Peeper Hollow Farm
Romney and Romeldale/CVM Sheep
Breeding Stock, Fleeces and Locker Lambs
 

More on this year’s bottle lambs

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, we currently have seven bottle lambs: Rachel (Heavenly’s daughter – now nearly old enough to wean), Rave and Raven (Gabby’s son and daughter, only about three weeks old), Riggs (one of Kiera’s twin rams), and Reliance, Right, and Reason (Hope’s triplets). Our focus over the past two weeks has been to get them from five bottles per day to three: early morning, early afternoon, and evening. Reducing the number of bottles dramatically reduces the work load, but it also means that the lambs need to increase the amount they are drinking at each feeding. Although lambs can reduce to only three 12-ounce feedings per day by the age of 11 days, we like to go a bit slower — and give them a bit more. My goal is less about saving the money for milk replacer and more about providing our lambs with what they need to grow well and become great sheep!

The lambs have made the adjustment well, it seems. Both Riggs and Rachel can get milk from their mothers, so they are only part-time bottle lambs. The others, however, are regulars — coming as soon as they hear the sound of the barn door closing behind the bottle-toting human. They are little sucking machines, focusing on the task at hand and downing 8 to 16 ounces in as little as a minute and a half. It is truly  mind-boggling! Rather than bore you with more talk, I thought I’d offer you a bit of the atmosphere of the early morning feedings. Although you can’t see all of the lambs, you can certainly hear them! And you get some idea of the amazing experience of bottle-feeding our lambs. Enjoy!

In order from bottom to top: Rachel (nearly lost off-screen!), Raven, Right, Reliance, Reason – and Riggs comes into the middle at the end!

bottle lambs 2018

Juggling bottles

Few shepherds plan for bottle lambs. We get a lot of people asking about them — because watching bottle lambs feed is so heartwarming — but few people realize that they’re also a LOT of work. In the first 24 hours of life, a lamb nurses about every 2 hours. At this point, the lamb is drinking colostrum, the critical first milk that provides immunity to many of the microbes that can be a danger in those first weeks of life. The shepherd has no choice about feeding colostrum — without it, the lamb will die. Without enough of it, the lamb may not survive or it may grow so slowly that it cannot become a productive flock member. We plan on about a half gallon of colostrum for each bottle lamb, and getting it is tricky since it’s considered to be ‘liquid gold’ among livestock producers.

Once the bottle lamb moves beyond colostrum (after 24 to 48 hours), we slowly make the switch to milk replacer — but feeding is still labor intensive, at least once during the night and about every 2 or 3 hours during the daytime. After a couple of days, we begin to space these feedings out, pushing to 4 hours between and then eventually giving up the nighttime feeding. Moving too quickly will stress the lamb, risking illness or death. Resources are wasted if you feed too often. The milk replacer must be dumped after 24 hours, and it takes time and energy to heat the bottles, get them all out to the barn, and feed the lambs.

This year we have seven bottle lambs. Yes, seven. We didn’t plan it; it just happened as lambing progressed. When Heavenly had her twin ewe lambs, I made a conscious decision to supplement both of the girls with bottles because Heavenly had milk on only one side of her bag. I know from experience that a ewe can usually feed twins on one side at birth, but problems develop as the lambs grow and require more milk than one side can produce. My thinking was to supplement both of the girls, but Heavenly and the ewe lambs had other ideas. Little Rachel, only hours old, happily took to the bottle from the very first feeding, but her sister Rebekah had no interest at all. In a very short time, Heavenly was nudging Rachel towards me at every visit to the barn; Rachel became my bottle lamb, while Rebekah happily fed from her mom. It was a lot of work, but I finally got Rachel down to only three feedings a day. And then came the rest of the bunch.

I knew that Gabby might not be able to feed her lambs this year. She hadn’t produced lambs for several years, but the last time she did, we couldn’t get the milk down into her teats. Her lambs that year — had they lived — would have become bottle lambs. I bred her again this past fall in continued hopes of getting a daughter to add to our flock. I was willing to deal with bottles if that was part of getting another of Gabby’s daughters. Luckily, Gabby carried her twins to term and blessed us with a ram lamb (Rave) and a very dark ewe lamb (Raven), both of whom became bottle lambs at birth.

Surprisingly, within 24 hours of the birth of Gabby’s twins, Hope went into labor and delivered triplets. She has never had problems with feeding her lambs, but when I went to strip out the natural plug at the end of her teats, I could get no milk. I tried and tried, since she had a huge bag full of colostrum for her triplets — but it was not to be. In that short span of time that included the Gabby’s and Hope’s births, our number of bottle lambs increased from one to six. I was back to every-two-hour barn visits to feed out those bottles.

As I slowly worked to get the six lambs onto some kind of schedule in that first week, I started to notice that Kiera’s smallest ram lamb, Riggs, always looked hungry — and if I offered him the remnants of a bottle after feeding the others, he always sucked hungrily, downing 8 to 12 ounces at a time. He was born only a day before the others, and as I came to know him better, I realized that the problem was not lack of milk or even a lack of desire by Kiera to feed her twins. No, Riggs was hungry for an entirely different reason: he was intimidated!

