on the road

on the road

Friday, February 24, 2017

Highs and Lows

The first thing I discovered during my morning lambing check this morning was a dead lamb. He happened to be the last lamb I'd checked the night before. His mother was an experienced ewe, and he'd looked fine yesterday. This morning, I heard his mother calling and found him laying flat out - not yet stiff, but definitely dead. A closer inspection of the ewe revealed that she only had milk on one side of her udder - the other side was hard and dry (empty). Her
This lamb looked great yesterday morning.
This morning he was dead.
good side had plenty of milk for a single lamb, but it could be that the lamb simply hadn't been able to get enough milk.


As I made the rest of my rounds through the flock this morning, I found brand new set of twins, which brightened my day immensely. I watched them for about 5 minutes - the ewe was attentive and both lambs nursed vigorously. Although I was still troubled by the dead lamb, I felt better as I headed into my "real" job.
A nice set of twins.


During lambing season, I usually spend my lunch hour checking the ewes again. As I drove up to the pasture today, I noticed a ewe that appeared to have afterbirth hanging from her vulva - but who had no lamb in sight. Worried that she may have aborted her lamb, I caught her and checked inside. She had a lamb, but it was breach - all I could feel were its hocks (properly presented lambs are born front-feet-and-nose-first). A breach lamb with hind legs tucked underneath it is difficult for the ewe to deliver on her own.


An enormous lamb - who came into the world backwards!
Reaching in halfway to my elbow, I was able to push the lamb back up the birth canal and grab a hind foot. Once I had the foot outside the ewe, the rest of the lamb followed reasonably easily. It was huge! I assumed that the lamb had been so large that it hadn't been able to turn around prior to being born. I laid the lamb in front of the ewe so she could clean it - and noticed he hadn't started breathing. I thumped his chest cavity lightly a few times - it shook its head and started breathing. Ten minutes later, the ewe was up and the lamb was laying sternal - looking exhausted but like it was going to make it. I always prefer twins - and I'm always a bit disappointed when a ewe has one huge lamb instead of two medium-sized lambs. Regardless, I felt good that I'd been able to get a live lamb from the ewe.

As I drove off, I was startled to see the ewe had delivered a second lamb! She had twins after all - and big ones at that! By the time I finally left (perhaps 30 minutes after pulling the first lamb), both were standing and trying to nurse.
A sight welcomed by any shepherd!

People who don't raise livestock may be surprised to learn that ranchers are bothered by the death of an animal. I'm certainly clear-eyed about the fact that we raise animals for meat - and yet I have continued to raise sheep through the drought because I love the new life that arrives every spring. I love the cyclical nature of my work - from preparing the ewes for breeding, to turning in the rams, to watching the ewes grow in their pregnancies. I love lambing season most of all - but I also love watching the lambs grow. I love shearing day and weaning day and sale day - and I love the final product of my efforts, too.

I've been fortunate to learn from a number of fine ranchers and shepherds throughout my life, and I've had the opportunity to share my experiences with new shepherds. I've come to realize that each of us has to gain direct experience - somebody could tell me how to pull a breach lamb, but I didn't know how to do it until the first time it happened to one of my ewes. What I have learned from other ranchers - and what I hope I convey - is an attitude of respect and reverence for my animals and for the land. Last year, a friend who also raises sheep told me, "When the death of a lamb doesn't bother us, we should quit being shepherds." During the drought, another friend who also went through the anguish of selling animals to keep the farm said, "Our animals are like our body of work - we spend a lifetime making decisions about breeding and management that ultimately results in a flock that fits our farm."

Like any vocation, I suppose, ranching has its high points and low points. Some days are deeply satisfying - others are intensely frustrating. Some days, I experience both emotions in the space of half a day!

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