On Wednesday evening, I was out feeding Quaker her evening bottle just as dusk was falling. As she rhythmically sucked down her warm milk replacer, I sat on a hay feeder and watched the flock, keeping eyes and ears open for anything unusual or out of place. The only way to know the true state of the flock is to spend time there, and bottle feeding is just one more way of my keeping track of what was going on.
As I watched, I noticed twin Romney ram lambs Qal and Qi playing a variation of the how-high-can-you-jump game: they stood facing each other and took turns leaping straight up into the air and bouncing a bit on the return to earth. First one and then the other showed off their leg strength and coordination, seemingly always wanting to out-jump the other. I smiled at the game, since these two have been very sweet and mellow boys – the most stoic of an already stoic breed. It was good to see them up and at play on this warm spring evening!
When I came out to feed the sheep Thursday morning, I was shocked to find Qal lying dead in the outdoor pen. It had been only about fourteen hours since my witnessing his game with his brother. I knew there were only a few diseases that could claim a lamb so quickly, so I made the decision to have him necropsied as soon as possible to determine his cause of death. In the sheep world, this is the basic equivalent of an autopsy. The vet surgically evaluates the lamb and looks at all major organs for a cause of death. If an accident is suspected, they will also look at the spine for possible injury, and if desired by the shepherd, they will draw samples for later analysis at a veterinary lab. It is an expense that I know saves lives, so I hurried with my chores and dropped him off at the vet before his body was too far into decomposition to make any such investigation pointless.
Many people choose to skip a necropsy when a sheep or lamb dies. It is an added expense that doesn’t add to the bottom line, but I find that it can often warn of what you might call “coming attractions.” If I know what killed this particular lamb, then I can watch more closely for any others who might come down with the same thing, perhaps offering life-saving treatment. If the cause of death is obvious, like if a lamb has been treated for pneumonia and hasn’t responded, or I see them head-butting friends and suddenly one goes down dead, then I don’t bother. However, if the cause isn’t readily apparent, I take them in for a necropsy.
The result of Qal’s necropsy was almost as shocking as his passing: he died as the result of clostridial disease, which is caused by a bacteria that is commonly found all around us in our environment including soil and manure. After symptoms appear, it can kill in as little as two hours. Knowing this, we vaccinate all 0f our adult ewes with what we call is called Essential 3+T about three to six weeks before delivery so that not only are they covered, but their colostrum carries antibodies against this disease that will be passed to their lambs. It has always been my understanding that this will cover the lambs for months after birth, although their immunity is strongest in the first four to six weeks of life. We vaccinate our lambs at about a month of age for this very reason, and then give them a booster three to four weeks later.
Most of our lambs have already received their initial vaccinations, with the late born lambs slated to get their vaccinations today. The vet told me that this seems to be a bad year for clostridial disease, as their office has already seen more than a couple of cases. This information alone sent me scurrying out to the barn armed with my syringes of vaccine! Shortly after talking to my vet, I went out and vaccinated the last dozen or so yesterday evening, thinking that sooner had to be better.
Wanting to eliminate any increased levels of clostridium bacteria in our environment, I also bleached all of the feed troughs and replaced the cloth hay bags in the creep area with new ones. Finally, I grabbed a few disinfecting wipes and cleaned off Nali’s teats to prevent Qal’s higher levels of the bacteria from transferring to his twin. You should have seen the look at Nali’s face as I was wiping her up (it was priceless!), but she stood there and allowed me to do it. When I finished, I called a friend who is a vet and discussed where things stood.
My friend has assured me that I have done all that I can do at this point. With so much false information out on the web, I discussed our vaccination plan with her to verify that we were doing all that we can to keep our lambs safe, and she confirmed that our plan is currently in line with the best available science on the subject. We now watch and wait – and hope that Qal’s is the last we will see for a very long time.