Riggs’ brother, Rizzo, is an assertive young ram who takes the milk that he assumes is his. Since we breed for gentle and respectful rams, every once in a while we get one that is quite soft and timid in nature — and that was what I saw in Riggs. Even when I offered him a bottle, he would only take it if I held it very still at arm’s length and made no eye contact. He’d slowly come forward and gently suck at the nipple, but if anyone in the vicinity moved or looked at him, he would immediately back off. Needless to say, my heart went out to this hungry boy, and I began to bring out a bottle just for him. My bottle lambs now numbered seven.

With so many lambs looking for their bottles at the same time, it was nearly impossible to feed them all before I had to be back out in the barn with more bottles. I could only hold two bottles at a time, and with all of the hungry-lamb frenzy as I entered into the mixing pen, it was hard to get any of them to latch on for long. Any lamb lucky enough to score a nipple was soon knocked off of the bottle by another hungry lamb determined to get some for themselves. Riggs had no chance until the very end of each feeding, long after the bottles had started to cool. I knew I had to do something different, and I could see two possible solutions: either offer them milk via a bucket with multiple teats OR continue to bring bottles, but find a way to mount them so that every lamb could find a place at a nipple. In the end, I decided on the latter.

Although a bucket works well, the milk loses its warmth fairly quickly in cold weather. This is an advantage in avoiding spoiled milk but a disadvantage when it comes to feeding lambs. In my experience, lambs will drink the milk very well when it is warm but less well when it begins to chill. If the bucket is out there for the whole day, the lambs try to drink as much as possible when it first comes out, but then the rest is wasted as they shun the cold milk. I really want good growth in these lambs, since many of them will be joining our flock. Good early growth tends to go hand-in-hand with good overall growth and a nice, big adult size — all things we look for. I decided it was worth it to make up individual warm bottles if it meant better growth and health for the lambs.

This year’s bottle lambs all lined up at the bottle racks, sucking down their midday bottles this past Sunday. Since this photo was taken, Riggs (in the blue coat) has decided he much prefers the last slot on the left to avoid the crush of the rest of the lambs.

As a result, I bought bottle racks that we’ve mounted to the panels that frame the mixing pen. I take seven 16-ounce bottles of milk replacer out to the barn four times each day (changing to three times a day this Sunday) and as I enter the barn, my bottle lambs all jump up from whatever they might be doing and run towards the barn entrance. After closing the door behind me, I load the seven bottles into the seven racks lined up just inside the barn door, and each lamb races to grab a nipple and start sucking. Inevitably, one lamb can’t find a free nipple, so I help by carrying them to the empty station, where they immediately grab the teat and start drinking. Riggs typically claims the nipple on the far end, after all of the rest have lined up and started at their bottles. This way, he isn’t bothered by the shoving and bouncing of the rest of the lambs as they maneuver into position.

It takes me about 20 minutes to make the 28 bottles for the day and about 10 minutes to heat up the seven bottles for a feeding if they have been chilled in the fridge. Believe it or not, it takes the lambs only about 1-1/2 to 2 minutes to down their 12 to 16 ounces and walk away. (I actually timed it yesterday because I couldn’t believe how quickly they gulp their milk!) We’ve finally made it to the point where bottle feeding is no longer my focus of the day, but it’s been a long time coming. I don’t think people realize what’s involved when they excitedly request that we “make a bottle lamb, because they are just so sweet!” Yes, they are very sweet. But they’re also a terrific amount of work. Thankfully for this year, that work is mostly behind us.

Gabby’s gift

Gabby was our first Romeldale/CVM ewe and the only one left of that initial purchase. I bought only three ewes on that first buying trip to Ohio in 2007 – two adults and one lamb – and Gabby was the lamb. She came to our farm and became the backbone of our Romeldale flock: she has been and continues to be the biggest Romeldale in our group of ewes and is also among the most prolific, having produced a total of twenty-two lambs in that time. I honestly have a hard time imagining our flock without her – but that time has come.

Gabby is an old gal and really does deserve a retirement. In recent years, she has lost the ability to feed her lambs, meaning that I know in advance that every lamb she produces for us will need focused attention to feed it and keep it alive. In the first 24 hours of life, lambs must have access to immunity-rich colostrum almost non-stop (in those first critical hours, the ideal is for them to eat on a free-choice basis, and then switch to regular feedings after three days of age). This issue adds a lot of work to an already overloaded lambing schedule – but it has been worth it to me to hopefully get another daughter for our flock. I’ve continued to place Gabby in breeding groups looking towards that one girl, but in recent years, Gabby has been unable to hold her triplets to term. Last fall, I once again struggled with the idea of putting her into yet another breeding group – but I did. I asked myself, “If I was to only ever get one more daughter from Gabby, who would I want to sire her?” That was the ram I used.

When we ultrasounded in December, Gabby scanned with twins – but I knew that it would be a long shot for her to carry them to term. I was hopeful that the fact that there were only two lambs would lessen the stress on her old body – but I knew it was risky, regardless. She could lose one or both lambs at any time before her due date; in fact, the last time she carried lambs past the ultrasound date, she lost them only days before they would have been born healthy and well. It was crushing, and I set my expectations for a repeat of that horrible experience. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Yet, Gabby’s gestation went well, and I made sure to increase her feed levels to accommodate the extra nutrients for her lambs. With Gabby’s expected due date at March 11, we watched carefully once the calendar flipped from February to the month of March – but all seemed well. We kept colostrum ready in both the fridge and the freezer – some to have ready and on-hand for that important first feeding, and more ready to thaw at a moment’s notice.

