A quick note to readers: this blog is a long one, and as a result, I’ve decided to split it into two parts – this is the first part, posting on Friday, March 24th. The continuation of the story will be posted tomorrow, Saturday, March 25th – even though I don’t usually post on weekends. I didn’t want to leave you hanging until Monday.
The work load during lambing can be mind-numbing. From the broken sleep due to middle-of-the-night barn checks (cameras or not), to the many different feeding groups that each need their own ration, and from refilling frozen water buckets to washing loads and loads of dirty towels and barn gear, it seems like there is never an end to what needs to be done. I usually work well into the night, so Rick helps as he can by taking an early morning shift before he prepares to leave for work. By the end of the lambing season, I am wiped out and cranky, and the last thing I really want to hear him say at 5:00 a.m. is, “You have lambs coming!”
Yet those words are not to be ignored lest my slumber invites in the very guest that I word so hard to shut out throughout lambing season: Death. Although most of my ewes can easily lamb on their own, clean up their new babes, and get them filled with colostrum without assistance, it takes only an instant for the very good to go very bad – and that is why I am there. I am the last line of defense keeping Death outside of our lambing barn. If I can’t fix it, it usually won’t end well – this I know from experience. I try very hard to be there every time.
So when Rick awoke me yesterday morning with the very words I so dread to hear, I dragged myself out of the nice warm bed and layered on my barn gear. When I arrived outside, I was happy to see that colored Romney McKinley had delivered a nice-sized colored ewe lamb, Quebec, who was already cleaned off and looking at the world around her. I sat back to sip my coffee and await the next lamb, since McKinley had scanned with twins last December.
I know from data collected this year that when more than one lamb is expected, the next lamb usually comes about an hour after the first, so I settled myself in for a wait. As the end of that hour neared, I noticed that McKinley was beginning to show signs of the next lamb coming: digging at the ground, licking her lips, and looking back over her shoulder. I grabbed a towel and got ready to welcome the next lamb to the world. Yet, as I waited, I started to notice several things that somewhat concerned me. The fluid that dripped from McKinley’s back end was not as light as I would have liked, indicating that the lamb within was becoming stressed. The fluid on her first girl had been somewhat orange, and this fluid looked darker yet – and that was not a good sign. I decided to put on my short vinyl gloves and see whether perhaps the lamb was turned backwards, since this was taking longer than I had expected.
As my fingers gently found their way into the birth canal, I felt something soft and lumpy, and when I gave that a bit of a squeeze, I could feel pointed bones. In this type of situation, I am trying to “see” with my fingers, converting tactile information from my hand into visual information that can help me figure out what is happening and what I need to do. Unfortunately, what I was feeling did not compute. The closest that my brain could come to converting what I felt to something useful was that the lamb was coming butt-first. In this position you can often feel the hip bones and soft lumpy muscles and tail as the tail slides around from side to side. I knew she couldn’t deliver this lamb on her own if I was right about what I was feeling – I had to find the rear legs and pull the lamb out quickly. I pulled my hand out, threw off my jacket (and yes, it was freezing cold out there!), and put on a shoulder-length OB glove to go deeper and try to get this worked out.
Now, I will admit here that just seeing the OB glove generally sends all of my ewes into a tizzy: they are not stupid, and they pretty much know what that glove means. Yet, McKinley was a sport – although she didn’t want to cooperate at first, within a short time, she knew she was in trouble and stood for me to help – thankfully!
So, I reached in and pushed the lamb back in to try to find the rear legs – but there were none to find. No matter how much I felt around for something to grab onto, all I could find was the small hard bones that I had felt initially, still surrounded by a layer of lumpy tissues. When I removed my hand to allow the lamb to once again come into the birth canal, I saw an even worse sign: there, beginning to slip out next to my hand, was part of the afterbirth. Then, I knew this was bad. The afterbirth generally only comes after all of the lambs have been delivered – yet McKinley had scanned with two. Did this mean that the lamb coming was already dead?
As my mind tried to make sense what I was “seeing,” a small lump was pushed out onto the straw; McKinley had delivered a tiny mummified lamb. A mummified lamb is a fairly rare occurrence, only having happened here a few times in the past. They usually slip out with the afterbirth, and like this time, are about eight inches long and maybe an inch or so wide. These lambs have obviously died sometime during gestation for unknown reasons, and they never seem to create problems for the ewe. We even had one that had a terrible odor once, but we’ve never seen infections in the ewe as a result. We just pick them up and bury them in the manure pile.
The one thing that I remember from every mummified lamb we’ve had is that they slip out with the afterbirth. Usually, the afterbirth comes after all lambs have been born. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder whether that was perhaps not the case here. McKinley had scanned with two lambs in December – the first one and the mummified one? Or was there still another in there? I gloved back up and went back in to “see” what I could find out.
To be continued tomorrow!