Opus and Oath are both Romeldale/CVM ram lambs born to my flock this spring. Although they are members of the same breed, they are also very different. Opus is our fastest growing lamb, gaining nearly 1.2 pounds per day since his birth two months and nine days ago. Oath, on the other hand, is one of our slowest growing ram lambs, gaining only an average of 0.58 pounds per day at two months and fifteen days of age. The difference in size is fairly obvious: Opus currently weighs about 95 pounds to Oath’s 53 pounds, even though Oath is older. Besides that, Oath is easy to spot; he is the only lamb in our flock this year with horns, while Opus is polled (no horns).
As is my usual daily routine, I was out in the pasture yesterday morning to check over the lamb flock and fill the creep feed for the lambs. I usually fill the two troughs with feed and then check the flock, listening for coughing lambs (which could signal pneumonia), looking for limping sheep (a sign of a hoof or leg injury), and watching for any other indicator that something might be amiss. During this time, I also carry a couple of coats with me in case I see a lamb needing a larger size.
As I wandered the hillside, looking over the flock, I suddenly noticed Opus at the bottom of the hill. He was still lying down, and it looked as if his head was either under or caught in the boundary fence to the neighbor’s cow pasture. The lambs usually come running when I enter the field, because they know I bring fresh feed; so Opus still lying beneath the fence was not normal. I began to run down the hill towards him, observing as I got closer that his head lay in a puddle of rainwater that had accumulated during the night. Lambs do fall deeply asleep sometimes, but in a rain puddle? I couldn’t imagine! Since Opus is one of the lambs we are hoping to keep in our flock, I imagined the worst. Sadly, it’s not unusual for my “special” lambs to die unexpectedly. I know this sounds like a myth or old wives’ tale, but I’ve lived it multiple times, so I prepared myself for yet another example of this unfortunate reality. I was sure he was dead.
As I arrived at Opus’ side, hoping against hope that I might be able to resuscitate him, he suddenly moved in the puddle of rainwater. Realizing that not only was he alone and wet but was now under scrutiny by a human being — even though it was me — he suddenly righted himself, shook off both the sleep and the water, and ran for the flock at the top of the hill! Thank goodness, he had only been sleeping — very deeply, obviously, and not too comfortably — but still, sleep was not a bad thing! Relieved, I made my way back up the hill to finish my morning chores.
As I did this, I straightened the coat that Oath wore and fixed the neckline of Olive’s coat. Everyone looked good, so I gathered my things and made my way back to the house to get on with my day. Several hours later, in the late afternoon, I again made my way out to the Timber Pasture to fill the creep feed for the evening and again check on the flock. Since we had just weaned the lambs on Friday, I check at least two or three times a day to make sure all is well. I poured the creep feed into the troughs and again looked over the flock. The adults had come up with the lambs, hoping for a repeat of the morning grain. No chance, though — that’s a once-a-day treat for them. Only the lambs, at this point in their lives, get another round of grain late in the day.
As I was ready to leave the pasture, I noticed that Oath was lying at the top of the hill, obviously also sleeping. He had chosen a better spot than Opus; at least he wasn’t at the bottom of the hill lying in rainwater! Instead, he was lying in a patch of sun at the crest where it was warmer and much dryer. I walked to his side, nudged him with my boot, and teased him: “Okay, sleepyhead! Rise and shine. It’s time for grain! Get up, up, up!” Unfortunately, Oath did not move; he was indeed dead.
If an animal drops dead on our farm for unknown reasons, I need to know why. A necropsy can provide information that can prevent countless deaths if some contagion is at work. I quickly loaded him up and drove over to my vet before they closed. Since it was close to closing time, there was no time to change out of my manure-covered jeans. I put Oath in the backseat of my truck and headed to the vet, where I delivered my shortlist of possibilities: (1) dehydration due to unsuccessful weaning on Friday, (2) toxicity due to a poisonous plant in this new (for this year) pasture, (3) pneumonia (which is always a threat in the spring and summer), and finally (4) a possibly heavy internal parasite load (reflected by his poor weight gains). And then I added another possibility: (5) accidental injury due to rough play among the ram lambs causing a possible broken neck — always in the realm of the possible.
The vet immediately nixed numbers 1 and 2. As soon as he got Oath open, it was obvious that number 3 was also a non-issue: the tissues were pink and very normal-looking. He was not anemic and his digestive system looked great, meaning no parasites had caused this death. As we looked over the lungs, they too looked perfect: no discoloration from infection and no hard areas. The further we looked, the more perfect this lamb seemed. As we finished, my vet suggested that option 5 was probably the most likely — that Oath had likely died of a spinal injury that dropped him in place. How sad!
I know after fifteen years of shepherding that all sorts of things can happen. Lethal injuries don’t happen very frequently; more often, we find some sign of illness. Yet in this case, Oath seems to have been perfectly healthy. I had straightened his coat only five or six hours before, and he had been his usual happy self. The necropsy has allayed my fears, at least for now, that other lambs might follow down the same path. I will admit, however, that I’ll likely enter the field feeling a bit queasy the next few times, wondering what I might find. A loss like this is never easy. Let’s just hope it isn’t a sign of something more.