Five front legs forward

Ivy tends to deliver on or just after her due date, and since she was due on Saturday, I kept careful vigil all through that day. She had scanned with three or four lambs — trips or quads — and I didn’t want to let her down if she needed me. By evening she seemed close to going into labor, but there was still nothing concrete, so Rick and I eventually went to bed as usual.

Even though ewes with singles or twins will often hold off until morning to deliver, I knew that with trips or quads, Ivy wouldn’t put off her labor for long. I checked at 12:30 a.m. and then again about 3:00 a.m., but there was nothing to see on the barn monitor. When I checked at 5:00 a.m., once my eyes adjusted, I couldn’t tell what I was seeing. It looked as if Ivy lay dead against one side of the drop pen. There was something else that looked like moving straw — it had the same coloration on the black-and-white night-vision as the straw, but it kept moving, just a little. I stared but it just didn’t make sense, so I pulled on my lambing gear and headed out to the barn.

When I arrived, it was obvious that I had trouble. I gloved up as I took in the scene: Ivy lay cast and hardly breathing. One very light and spotted ram lamb lay curled up in the cold straw. Although Ivy was still alive, she was not doing well. I pulled her coat so she could hold up her head and take the pressure off her lungs. She put her head in my lap and began to breathe a little easier as we waited for her to gather strength and get up.

After a bit, she looked better and her breathing had returned to normal, so I helped her to her feet. Since she was still unsteady, I pinned her against the side panel of the pen, holding her upright as she regained her equilibrium. A few minutes later I released her and she wobbled over to her firstborn and began to lick.

I knew that we likely had a greater problem since her other lambs had not yet made an appearance. As she tended her ram lamb, I carefully pushed my gloved hand into the birth canal to assess her labor. Shockingly, I felt five front legs, all trying to exit the birth canal at the same time.

I first had to figure out which legs went together, then push three legs back and try to keep the two legs from the same lamb in the birth canal while tried to find the head that went with them. This was even harder than it sounds. Poor Ivy — at least she understood I was trying to help. She stood braced in the straw and basically let me do what I had to do. I called a friend, as I feared I’d be unable to get them out alive, and I continued to work.

Emilly arrived, and I finally found the head that I thought went with the legs. Yet pulling the lamb out seemed impossible; despite pulling hard, we barely made progress. I went in again and checked: left leg to shoulder to the neck, and the head aligned in the birth canal. But I still had to hold back three other legs that were constantly encroaching — there just wasn’t enough room to work with so many legs in the way! I suddenly realized that one of the legs we had pulled forward belonged to another lamb, so I quickly pushed that leg back and tried to find the proper leg. Eventually we gave that up and simply pulled the lamb out with only one leg and head forward, a dangerous move that just happened to work. It was a perfect solid-black ewe lamb weighing 9.6 lbs — and it was dead. No matter how hard we tried, we could not revive her.

Yet there were more lambs still in there! Again I pushed in and found way too many legs in the birth canal. I found a head connected to legs, and although it was turned back, I could pull it forward. I suspected this was the lamb who had pushed his leg out and tried to slide out with the recently birthed one. I quickly delivered a ram lamb weighing 10.6 pounds, but he wasn’t doing so well. Emilly and I worked on him for a long time. I puffed air into his nose and mouth, and we rubbed and rubbed. I know from experience that a lamb is not dead until it is cold and dead — and that if you find a cold lamb in the barn, it is not dead until it is warm and dead. There is sometimes a fine line between life and death in the lambing barn!

Eventually this second ram lamb began to breathe on his own – first one small breath and then another, each a bit deeper and stronger. Yet I had felt five legs at first, and unless a lamb had both its front and back legs in the birth canal, there had to be one more. I stuck my whole arm into Ivy and went looking for the missing lamb, but I didn’t find a skull, pointed hooves or angled hocks. All I felt was soft and squishy sheep insides. I must have miscounted the legs — after all, I was still half asleep when I arrived outside. Maybe I had mistaken one or more of the back legs as front legs. It was hard to know.