March 11 came and went, and there were no lambs. Gabby looked more miserable with each passing day – and I realized that we had missed a later marking – Gabby wasn’t due until much later – maybe a week or more after that earlier marking. I got up every two hours each night as her true due date approached – I didn’t want to miss her labor or have her deliver lambs into a cold barn without warm colostrum to keep them going. We waited some more.

Finally, Gabby went into labor on Thursday evening, March 22. By 9:00 p.m., she had delivered a lovely 12.2 pound ram lamb we named Rave. Since she had scanned with twins, I waited for the second lamb before going to get a bottle of colostrum to feed him. Finally, after two hours, I saw her expel the placenta and realized that there weren’t going to be two lambs for Gabby – there was only one, and his name was Rave. The expulsion of the afterbirth is a good sign that lambing for that ewe has ended for the year.

I was admittedly disappointed, but as I settled them into a jug and then made my way into the house to get his bottle, I listed all of the reasons I could think of why this was actually a good thing: (1) We had a healthy, good-sized ram lamb from Gabby who she was thrilled to once again mother; (2) with only one bottle lamb, our precious stock of colostrum would easily cover his needs; (3) Less bottle lambs meant less work for me during this very busy time of year; and (4) I still have Gabby’s daughter Olive, who gave us a beautiful ewe lamb named Raspberry this year, and I could always keep her to continue this line. All in all, I thought, we had done quite well. I fed Rave his bottle, set my alarm for 1:30 a.m. for his next feeding, and tried to get some sleep.

DOB 3-23-2018: Romeldale/CVM Gabby with twins Raven (E) and Rave (R)

By the time I got out to the barn with a warmed bottle, it was about 2 a.m. Rave was relatively dry and walking well, and Gabby was an attentive mother, nickering to him in that language sheep reserve for their newborn lambs. Rave was ravenous, so when I lowered the nipple of the bottle for him, he grabbed at it hungrily and started the rhythmic sucking I know so well by now – and Gabby licked at his hips to encourage his feeding. As I sat there in the stall, there was a small movement just behind Gabby, and then suddenly I saw a little solid black lamb make her way forward. Gabby had delivered a twin – and it was a girl. A GIRL!

Even more interesting to me is the fact that I have been trying to figure out Gabby’s color genetics since she joined our flock as a lamb eleven years ago. After twenty-two lambs she has produced for us over the years, I still have no idea of the hidden pattern that she carries. It remains a mystery – but this little gal of hers (who we named Raven, for obvious reasons!) has inherited that pattern. It is dark – very dark – and different than anything I have seen before. Raven (weighing 12.2 pounds at birth) is a gem – in so many ways!

So now, I have that second Gabby daughter of my dreams, and Gabby will retire this year – staying here with several other older ewes for non-breeding retirement when we move. Raven will, of course, move with us – and hopefully help me to answer that old question about Gabby’s other pattern – but this time, the question will not be about Gabby. Instead, the question will be about the pattern than Raven carries – this last gift from my good friend Gabby.

Molly goes bald

Regular readers know that our colored Romeldale ewe Molly has had a rough spring. She was the first of the flock to deliver her lambs — unfortunately stillborn — and we thought we would lose Molly too. Over the weeks, she has finally bounced back, and although we had a bit of a scare a couple of weeks ago when her temperature soared again, she is finally in good spirits and putting on weight. The best indicator of her recovery is that her quirky sense of humor has returned, and she is also terribly hard to catch if I need to. She is now an expert at keep-away-from-the-shepherdess!

Although she is doing well, I’ve been keeping an eye on her just in case. Since she’s had such a rough time, I can’t be too careful when it comes to her well-being. As I was feeding out bales of hay the other day, I noticed that Molly is now losing her wool. This is typically connected to having had a very bad illness, and I’ve been waiting for it to occur in Molly’s case. On Tuesday I noticed that the wool on her legs and around the tail was totally gone, and the rest is beginning to fall off. It won’t be long before Molly is bald.

Now uncoated, Molly is obviously losing her wool as a result of the trauma of lambing on February 13th. Thankfully, this is a temporary issue, and her wool should begin to come back in soon!

Although this might seem to be a bad thing, in this situation, it’s actually the opposite. After a near death, wool loss usually occurs about six weeks after the crisis, and we are right in that time frame with Molly. A lock of wool is almost like a calendar of a sheep’s year. When the sheep has great nutrition, its fiber becomes a bit thicker; when the sheep is hungry or has less to eat, each strand of wool will become a bit narrower. If there is a severe illness, the fiber can become so thin that it will break with applied tension — we call this a tenderness. The extreme form of tenderness is a break — the wool production totally stops due to near-death, and when that break reaches the skin at the top of the follicle, it sheds off of the sheep just as Molly’s is now. It takes about six weeks for the wool that is being produced today to reach the skin surface, and that is why it has taken so long for her to start going bald; the break that was created during her illness has finally come to the surface.

