead. Just as it is easier for the sow to birth a live piglet, it is easier for us to manually extract a live piglet. This piglet's unwillingness to move or rotate combined with the first being a stillborn made it likely that it was a stillborn as well.

I called in Big Man to help out. He spent a very draining hour and a half wrestling with Myrtle and the piglet, which was indeed most certainly very dead. What can be such an awe-inspiring ordeal -- there is no piglet, then her tail flicks and there is suddenly something gooey behind the sow, and then the gooey starts to move and kick and squeak and it is suddenly a piglet nursing -- was just two cold, slimy bodies, with two cold, slimy farmers morosely staring at them.


There is not much more emotionally draining or depressing than a rough delivery of stillborn animals. But then, there is not much more uplifting than an animal that has a hands off delivery of super healthy lambs that thrive despite the grumpy weather -- despite the fact that the day they were born consisted almost entirely of rain, and despite the fact that overnight it dropped to 35 degrees and it sleeted throughout the morning, despite the fact that every time I stepped outside to let the dog in and felt the chill air I was positive that anything as fragile-looking as a lamb must certainly be dead, both of them have been thriving. Quaggy has been a perfectly attentive mother, staying near but somewhat separate from the wandering herd, and both lambs do a good job of sticking close to her. I check on them every day to make sure they are doing well, and they always reward me with their waggling tails as they nurse -- probably the cutest thing ever in the entire world.


As we say so often here: life goes on, but sometimes, it doesn't. As farmers we have to do the best we can to tip the scales in life's direction, but we also have to be accepting that death always follows on life's heels -- sometimes, quicker than we would prefer.

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