Although lambs weighing under about eight pounds at birth tend to be at higher risk for death, Odessa and Oleg (born weighing only 3.7 and 3.3 pounds respectively) have been thriving in the jug with their mother, Natasha. For the first week, I would steel myself before each visit to the barn, prepared to find one or both of them curled up and cold, having fallen asleep and died of hypothermia. This has proved to be a needless worry: the two are active, healthy, happy lambs, albeit only about 1/4 the size of most of the lambs in the flock.
Normally we “jug” newborn lambs in a pen with their mother so that the new family can begin to form the strong bonds they need during the first months of life. In the usual situation, we move them to a mixing pen after a few days — a pen in which a small number of mothers and their lambs learn to interact before being released into the larger population of the flock. Although the lambs born after Odessa and Oleg have long since moved through the mixing pen and into the general population, this little family is still in their jug. I believe there are special considerations to take into account, so they will likely remain there for a while.
Natasha and her two lambs certainly feel ready to move into a mixing pen — they spend time at the side of the jug nearest the flock and do a lot of verbalizing and playing with the other lambs through the panels — but I’m not ready for them to move. Oleg and Odessa have grown well, weighing in at 5.1 and 4.5 pounds after six days of life — likely more if I weighed them today. Yet I know how things go in the mixing pen, and I worry about their safety.
The jugs allow the ewe to recognize her lambs and care for their needs. The mixing pen helps the lambs learn that other ewes are off-limits and that their milk comes from only their mother. They learn to interact with other lambs but to stay away from the other mothers — and these lessons can be rough ones. Depending on the ewes in the pen, lambs can be head-butted or kicked as they explore their new environment. This nasty behavior usually settles down after a few hours, but I wonder whether Oleg and Odessa can last a few hours in such a harsh environment?
As I imagine the situation, I envision the worst. What if they are thrown from the pen by a swift head-butt? What if one of the ewes lies on them? Would she even feel them underneath her? What if, what if…. The thoughts circle like vultures as I watch the two in their jug with Natasha. No, I can’t subject them to the mixing pen. Not yet.
I know that eventually they’ll have to mix. Yet for the time being, I keep them in their jug. I want them to be bigger and stronger before I move them. I want them to look like normal lambs; and for us, that means they would weigh at least seven or eight pounds. Once they begin to look like a typical lamb headed for the mixing pen, then perhaps they will be. But until then, I’m keeping them protected and safe in the jug with Natasha.
Besides, it is easier to catch and cuddle Odessa in the jug — and right now, that happens way too often to let her go!