In this case, a break is better than a weakness. Fiber with a weakness cannot be carded or spun without bits breaking off — and that is undesirable. In order to sell it, I would have to trim off all of the weak tips or discount the fleece for use in felting or other projects that can use a tender fleece. On the other hand, when Molly loses all of this wool, the new growth (which will come to the surface after she sheds all of her current fleece) will be perfectly fine. It will simply be about 1/4″ shorter than in a typical year, since that’s about how much wool is currently being shed.

The biggest issue with Molly’s shedding fleece is her coat. Our sheep wear coats to protect their fleece, but in Molly’s case, the coat was protecting her wool to the extent that it was preventing her fleece from shedding. As a result, I had to catch Molly yesterday to take off her coat and allow the wool to peel off. I will admit that she looks kind of funny right now — it isn’t often that you see a sheep with bare, wrinkly skin instead of fluffy wool! But honestly, the fact that Molly is here and alive more than offsets her bald look. When she is done shedding all of the broken fleece, we will coat her once again to protect the new growth of wool — and by then, her rough spring will be only a distant memory.

A good thing

I wrote on January 12th that we had purchased a new home in the mountains of Virginia with the intent of retiring there sometime this year. On February 12th, I updated the news: we would be reducing our sheep flock by selling off our beloved Romneys before the move. Shepherding a smaller flock seemed the best way to cut down on the work of shepherding while continuing to enjoy my sheep. All that brings me to this update.

Over the past weeks we have been meeting with real estate agents, intending to list our Iowa farm around the first of April, when lambing would be finished. It’s a big house, with four bedrooms and as many bathrooms, and we hoped a young family would find this a great place to raise kids. After meeting with several real estate agents, the biggest obstacle seemed to be setting a price — low enough that it would sell quickly, but high enough that we could afford the move to Virginia and our semi-retirement there. Finding that balance was tricky, and by the time we did, April 1st seemed to be just around the corner.

Once it became common knowledge that we would be moving this year, we started to get emails and phone calls from people who had some interest in buying our farm. Although we considered that a good thing, we had little reason to believe that any of these contacts were actually serious; yet we got back to each and every one of them. Our plan was to list the house at the beginning of April, hope that it would sell by mid-May with a closing sometime in June or early July — a decent time of year to move the flock to our new home.

Like so much in life, things didn’t turn out as planned. One family interested in the farm was a young couple with three children who currently live in town, a few miles away. We invited them out a couple of weeks ago and really hit it off. They had been looking to buy in this neighborhood for a while, and they were exactly the type of couple I had hoped would buy our house! We gave them the tour, and it wasn’t long before they contacted us to ask if they could come out again and look in more detail. We found a mutually workable date and we had a lovely afternoon, sipping our homemade wine and talking about the farm before letting them wander the house as we finished up some barn tasks. They seemed genuinely interested.

This past weekend they came for a third visit — and bought our house! Honestly, I’m still a bit shell-shocked that we sold it even before the date we intended to list it. It is a very good thing for us and for them, but it happened so quickly that we’re now trying to figure out how to be ready for a May closing date. Hopefully late May, but that isn’t a lot of time when you’ve lived in a house for twenty-two years — and have had animals for eighteen!

As a result, I started packing yesterday. We hadn’t packed much of anything previously, because we had been told that houses show better with furniture in them. We had thinned out some of the unnecessary furniture and personal items, taking them to Virginia a little at a time, but in general nearly everything is still here — and now must get packed up! My dining room is absolutely full of boxes that we’ve collected from friends, the grocery store, and the local U-Haul dealer, to name just a few. Most of them are still flat and empty, but the pile of filled boxes is growing daily — between the remaining lamb deliveries!

In order to really focus on all that must be done and to keep my panic at bay, I’ve decided that I will reduce the number of blog postings from my usual three per week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) to one each week (Friday) beginning this Friday, March 23rd. This schedule will apply only until my life is back under control. If something terribly interesting pops up in the meantime — and time permits — I might post an additional blog here or there between the Friday postings. Right now, however, its all a bit intimidating. I keep telling Rick (and myself!) that the sale of our farm is a good thing — a very good thing. I’m hoping that I’ll come to believe that soon, so it will offset the bits of panic that occasionally bubble up. Our sale is a very good thing — now, let’s get packing!

Of ewes and rams

Every shepherd always wants ewe lambs. Of course, to keep a breeding flock, rams are a necessity, and you don’t have adult rams unless at one point there were ram lambs – but the fact is that we need many fewer rams than ewes. When it comes to lambs to keep or to sell, ewe lambs are always in highest demand, so an excess of ram lambs is counter-productive. Remember, one only needs one ram to get a flock of 50 ewes bred – keeping more than a single ram ends up coming from the goals of the shepherd for that particular flock, not because the one ram can’t get the job done.

When we first started keeping sheep, we always had many more ram lambs than ewe lambs – sometimes as many as seven rams for every ewe. I figured that it had something to do with our land or soil, but never really did figure out why we were always ram heavy. I tried many things in those early years to try to get a better male/female balance, but nothing seemed to work – at least not until we tried cider vinegar in the drinking water immediately before and during breeding season. Since we started doing that, our numbers have been fairly even, as they should be.