DOB 2/26/2017: Colored Romeldale Ivy with the remaining quads Quindaro (R, 10.6 lbs) and Quechan (R, 9.9 lbs), resting after a rough morning

We waited in the barn for an hour to make sure the new family was settled in to their lambing jug, and then we went into the house to warm up with a cup of coffee. It was only a couple of hours later — when we went out to the barn to check on the weakest of Ivy’s two ram lambs — that we found her fourth lamb, a solid moorit ewe, lying in the straw of the pen, born dead among the afterbirth.

This was a birth full of of life and of death. It could have been much worse — I could have lost Ivy when she was cast, along with all three lambs that she still carried. Or I could perhaps have saved them all, if only things had been different. But I’ve come to know that reality is what it is. During lambing we see incredible feats of survival — and terrible tragedies of loss. This story was a bit of both. I am thrilled to have two live lambs and Ivy here to deliver more lambs another day. Yet my heart aches for the two ewe lambs that we lost. I will likely relive this scenario for days, trying to figure out how to do better next time. That’s all I can gain from the sadder parts of this story — what I might do next time to create a better outcome. And I can watch Ivy’s boys nurse and grow. They are beautiful!

Skirting progress: All of our Winter Shearing fleeces have been skirted and recorded. Unless we have a ewe in labor at that exact time, I hope to post them to our notification list on Thursday afternoon, March 2 – most likely at around 4 p.m. CST. A delivery in the barn may delay that a bit, but I still plan to post on that day. It won’t be long now!

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6 Comments

  • Janice says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about the lost babies, but the survivors look lovely!

  • ElaineChicago says:

    I’m happy that Ivy and 2 remaining lambs are o.k. What a nightmare for the both of you. Sorry for your loss.

  • Erika says:

    Great post, I am happy you were able to save two lambs for Ivy to mother. Your experience helping me deal with my last difficult triplet delivery where we lost the first two lambs. You mention “a lamb is not dead until it is cold and dead.” If a lamb is born without a heart beat do you think there is a chance for resuscitation?

    • Dee says:

      Hi, Erika! I’ve been considering exactly how to answer your question, and I’m sure others might disagree with me, but here goes. In my own experience, I don’t know that I can always know for absolute sure if there is or is not a heartbeat. If the heartbeat is strong, then yes, not only can I often feel it, but I can also see it at times, in the neck or in some other places where the vessels are near the surface of the skin. Yet, when the lamb appears to be lifeless, is it truly lifeless? Or is there just the slightest bit of blood flow? In the case of Ivy’s second boy, we worked for a very long time, trying to get him to live – and happily, it worked. I’ve brought back many lambs that the vet present at the birth deemed “too far gone.” I guess I’m just stubborn, and I’m not willing to give in to death unless there is no choice – until that decision has already been made long before and I am obviously only prolonging my own agony at the loss. If there is any chance – if they are not yet cold (or if I found them cold or frozen, if they are not yet warm), I keep working in hopes that this will be the one that proves that life can sometimes hide in seemingly lifeless lambs. Not everyone has the time to do this, but here, it is the way I work.

  • Erika says:

    Thanks Dee! I appreciate your response. I think your attitude is the attitude I will take. It is horrible looking back wondering what if… If it doesn’t work you still have a dead lamb, but if it does work you have a live lamb. I am trying to translate human mouth to mouth with a lamb. Do you cover the entire mouth and nose with your mouth? Thanks again for all your great info!

    • Dee says:

      Yes, you want to cover both their nose and mouth, making sure before you do so that you have cleared the airway of mucous, etc. Then, give very small puffs – one every five to ten seconds or so. I don’t worry so much about how often, since the adrenaline is really flowing by that point and even five seconds feels like forever. It is more likely that you will give more breaths than needed rather than not enough. Good luck!

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