Choices

It was early Wednesday morning of last week. The sky was still dark, without a star to be seen, and the northwest wind brought sleet and freezing rain. It was warmer inside the barn than outside, but not by much. It had been very cold for the past week, with temperatures in the barn dropping into the teens on some days — much too cold for little lambs. Yet lambs come when they will, and Gabby’s twins would be making their appearance sooner rather than later. I had noticed on the monitor in the house that she had started to push, meaning the first lamb would make its appearance soon, so I went to the barn and sat in the drop pen, waiting.

Gabby, a Romeldale/CVM, had scanned with twins in December, but I wasn’t so sure anymore. Gabby has big lambs when she has only twins – otherwise, she has triplets. Big twins look a lot like smaller triplets when you are looking only at the girth of the ewe, so I knew she might surprise us and have three. It wouldn’t be the first time — as a matter of fact triplets had been her norm for many years now — so I wanted to be prepared.

In only a few minutes, she pushed out her first big lamb, a lovely patterned ram lamb, and turned to lick him off and give him a proper greeting. As she licked, I went about my routine without thinking. Due to so little sleep, I sometimes  feel that I go through some births on autopilot: clean the face of the lamb, dry the ears and tail (to keep them from freezing), put a clip on the navel, strip the ewe’s teats (to start the milk flow for the lamb’s first meal), and then coat and weigh the lamb. The boy was cleaned off, his tail and ears dry, and the clip was on the cord to keep out bacteria from the bedding. I leaned in to strip a bit of milk off the nearest teat and, to my surprise, found no milk there. There was plenty of milk in her bag — she was so engorged that it was hard for her to walk — but the milk would not flow through the teat, no matter how hard I tried.

I was nervous, but okay. This happened last year during the coldest weeks. Fully 1/3 of the ewes delivering during that time could not milk on one side. The vet had come out and concluded that it was due to the cold. Those same ewes were producing just fine for their lambs this year, so it was obviously a temporary issue. I worked my way around to the other side and again began to milk out a bit of colostrum. That’s when the panic began to set in. Although Gabby had lots of colostrum in there for her babies, it would not come out. She had nothing to offer her lambs to keep them alive.

Okay, okay, I thought, calm down. We have colostrum in the freezer for just these types of emergencies. Yet this first lamb was a boy, and bottle rams don’t have long futures here. I know that many of our lambs eventually go into the meat market, but it is a simple matter of decency to me: no lamb should already be headed to the freezer on its day of birth. Every lamb born here has a shot at being a breeding ram or ewe. We may determine during the ensuing months of life that this or that lamb isn’t of high enough quality to continue as a breeding animal, but at birth, they are all in. They must prove to me whether they can meet our standards, but that comes with time.

So I sat and stared at Gabby’s ram lamb, Oleander, trying to figure out what to do. It was bitingly cold, so he would need that colostrum soon. He was already up and poking around Gabby’s side, looking for a teat, and I knew he would find nothing to fill his belly or keep him warm. I agonized over what to do — and then I saw Fern, a Romney, in the early stages of labor on the other side of the drop pen. She had picked up the scent of amniotic fluid, so enticing to ewes in labor, and came over to investigate.

I suddenly had an idea. Fat Fern, as we lovingly call her, had scanned with only a single this year after having been open for the past two years. She used to give us twins, and her family line is built for triplets, so although she scanned with only one lamb, I wondered whether the scan had been correct. So far this year, our technician has made several bad calls, so I had my doubts. Yet if Fern carried only one and fell for this young ram lamb, perhaps it would be best to let Fern feed him. She would surely have enough for him and her own lamb eventually, and that could help slim her down in the process, extending her life.

Yet, taking a lamb from a ewe after she has labored hard is not an easy thing for me. Besides that, if Fern ended up carrying twin boys, she would never have enough milk for all three — not when her body was expecting to feed only two. In that case, I would be dooming one of her boys, even though she had milk enough for two — was that fair? I had no way of knowing how many other lambs, ram or ewe, Gabby carried. I might have the same issue with the next lamb, or another after that. My window of decision-making was closing, and I had to act fast. What to do with Oleander?

I quickly made the decision to give him to Fern. As Gabby lay down in the straw to push out her second lamb, I put Fern and Oleander into a small pen where they could bond. He had already had his first drink of colostrum from Fern, who happily pushed him towards her teat. I only hoped there would be enough for Fern’s coming lamb(s).

Gabby’s second lamb was a girl, Olive, so I relaxed a bit. This lamb could be bottle-fed until weaning, and it would only make her sweeter. After all, our girl January had exactly this history and she is a wonderfully friendly ambassador to farm visitors. We heated Olive’s first bottle of colostrum and she took five ounces — wonderful for a first meal. I returned to the house.

I watched on the monitor as Fern labored, waiting to see whether I had ruined the future for her lamb(s). When I saw her lie down to push, I quickly put on my cold-weather gear and again headed out. I arrived just in time to see her deliver a sweet white ewe lamb, Oyster, onto the straw bedding of the pen. She quickly stood and cleaned off her new daughter, making sure to also lick at her now-dry adopted son — she was not about to lose his affections while attending to her girl!

In the end, the decision I made on that cold, dark morning worked out to everyone’s advantage, I think. Gabby now has a single ewe lamb who she dotes on. After many years of triplets, she can use a bit of a break. Her daughter Olive is doing well on bottles, growing round and chubby. It seems that with the warmer weather, Gabby is beginning to let down her milk, so the bottles may only be short-term, after all.

Fern now views both Oleander and Oyster as her own. The fact that she has such an unusually colored lamb as Oleander only thrills her all the more. When they lie in the pen, he is always tucked up under her chin, staying warm with her body heat and breath. Oyster, on the other hand, is an independent soul. She will lie nearby, but she’s more likely with a group of friends than with her brother and mother. If Fern is calling for a missing lamb, you can bet it’s Oyster and not Oleander — she’s the wanderer and he’s the mama’s boy.

As their shepherdess, I try to be fair when dealing with the flock, but I also need to ensure the future of each flock member as much as possible. Most of the time when the choices need to be made, all the facts are not yet available. In the end, I must rely on instinct and a sense of responsibility that I hope will keep me on the right road with my flock. And in this case, the decision seems to have worked out for the best.

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