Now, I will tell you here so that I don’t get a bunch of people telling me how crazy this idea sounds – I know it sounds crazy. I really didn’t think it would work when we first decided to try it, but we were fairly desperate. We had tried everything else, so why not try this crazy idea, too? When it balanced our numbers of rams and ewes, I was shocked – and then spent years researching to try to figure out why it worked. Logic tells me that it shouldn’t work – the rumen is much more acidic than the vinegar we are adding – so it must be something besides the acid. In the end, I decided that perhaps it has to do with the odor of the cider vinegar – I’m thinking that perhaps it masks the scent of the pheromones of the heat cycle just enough to give the advantage to the sperm with ewe genetics. I have no idea why it works – but the math over many years now does tell me it works – at least it seems to reverse whatever weird thing was causing so many ram lambs, and that is a great thing for us.

I will be honest in telling you that I’m usually really good at adding the vinegar to the water in the early weeks of breeding, but eventually, I become a bit lax. Sometimes it’s because we run out of vinegar in one field (sometimes even early in the season, and then they go without until we get more), and at other times, it’s because we are traveling and I forget to tell the farm sitter to add it to the water. There are all kinds of reasons why I skip adding vinegar sometimes, and I feel guilty, but I do it. Usually, by about week five of breeding, one or more groups are missing the vinegar from their water on a fairly regular basis for at least a while – and when lambing comes, we usually see an increase in the number of ram lambs coming from that particular group of ewes during that period.

This year, however, I was really proud of myself in that I was on top of the vinegar water to the bitter end of breeding, making sure that there was enough vinegar in every field and adding the correct amount of cider vinegar (1 cup for 10 gallons of water) to each water tank when I filled it. I even made a notation on my breeding clipboard to make sure I remembered that the entire breeding season had the vinegar advantage – I was curious to see what our ratio of ewe lambs vs ram lambs would be.

At this point, we are not yet finished with the lambing season, but we are getting there. I have eight more ewes left to deliver their lambs – most likely within the next week or so. Right now, after the two deliveries that we have had so far today (both Obella and Kabernet have had their lambs), we stand at twenty-five ewe lambs and thirteen ram lambs. Really. There are about seventeen lambs to go at this point. Doing the math tells me that in order for us to end up with the same number of ram lambs and ewe lambs,over 85% of the remaining lambs would have to be boys! We’ve never had a year like this. Ever. So whatever it is about the cider vinegar, we’ll be using it again for 2018’s breeding season – and maybe because of this lambing, I will really stick with it once again. This year, we have so very many beautiful girls!

Rapaho tries to die

We try very hard to take the very best care of all of our sheep including our newborn lambs. As soon as they arrive, we put a clip on their navel to keep infection out, dry them off with their mothers’ help, and eventually fit them with a small lamb coat to help wick away amniotic fluid and keep them warm. We weigh them so that we can track their rate of gain, and we pen them with their mother and any siblings so that they can get to know each other by sound, scent, and sight. Each pen has its own heat lamp to provide warmth. We keep them penned until I am convinced that the adult of the group is intent upon the health and safety of her lambs, and at that point – usually a few days, but sometimes up to a week or more – we release the new family into the mixing pen where they meet the rest of the new mothers and lambs and learn to live life within the larger flock.

Although this all typically seems to work quite well, occasionally, we come across a lamb who for whatever reason is intent upon trying to die. Sometimes there is something wrong with the lamb and with this realization, the mother turns towards the healthy lamb, leaving the other to fade away. This isn’t common (at least in our flock), but when it happens, it is usually in those first days in the jug. Usually, once the new family makes it to the mixing pen, the lambs thrive and go on to spend spring and summer days gamboling with their flock-mates and playing lamb-y games.

Occasionally, however, a lamb comes along that does perfectly well in the lambing jugs, but finds the mixing pen too difficult to manage. For whatever reason, they find the whole process of finding their mothers and getting the necessary nutrition too much of a challenge. Like Remus, our little milk thief (see blog dated Friday, March 2), they usually find other ways to get what they need. Most lambs have a strong instinct to choose life and so can become quite resourceful – but every once in a while, something goes wrong. Once every few years, I find a lamb in the flock that looks to be dying of hunger for no apparent reason. This year, Rapaho is one of those lambs.

Rapaho was a typically cute and healthy lamb the day after his birth.

Rapaho was born as the larger of Romeldale Osage’s twin ram lambs. His brother, Redwood, is now an impressive young ram with not only a great build, but also good growth. He and Rapaho were two peas in a pod in birth: Redwood was moorit brown and Rapaho was jet black, but both would hop and gambol around the lambing jug, often climbing up their mother and diving off into the soft straw bedding of the pen.

Osage’s other lamb, Redwood, was actually at a disadvantage at birth, since he was nearly a pound and a half lighter than his twin brother.

I had no reason to believe that there was anything wrong with the relationship between Rapajo and either his mother or brother. When they were penned in the jug, she fed them both equally, and never seemed to display any favoritism one way or the other. I released them into the mixing pen expecting nothing but great things from them both. In fact, they are on my list of ram lambs to watch for possible future breeding in our own flock – so when I started noticing Rapaho looking skeletal and standing hunched up in various corners of the barn, I knew I had to figure out what was going on. Something was obviously very wrong.

