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!