After many springlike warm days, today is cold, rainy and raw in eastern Iowa. When a weather front comes through at this time of year, I know to keep a close watch on the ewes in the lambing barn, since the drop in air pressure is enough to bring on labor if a ewe is close to her due date.
During lambing season, my usual routine upon awakening is to roll over and take a good look at the barn monitor. On this single dedicated screen, I have four different views of the interior of the lambing barn and all of its inhabitants. This morning it was obvious that Olive was in labor. I quickly dressed, got my coffee, and ran through my morning chores, knowing it would take a bit of time for Olive to get serious about delivering her twins. As soon as I got the dogs settled for the day, I made my way to the lambing barn — just in time to welcome Olive’s dark moorit daughter Quesadilla. As we waited for her sibling to make his way into the world, I got Quesadilla dried off, put a navel clip onto her cord, and tied on a pink newborn sweatshirt/coat for warmth.
The second lamb was taking too long, so I gloved up to find out what was going on. It didn’t take long to figure out. The normal presentation for delivery is with nose and front toes forward in the birth canal. But instead my fingertips found two little hooves and no nose. In this type of situation, it’s very important to figure out whether the hooves are front or rear hooves, since each of these requires different intervention to successfully deliver the lamb. I could feel the bottom of the hooves pointing towards the roof of the barn, and although the first joint curled the hooves upward, the next joint angled them down. Based on this, I knew these were rear hooves, since both of the distal joints of front hooves angle in the same direction.
With rear legs coming, I had two choices: push the entire lamb back into the uterus and turn it all the way around or simply pull it out backwards. A lamb cannot be successfully delivered naturally (without assistance) in a backwards presentation, since the cord will break before the head exits the birth canal. When the cord breaks, the lamb takes a breath, and since it is still inside the ewe, the lamb inhales amniotic fluid and drowns. A lamb in this position can be successfully pulled, but only if the pressure is constant and steady until the lamb is entirely out of the birth canal. It is not unusual while pulling for the rib cage of the lamb to catch on the ewe’s pelvic girdle, so every time I know I have to pull a backwards lamb, I psych myself up so that no matter what resistance I feel, I will continue to pull until the lamb is out. This time was no different.
After a few seconds of mental preparation, I began to pull. I felt the familiar catch of the rib cage but did not let it deter my mission to get the lamb out. In mere minutes, a ram lamb named Queso lay in the straw with his sister. After giving the new family some time to bond, I got the navel clip on the newest arrival, fitted him with his own brown newborn lamb coat, and got the family moved into a small pen where they can continue the bonding process.
I was very much looking forward to a bit of warmth in the house, but it was not to be. As I left Olive’s pen after making sure that both lambs had nursed, I saw that Poison was now in labor. Poison is just a week past her first birthday, so I knew this would require careful monitoring. I have found over the years that these just-yearlings make very good mothers, but they need time to labor — a process which changes their pregnancy hormones to those for mothering. I knew that if I assisted too early, she could end up rejecting the lamb and refusing to feed or nurture it. On the other hand, waiting too long can cause stress in the lamb to the point that it may not survive.
The secret is to monitor the labor carefully and to know exactly when to intervene. Once her water broke, I paid careful attention to the color of the fluid coming from the birth canal. I knew that if the fluid was clear and very light in color, then the lamb was managing the stress of birth well. Dark fluids, however, would be a sign that the lamb was stressed and might not survive without intervention.
As the hours passed and I watched, the fluid went from clear and whitish (left) to a light yellow color — still within a safe range for the lamb. By the time I was beginning to wonder what was taking so long, I saw hooves — and then a dark nose. Before long, Poison had delivered her daughter Qorroboree, weighing 10.5 lbs. As with Olive’s lambs, I got the new little family settled in a jug and headed for the house to write this blog!
It’s been a long day. I was outside feeding, finishing chores, or in the lambing barn from 8:30 a.m. until about 4 p.m. I am dirty and tired but ever so thrilled with the three new flock members we welcomed today! And who knows — we may not be done yet. After all, Ivy (due tomorrow), Kaylen, and Nisan (both due Wednesday, 3/1) are all in the drop pen, and the weather pattern has not improved. It could be a long night!