At birth, Rapaho weighed 11.0 pounds compared to his brother’s 9.6 pounds. He should have had the advantage over his brother at the teat, so after looking up his birth weight, I was even more confused as to what went wrong. When I finally nabbed him and weighed him last Friday, Rapaho was eighteen days old and weighed 13.4 pounds – a gain of only 2.4 pounds in eighteen days. His brother already weighed well over 25 pounds, so there was obviously a problem – but I could find no reason why Rapaho was not nursing, growing and gaining. It is a mystery.

The problem at this point is that it is too late to introduce this poor guy to a bottle – not that I haven’t tried. Unless a lamb has experience with bottle feeding from a very young age (in the first day or two of life), they will likely refuse to drink from it later, spitting out the nipple time after time, ignoring the fact that it is offering life-saving nutrition. Last Friday, I started offering Rapaho a bottle every four hours through the day – and when he refused it again and again, I finally inserted a stomach tube and poured the milk replacer into him. Four times each day, I have offered the bottle nipple, and four times each day, I have ended up stomach tubing him and poured in the contents of the bottle after reaching the point of frustration. Even with this now-stable source of nutrition, every time I came into the barn, I would find him looking just as skeletal, either sleeping under the heat lamp or standing all hunchy in a corner. Why wasn’t he looking better?

On Monday, after three full days of routine feedings, he still looked the same to me but I noticed that he was much harder to pick up. No, he didn’t run off (although he always tried!), but instead, I found it more of a challenge to heft him up into my lap – so I weighed him. After only three days of regular feedings, Rapaho now weighed 17.6 pounds; he had gained over four pounds in three days! That’s amazing!

So, I can’t help but wonder why he still looks so skeletal. I guess it’s probably because he is so far behind the curve – he is probably making up for the lost time in growth rather than in filling out the skin and bones that he has become. I will continue to offer Rapaho a bottle regularly throughout the day, and then will continue to insert a stomach tube and fill him up when he refuses the bottle. It isn’t an ideal situation, but at least it will keep him alive until he can eat creep feed on his own – we have only about three weeks to go.

A lamb-alanche!

Our flock has been pretty stable in its numbers for several years, now, hovering between about thirty and forty adult ewes who breed each fall. Once they are bred, I have a calendar of due dates, but there is no way to know exactly when each ewe will deliver her lambs. Instead, I have a window of delivery for each ewe, and when I plot them out on my calendar, it gives me an idea of which weeks are most likely to be heavy lambing weeks – and on the flip side, which weeks we will see lambs, but will also have many days free for appointments or other activities.

Our busiest week is always either at the end of February or the beginning of March, so I prepare myself in advance for lots of barn activity and little sleep. This year, that week came a bit later, but straddles the end of last week and early this week.

Even during this busy week, some days are busier than others. It is a bit unusual to have two ewes labor at exactly the same time, but not unheard of. Over the years, there have been probably a half-dozen times when I’ve sat in the barn watching one ewe labor to deliver her lambs when I suddenly realized that across the drop pen, another ewe was also in labor. Some labors last longer while others deliver fairly quickly, so I don’t think we’ve ever had two ewes deliver their lambs at exactly the same time. Yet, having two or even three ewes in labor on the same day with a flock our size is not unusual, and we’ve had up to four ewes deliver in the same 24 hour period in past years. That may not seem like many, but by the time I sit and watch their labor for sometimes several hours, and then clip umbilical cords, weigh each lamb, fit each with a small newborn lamb coat, settle the family in a jug to bond, feed out hay and distribute water, and then make sure every lamb has had its fill of colostrum before moving onto my next task – well, it’s a full day of sheep and little else!

Nia with newborn Reya started the lamb-alanche rolling!

And that brings me to last week in the twenty-eight hour period between just before midnight on Wednesday, March 7th (when Nia delivered her single Reya), and about 4 a.m. on Thursday, March 8th, when we had seven ewes deliver their lambs in our barn. In just over one day’s time, we nearly doubled the number of ewes who had delivered their lambs in a single day, from four in past years to this year’s seven.

So, what does that look like from my perspective? It means staying up late to deliver Nia’s single, and then finally heading to bed by about 1 a.m. After checking the barn cameras at about five, I quickly threw on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt over my PJs and headed out to the barn – no brushing of teeth, no morning coffee, and really, nothing that would look like my regular morning routine. I jumped out of bed and was outside in minutes to help January deliver her single, Rascal. Since I was already outside, I thought I would feed the sheep while I watched, hoping to still get that morning coffee when finished – but that was not to be. January’s labor fed right into O’Chloe’s, and once that little family was settled, I noticed Liberty in labor. One labor led into another until I finally headed into the house at about midnight to try to get some much-needed sleep – knowing that I had to check the barn camera after only a few hours because it looked like Heavenly was in the very early stages of labor.

The birth of Heavenly’s twin ewe lambs (Rebekah and Rachel) marked the end of a very chaotic 28 hour lamb-alanche last week!

Sure enough, when I checked the barn-cam at about 4 a.m., Heavenly had delivered her twins, so I dragged myself back to the barn one more time to welcome her girls. I got them all three settled into their jug and started little Rachel on a bottle of colostrum since Heavenly has only half a bag on which to feed her lambs – Rebekah is perfectly happy to take her feedings directly from Heavenly. Once all were fed and settled, I headed into the house to start my morning chores with the dogs – it was about 6 a.m.

