More losses

This has been a very rough year for our sheep, particularly our lambs. Internal parasites have been terrible due to a number of factors. We had a relatively mild winter, which allowed most of the parasite eggs shed last summer to hatch out this spring (compared to the 15% that usually make it through after a cold winter). The parasite load in our fields was already very high in May when we weaned our lambs, and it has only gotten worse with the hot, humid summer. We usually have a period in summer when the rain sharply decreases and the grass stops growing, when the fields dry out and the parasites dry up. We never got that period of natural pest control this year.

All sheep except for newborn lambs carry internal parasites, and the newborns pick them up as soon as they go onto pasture. Since totally eliminating parasites is an impossible task, we focus on managing them by keeping the numbers in check. We use a combination of different strategies: genetic selection for a higher parasite tolerance, pasture rotation, mowing to expose eggs and larvae to weathering and sun, separating the most susceptible group (the lambs) from the others as soon as we can, giving those most susceptible to parasites the cleanest fields, and careful deworming as needed. We monitor our sheep for weight loss, anemia, and scouring (diarrhea) and work to return affected members to health. Most of the time, that works well; but this summer, it has been frustrating.

Some days ago, I wrote about the loss of Porter. Although we brought about half of the ram lambs into the barn for deworming and hay (to prevent immediate re-infestation), Poseidon went down and then died two days after Porter. Poseidon was a big, beautiful boy who was dewormed at the same time as the rest of the ram lambs. Like many of the others, he was severely anemic, but he seemed to handle it for a time — before he went down. Desperate to save him, the vet and I put together a plan: a single dose of iron would be split in half, with one half injected and the other half administered orally. Since sheep can react negatively to a full-dose iron injection, it was our hope that dividing it would give him a boost while avoiding the reaction. A half hour after the injection, I was left wondering whether his sudden death was due to the anemia or a reaction to the iron injection.

On Saturday we moved sheep into new pastures. In light of the parasite issues in our young rams, I decided to bring the ram lambs into the paddock around the barn, give them a good deworming, and then provide hay and grain to help them regain their strength. Just after we finished the ewes’ hooves and before we could even get to the ram field, I noticed a white Romney ram lamb lying on his side in the field.

I ran out to find Pinot, the biggest son of Kabernet and a beautiful boy who had shown above-average growth this year. I had dewormed him two weeks before and left him in with the rest of the ram lambs, hoping he would overcome his anemia now that the internal parasites were gone. When I found him, he was still anemic (no surprise, since this takes time to rebuild), but he was also running a fever and had mucus running from his nose. He could not stand, and we brought him up to the barn to join the rest of the ram lambs and treated him with an antibiotic.

Pinot continued to be very weak, only able to lift his head. Beginning Saturday, I went out several times each day, moving him to a new spot once he soiled an area, turning him from one side to the other to allow for good circulation, and moving him with the shade. He got a high-energy, vitamin-packed liquid feed supplement orally each day as well as a bucket of tempting greens — dandelions, clover, alfalfa, pine needles, grass, grape and raspberry leaves. For days, he ate the greens in his bucket, followed by a half bucket of water. I had been wondering how long he could go on like this. I didn’t want to put him down if he could fight this off — if he would still choose life. Yet I didn’t want him to suffer needlessly and then die. It was my responsibility to provide him a good life, no matter how long or short.

This morning I made a vet appointment, hoping my vet could come up with some other way to save Pinot — but that was before Pinot refused what was in his bucket. I had once again picked the very best I could find, but he ate only one grape leaf and then lay his head on top of the greens in the bucket. I knew he was done fighting — and that made me incredibly sad. I still hoped the vet might be able to turn things around, but that hope was shrinking with each hour.

As a shepherd, so much energy is focused on trying to help a sick sheep recover. Almost every minute is spent working to better that sheep’s present moments or thinking of ways you might be able to save them in the long-term. All of that energy brings with it attachment; no longer is that sheep only one of many in the field. After all of that focus and attention, I became linked with Pinot — he has been in my heart and on my mind constantly for days. I really wanted to see him live.

Yet when I arrived home after my weekly lunch with Mom, I found that in my absence Pinot had quit fighting. I can’t blame him. It was likely easier this way, with no one but his friends to witness his defeat. When I entered the paddock, he lay in the shade against the straw bale that I had placed to support him, his head in the bucket of greens, his chest no longer rising with every ragged breath. His several white Romney friends lay up against him, seemingly not realizing that he had recently left them.

It is at times like this that I wonder what more I could have done. I have used all of my knowledge and instinct to try to save my lambs from the enemy. We have not had a loss to parasites in five years, and yet this year we have had three. We have never had a single year with such losses. How many more must I lose before we get this under control? I don’t know, but I’m determined to turn this around! Tomorrow we start feeding out spinach and kale, both known for their high iron content. It won’t do anything about the parasites, but I’m hoping it will help with the anemia. The battle continues — minus Porter, Poseidon, and Pinot, who are all done fighting.

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  • ElaineChicago says:

    This is all so sad to read about. I’m sure you are devastated especially with all the care and attention you give your sheep.

    • Dee says:

      Yes, and quite scary, actually. I am hearing from many in this area having similar issues – and you will likely be hearing more about steps we are taking to try to improve the situation.

  • twinsetellen says:

    My sister is a shepherd in eastern Pennsylvania and has had several animals die due to parasites this year. She reports that many of the shepherds in that area are having the same issues, with barber pole worm gaining resistance to the dewormers at an alarming rate. From experiencing her sadness at losing several animals, I have much empathy for your losses. It’s scary to think how widespread this seems to be.

    Are there breeds that are significantly more resistant? I wonder if using a genetic repair technology like Crispr to insert the needed genes (if they were identified, if they even exist) into non-resistant sheep in order to preserve the rest of the herd genetics while gaining resistance could ever be an option.

    • Dee says:

      We actually select our flock for resistance/resilience to parasites, and we often hear from shepherds who have our bloodlines that they are much better in their fields against parasites than their other sheep. Even so, this is a rough year…

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