Friday, March 15, 2013

2013 Lambing Notebook - Installment #5

When do you call the vet?!

Part of raising sheep at a commercial scale is learning when you need to call the vet - and when you need to do things on your own.  This applies (perhaps even more so) even when you're married to your vet - as I am!

Last Sunday, we held our annual Pasture Lambing Workshop.  We hosted around 15 new and aspiring shepherds at the ranch and provided an overview of our lambing system.  We also offered hands-on experience in marking lambs (which involves ear-tagging, docking and castrating, and paint-marking each lamb), as well as hand-on experience in building temporary electric fence and moving ewes and lambs onto fresh grass.  As if on cue, one of our ewes was in labor when we arrived at the ranch at 9:30 a.m.  As we were wrapping up the workshop around noon, she had still not delivered her lambs.  Before our students departed, I demonstrated the method I use for assisting a ewe in delivering lambs.  This particular ewe needed help delivering twins.  She provided a great opportunity to talk about developing the observation and husbandry skills necessary for determining when a ewe might need help and actually providing the help.

After the students left, my friend Roger and I found a ewe that appeared to be having a more significant problem delivering her lamb.  An entire foreleg was protruding from her birth canal, which is abnormal.  We caught the ewe and I reached inside her to try to ascertain what was happening.  By feel, I found the lamb's other foreleg (I thought) and head, but I was unable to get things lined up so that she could deliver the lamb.  My nose told me that the lamb was not alive - there's a very distinctive odor to a lamb that has died before birth.

I often call my wife (the vet) for advice, but I try not to ask her to make a ranch call.  This is partly because I know she's busy with other things - and partly because of the expense (even with my family discount!).  This particular situation, though, was well beyond my expertise.  As Sami drove up the dirt track to our pasture, Roger remarked that she was just like James Herriot!  Sami, in turn, remarked that we looked like a couple of old sheepmen from All Creatures Great and Small waiting for the vet to arrive.

After examining the ewe and the lamb, Sami determined that the lamb was indeed dead, and that it was either tangled up with another lamb or with itself.  In all of our years of raising sheep, I've never had a problem like this.  The ewe was obviously in pain, and we began to worry that we'd lose her as well as her lamb if we weren't able to remove the dead fetus.  After a great deal of work, Sami removed the lamb and saved the ewe's life.  She examined the dead lamb and told us that the lamb had been dead for some time - the result of some congenital condition.  As of today (4 days later) the ewe appears to be recovering.

When Sami and I were first married and she was still in vet school, a cattle-ranching friend told her that she had a responsibility to tell her ranching clients how much a procedure would cost before performing it.  Sami took his advice to heart - she's always been very good about telling her clients about the economic implications of her efforts.  As a rancher, I've learned to ask my vet to teach me skills like pulling lambs, evaluating flock health, and treating common ailments.  I'm lucky to have such a knowledgeable and skilled teacher!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

2013 Lambing Notebook - Installment #4

During Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, we experienced our first stormy weather during this year's lambing season.  We received just over a half inch of rain, and we had lots of wind.  I had put the ewes in a paddock which offered lots of shelter, and the ewes and lambs made it through the stormy weather just fine.

As I was making my early morning check of the sheep, however, I realized that both guardian dogs (Buck and Reno) were missing.  We'd had a short section of fence blow down, so I wasn't too surprised that they were out.  As the morning went on, however, their continued absence was concerning - usually they stay close by and are anxious to get back with their sheep.  I finally found them at a neighboring property just before 10 a.m.  They were both happy to see me and to be back with the ewes.

Yesterday evening, after I assisted a ewe in delivering a large single lamb, a neighbor on Shanley Hill called me over to our fence to ask about the dogs being out.  She has alpacas, and one of her males had been attacked during the night.  While the woman was quite friendly, she clearly suspected that the guardian dogs were responsible.  Since our dogs have guarded sheep with llamas, I thought this was unlikely, but I asked her to let me know what her veterinarian thought after he examined the alpaca and the signs of the attack in her barn.

The neighbor called me after I got home and reported that the vet thought that a mountain lion had attacked the alpaca.  While we've seen coyotes on Shanley Hill, this is the first possible contact with a cougar.  I'm hoping that the neighbors contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the county trapper to verify a cougar attack - in the meantime, I'll be more vigilant when I'm on the Hill by myself!

We have always been (and will continue to be) "predator friendly" - which to me means that we try to coexist with the wild predators in our environment.  We like to tell our customers that while we are predator-friendly, our guardian dogs are not.  Our dogs are the reason we can coexist - they persuade the predators to look elsewhere for their prey.  If the attack on Tuesday evening was in fact perpetrated by a mountain lion, I suspect our dogs interrupted the attack and probably saved the alpaca's life.

I once heard the folksinger Utah Phillips, a confirmed pacifist, describe a bar fight.  I'm paraphrasing, but he said that a pacifist must decide in the time interval between being punched and hitting the floor whether he'll remain a pacifist.  Being predator friendly is similar, I think - my sheep rely on me (and by extension, my guardian dogs) for protection.  I guess in many respects I expect the predators to reciprocate my friendly attitude - they need to look elsewhere for a meal!  I believe that I have a responsibility to my sheep to ask the proper authorities to deal with a coyote or a cougar that prefers a meal mutton or lamb.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

2013 Lambing Notebook - Installment #3

Zen and the Art of Sheepherding

Over the years, I've come to realize that one of the principles of working or moving livestock is that I must move slowly to go fast.  Every time I get in a hurry to get something done - loading sheep in the trailer or moving sheep through the corrals, for example - the job takes much longer than it would if I had the proper patience.  When I'm quiet, my dogs are quiet as well - and the job goes quickly.

This principle, I think, is especially applicable at lambing time.  There is an art to lambing in a pasture (or really to any lambing system) that can only be learned by experience.  Moving slowly - both in a physical sense and from the standpoint of watching and waiting - is critical during lambing season.  A couple of examples:

  • Yesterday, we moved the entire flock onto new pasture.  A handful of 2-3 day-old lambs decided it would be great fun to stay back in the old pasture.  Rather than try to catch them or chase them, I worked with Mo to quietly and slowly herd them ahead to the rest of the flock.  Mo was incredibly patient - herding young lambs is worse than herding cats - and I tried to quietly help Mo follow his instincts.  We finally got the lambs close enough to the new paddock that their mothers found them and led them the rest of the way.
  • This afternoon, I came upon a lamb that didn't seem to have a mother.  She was dried off and energetic, but her mother was nowhere to be found.  I tried putting her with a ewe that had another lamb, thinking that perhaps she was a twin.  The ewe ultimately rejected her, but I decided to leave her in the pasture until I came back for my evening rounds.  She was still by herself when I returned, but I tried putting her with another ewe that had a single lamb.  Bingo! The lamb was her missing twin, and when I left tonight both lambs were following her and nursing regularly.
Much of my time at lambing is spent waiting and watching - waiting for a ewe to deliver her lambs on her own or watching to make sure that a ewe has bonded with her lambs.  If I move to quickly at this point, I risk disrupting the ewe-lamb bond by pulling a lamb or increasing my labor requirements by bringing a lamb home to be bottle raised.  Going slow, in this case, means less work!