Yes, Wednesday is one of those days that – in hindsight – is one big blur. I remember bits and pieces – the dogs wondering why their morning meal was three hours late, my own hunger as I sat in the cold barn on Wednesday evening, and our panic to build more jugs as one-by-one each jug that we had already in place was filled by ewes and their newly delivered offspring – but I still have to go back to my records to even remember which ewes produced lambs during that period.

Thankfully, all of those ewes and their lambs are doing well, and most are now in the mixing pen, adjusting to life within the larger flock. We have another nine ewes due between Sunday, March 11th, and Saturday, March 17th – I only hope they can do a better job of spacing things out than that last group! One lamb-alanche per year is plenty for me!

A close call — or two

Nia delivered her single ewe lamb on Tuesday morning. I saw her laboring on the barn camera when I got up at around 6:00, so I quickly dressed and went out to see whether she would need help. When I arrived, her water had broken, but there was no lamb to be seen. I made myself comfortable on the hay feeder and settled in to ensure that things went smoothly.

Experience gives you a sense of when to assist in a delivery. There are several rules of thumb that can help new shepherds make that decision, but in the end, there are some good reasons not to get involved too early as well as dire consequences in helping too late. Honestly, even very experienced shepherds get it wrong sometimes.

One of the things I keep an eye on is the fluid coming from the birth canal. Fluid that is light in color and clear — as Nia’s was when I arrived — indicates a lamb that is on its way but not stressed by the process. If the fluid becomes first yellow, then more orange, and eventually fairly brown, the lamb is experiencing increased stress as the ewe struggles to push it out. As Nia progressed and her fluid became yellow, I began to watch the time more closely. If the fluid got any darker, I knew I’d have to intercede; but I first wanted to give her a chance to deliver the lamb on her own.

Soon, I could see what looked like little hooves. At this point, I usually do a quick check to make sure that both front hooves and the nose (we call it “nose and toes”) are presenting in the birth canal. Any other presentation can range from problematic to impossible to deliver. As I inserted a single finger, I immediately felt a single hoof; then a small mouth immediately began sucking, as if my finger could offer the colostrum it wanted. But no matter how I tried, I could not find the other hoof — the lamb was presenting with only the head and a single hoof.

Normally this presentation is only slightly problematic. As long as the head has not left the birth canal, I tell new shepherds that they should immediately push the lamb back in and maneuver to pull the second hoof forward, delivering the lamb in the typical nose and toes position. In reality, a small lamb can be delivered with one leg back. The lamb is not as streamlined in that position, and one lumpy shoulder can be in a position to catch on the pelvic girdle. If the lamb is small enough to maneuver, the shepherd can usually slide the lamb around and free the shoulder for delivery. The lamb must have enough space as it comes through the tight bones of the pelvis to allow movement away from the caught shoulder.

As I felt my way around the lamb inside Nia, I realized that the lamb was big — and that she was a typical Romney, with big bone structure. She was a tight fit as I tried to push her back in, and Nia fought me every step of the way. I usually wait until the ewe takes a breath between pushes and then I try to move the lamb back into the uterus where I can work to find the second leg. Nia was having none of it; she wanted this lamb out in the worst way, and I couldn’t keep the lamb in the uterus long enough to find that second front leg. The lamb was coming with one leg back, whether I liked it or not.

Because of the issues, I began to pull, hoping to help Nia get this lamb out and praying that it would not catch. I knew that it could mean possible death for both Nia and her lamb if the lamb became stuck in the birth canal with no way back or forward. Nia pushed and I pulled for all I was worth — and the shoulder caught on the pelvis as the head emerged. The lamb was huge.

I worked and worked to free the shoulder. I knew that the lamb couldn’t breathe in this position and time was running out. I had only enough room to place one finger between the shoulder and the bones of Nia’s pelvis, but one finger was enough. I kept pushing with that one finger to pop the shoulder past the obstruction and suddenly it gave, and Reya popped free of the birth canal!

Romney Nia’s daughter, Reya, is normally a happy, gamboling, playful lamb that catches the eye of anyone visiting our barn.

Although Reya had a rough delivery, she recovered quickly. By the time I had gotten Nia and Reya settled into a lambing jug and left the little family to bond, the new ewe lamb was up and moving well. She easily found the source of milk and sucked hungrily. I monitored them via the barn camera in our bedroom every couple of hours, whenever I checked on the ewes in the drop pen. I always saw Reya sleeping next to the water bucket in the jug, a place many lambs enjoy because the heated bucket gives off a little extra warmth.

On my third check of the barn cameras, I once again saw Reya in the same place — and that raised a flag of concern. The little lamb needed to be getting up to nurse, and the fact that I kept seeing her in the same spot meant one of two things: either she really loved this spot 0r something was very wrong. I quickly pulled on my barn gear and headed out to check on her.

