January’s surprise

On January 30th, I wrote about our girl January, who is a close sheep-friend of mine and had ultrasounded in December with two lambs. I had suspected that she might carry triplets rather than twins, so contrary to my usual practice of feeding our ewes based on the number of lambs they scan, I moved her into the high-nutrition group containing the girls with triplets. She scanned with twins the year before and then gave us three beautiful lambs. I had no way of knowing, but I suspected she might be doing the same thing again this year.

This past Wednesday morning, it was obvious that January would deliver her lambs that day. Even well before noon, she was pacing the drop pen, digging at the bedding (a common sign of labor) and licking her lips in anticipation of cleaning off her newborn lambs. When I came out to the barn to feed just after noon, she came to my side whenever I was in her area, wanting a head scratch or belly rub. She was obviously uncomfortable and found solace in my company, so I spent a bit of extra time with her. I had no idea how long it would take, but I knew we would be welcoming her babes in a matter of hours, not days.

I was in and out of the barn the whole day. We’ve found in past years that many ewes tend to deliver as a low-pressure weather system moves through the area, and Wednesday was no different. As seven inches of snow fell around the barn throughout the day, three ewes delivered five lambs and were moved to pens of their own, leaving January with only Jaylee and Koko for company in the drop pen. January didn’t much care about friends at that point, though — she was more focused on what was happening to her body and when her lambs would come. As dusk drew near, she was restless and uncomfortable.

January in active labor, big round belly already somewhat deflated

January in active labor, big round belly already somewhat deflated

In the late afternoon, things quieted down a bit in the barn and I came into the house to warm up and attend to our dogs. As I went about my usual inside tasks, I began to hear loud calling from the barn. Honestly, this has never happened before. The house is fairly well insulated from the happenings in the barn, so I was surprised to hear such a racket. I quickly went up to the barn monitor in our bedroom to see what was amiss. As I scanned the four views of the interior of the barn, it become obvious where the noise was coming from: January was calling and calling – not for her lambs, as many ewes do. No, this call in no way resembled the soft chortling that ewes use for their babies. This was something else. It seemed like January was calling for me! I quickly pulled on my warm barn clothes and ran for the barn.

As soon as I opened the door to the Sheep Barn, January’s loud calling mellowed a bit. Yes, she had been calling me, and as soon as I reached her side, she quieted down, rubbing up against me and moaning softly. Labor had indeed intensified, yet after all this time, there were still no lambs. I decided to find out what was happening. Obviously, January was concerned enough to call for me, and after so much time, I began to worry about the well-being of her lambs. Long labors can be very hard on the lambs, and her labor had lasted most of the day. I gloved up and, talking softy to January, slowly reached in to find out where in the process her firstborn might be.

Reaching into a sheep to help with delivery is often intimidating the first time. I’ve done this so many times now that I hardly think about it anymore. I usually need someone to hold the ewe, but this was January — and she had called me. She stood rock still as I tried to figure out where things stood. The secret to successfully aiding in labor is to “see” with your fingers and not your eyes. After reaching in, the first thing my fingers encountered was an amniotic sac. I tried to feel past that, but felt nothing but fluid and then something hard. It was not a hoof nor a skull, either of which would have indicated that the lamb was in the birth canal. I wasn’t sure what it was, so I felt around some more. On the bottom of the birth canal, I felt something thin and soft that moved back and forth a bit. I couldn’t tell whether this was part of the lamb or part of January, but I knew it wasn’t supposed to be there. I began to worry – I didn’t want to lose January or her lambs, so I called the vet.

Unfortunately, the vet couldn’t come for hours, so we were on our own. I again reached in and tried to “see” what was there. This time, I decided that the squirmy soft thing that I felt the first time was a tail – and the hard wall behind it, the butt of the lamb. It felt like the first lamb was coming butt-first, with the back legs still in the uterus. A lamb cannot be delivered in this position, so January had been right to call for help. After a couple of tries to reposition the lamb, I pushed the butt back in and pulled the rear legs forward into the birth canal. One good pull later, and January’s first 2015 lamb arrived: a white ram lamb named October (10.3 pounds).

Once I pull the first lamb, I have to decide whether I will pull the rest or see if the ewe will deliver them on her own. In this case, after so many hours of labor, I decided to help January with all of her lambs. As I reached in for the second lamb, I quickly encountered a nose and two front hooves, already in line to be delivered. A nice steady pull later, January’s second white boy was born: Ogos (meaning ‘August’ in Malay – 10.9 pounds).

January with her triplets: (from left to right) Otsail, Ogos, and October

January with her triplets: (from left to right) Otsail, Ogos, and October

Even though she had scanned with only two lambs, I decided to go in one more time to verify that all lambs were out. In my opinion, January had been way too big around to have only two ten-pound lambs. A cursory search had my hand once again around two front hooves, with a nose not far behind. Once again, I slowly pulled a lamb into the world, with January pushing for all she was worth. This last lamb was also a white ram lamb: Otsail (meaning ‘February’ in Basque – 12.3 pounds).

January and her boys were moved to a jug (pen) and will spend the next four days getting to know each other as a family unit. Although I would have loved to have another daughter from my good friend, three healthy, bouncing babies are blessing enough for this year – particularly when she only scanned with two! So January did have a surprise in store for us when I wrote last month: a bouncing white four-legged surprise named Otsail. Congratulations, January!


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