When I arrived in the barn, I was a bit panicked, and I had been right in my worry. Reya’s head was caught in one of the welded wire panels that make up the lambing jug. Unable to pull her head back through, she had struggled for some time, pushing the straw bedding away and leaving her flat against the cold concrete floor. Nia had tried to help the way most ewes do — by digging at her downed lamb with her front legs — but that had caused more harm than good since poor Reya couldn’t move away from her mother’s sharp hooves.

I pushed Reya’s little head back through the panel, and helped her up. She was unsteady on her feet — not unusual when a sheep has been cast or unable to stand for some time. I supported her as she nursed, until she was more stable on her feet and seemed to be returning to the happy, bouncy lamb I had left hours ago.

Reya is very lucky. She may not have a cat’s nine lives, but she has certainly used at least two of the ones she has been blessed with! Even Rick, who normally pays little attention to specific sheep, has asked me about “that cute, bouncy little Romney lamb in the back corner.” Believe me, if Rick has noticed her, there is an abundance of cute in that lamb!

Of ultrasounds and due dates

For most of our shepherding years, we’ve had our ewes ultrasounded after breeding. When I first heard of ultrasounds for sheep, I thought back to my pregnancy ultrasounds, which were rather expensive. I was fairly certain that we couldn’t afford to do the same for our sheep — and have it done on our farm, no less! It seemed an outlandish notion.

Yet when I had time to look into it, I found a very good ultrasound technician right here in the Midwest, who would scan our ewes for only a few dollars each. I got on her schedule that year (maybe 2003 or 2004), and she has been coming here ever since. I have said many times that information is power, and ultrasounding gives me information I can get in no other way — and that allows us to better shepherd our flock.

There are limitations to ultrasound, however, and it has never been quite so obvious as it is for some of my ewes this year. We run our breeding season for about 6 to 7 weeks — if less, a good number of ewes may be left unbred; if more, I’ll be overwhelmed by exhaustion during lambing. Our rams wear a marking harness for the entire breeding period, so that when they mount the ewes who are in heat, they leave a telltale crayon marking on the back of the ewe’s coat, just above the tail stub. I check the flock for these markings daily and list each marking carefully in my records.

Once breeding season ends, I take the marking information I have collected and figure out due dates based on what I have recorded. I add 148 days to each date of Romney marking and 150 days to the Romeldale/CVM markings to get each ewe’s marking due date. It is not unusual for a ewe to be marked more than once. Sometimes they are extraneous markings, but at other times, it might signal that the ewe didn’t breed the first time or that she lost the pregnancy and was re-bred towards the end of the breeding season. Other ewes — like Grace this year — seem to be marked a lot for no discernable reason. Grace was marked every few days for a while, but I don’t know why the ram was so interested in her and why she was willing to stand for him so many times. It just happened, and I wrote it all down.

About 45 days after I pull out the rams, the ultrasound technician comes to our farm and, within about an hour, gives me information based on the scans. We learn which ewes are bred or open, how many fetuses each bred ewe carries, and the gestational age of the fetuses in days. Once the technician is gone, I convert the gestational age to a due date and enter the result onto the calendar. For example, if we scan the ewes on December 3 and the gestational age of a Romeldale’s fetus is 53 days, I subtract 53 from 150 (getting 97) and count out 97 days from December 3 to find a due date of March 10. If it were a Romney, I would use 148 days instead of 150, so her due date would be 95 days after December 3 (March 8). Then I can easily compare the marking due dates to the ultrasound due dates.

This is the point where many people get themselves into trouble. Because the ultrasound date comes from a “specialist” with some very expensive equipment, it’s easy to think that it’s more accurate than markings from a ram crayon. But this is not true. The very best due date always comes from the marking harness. Yet as mentioned above, there can be more than one marking harness date — so how do we decide? Well, it’s comprised of both science and art. If there is only one marking date and the due date from the scan is within a couple of weeks of that date, I use the marking due date as the date that the ewe will deliver, plus or minus a few days.

With multiple markings, of course, it isn’t that clear. This year, Romeldale Phoebe was marked twice with possible due dates on both March 7th and March 20th. Normally I would assume that the later date is the actual due date, but her scan showed her carrying triplets due on March 10. Because March 7th is closer to the scan date than the 20th, I decided to assume she was due the 7th — and locked her into the drop pen last Friday. I’d rather err on the side of caution and lock her in early than have her deliver triplets out in the snow.

Yet our drop pen is very crowded, and in looking at Phoebe today, it’s quite obvious that she is nowhere near ready to deliver her lambs; she looks as if she has around a couple of weeks to go. As a result, I moved her back into the general population of bred ewes, giving the other girls in the drop pen a bit more elbow room. It was a good thing I had all of Phoebe’s markings (and that tentative due date of the 20th) to verify what I was seeing in the barn!

I also have Romney Grace, who was marked with possible due dates of Feb. 21st, March 8th, March 10th, or March 17th. (I told you he liked her!) Her ultrasound showed her due on March 3, so I again locked her in for the earlier of the possible dates. She has enjoyed her time in the drop pen for these many days, and I now know she will likely deliver based on the March 8 or March 10 dates. She is finally getting close!

So for all of those shepherds who have had their ewes ultrasounded, beware of the gestational ages you are given with the scan — they may or may not be accurate. If you used a marking crayon during breeding, that is your best information by far. There is nothing better than careful observation and good record-keeping when it comes to shepherding!