Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lambing Ate My Life

Author's note: Since the birth of the bottle lamb, I've been in serious sleep-deprivation mode, which has not only limited my writing time, but also has sort of squashed my creativity in general.... since I tend to discover that I'm staring off vaguely into space, gently hallucinating, rather than, say, composing a sentence. I apologize for the gap in posting and will try to get some sleep so I can get caught up here. I appreciate your patience... and as my last ewe just lambed successfully, I'm hoping that things are planning to settle down a bit soon, with a resultant upswing on the writing time. Meanwhile, I hear plaintive bleating, which I believe is meant to indicate that I should be in the kitchen making a lamb bottle RIGHT NOW....

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April Fool

So yesterday - the first of April - I had an appointment to get my hair cut. It being my day off, I scheduled it for 11:00, the earliest available slot. I slept in a bit, waking to an odd drifting snowfall: sparse, light flakes, floating randomly about in the air - not just downwards toward earth, but upwards, sideways, swirling in invisible eddies in apparent defiance of gravity and other laws of physics. I wondered at first if it was ash fall - Mount Redoubt has been blowing her stack with some regularity for a while now - but outside I caught a flake and inspected it. Nope, snow. Just odd snow.

After getting my hair all buffed and polished in a lovely spa-like atmosphere (the new digs of my hairdresser), I drove home through the random swirl of snow. For some reason - call it a whim, call it a hunch - I went out to Wildwood to check on the proceedings there. As it happened, no one was at home, and there were two fresh lambs down, still wet.

I gathered the towels and sweaters and iodine and went down to tend to matters. There were two ewe lambs, one black and one white, out of my second black ewe, Mesquite. The black one - smaller, but drier - appeared to have been born first. I iodined her umbilical stump and put her in a sweater. The white one, somewhat larger, seemed weaker. She was making a horrible seal-cough and walking on her knuckled fetlocks on the front legs. Well, fresh baby, hasn't had much time yet to get things working; I iodined her and sweatered her and hung about to see what was up.

After an hour I was not sure she'd yet nursed. She'd tried plenty often, but she was having trouble on her front legs, and was often interrupted by her seal-bark cough. I tried holding the ewe and putting the baby on the teat at the same time, but as it turns out I need two more hands for that operation, or else arms approximately 9 feet long. So I went inside and called R on her cell.

R was in Anchorage, but S was on her way home, so I waited until she arrived and changed into her grubbies. In the interim, the white lamb had not improved much; S related to me that she'd thought the ewe would lamb the night before, because she'd been dripping fluid from her vulva. We both wondered if perhaps the white baby had aspirated as a result of a prolonged pre-labor phase, or during the lambing itself.

As it turned out we were unable to get the white lamb to nurse, and the stress of trying to make her do so exacerbated her cough as she shuffled along on her wrists. Reluctantly, I made the decision to pull the lamb for bottle rearing. It's always better to have the mother rear the baby; typically they are way better at it than we are, and there are other considerations, such as the fact that once you begin hand-rearing, your window for returning the baby to the mother is short, and the fact that, should you have to bottle-rear the baby, you can't (unless you are more heartless than I) later slaughter it for food. And then of course there is the consideration that a bottle-baby is a bit of a cramp in one's style, since it needs to be fed repeatedly in the night, and can't be left to fend for itself should you wish to, say, go out to dinner and a movie with your boyfriend. Still, this is a ewe lamb, who has potential future value (if she does well) as a breeding (and possibly dairying) animal. Moreover, it became increasingly apparent through the afternoon that should I not have pulled her, she would have died.

To begin with she wasn't a good suckler; this may have been in part that she was weak and tired and cold, and it may have been in part that her breathing interfered with suckling properly. I managed to get some colostrum (milked the day before off of Silver, she of the singleton ram) into her, but it was slow going. A little later in the evening, when she was dry, I took her sweater back to S&R at Wildwood; after all, if she was going to be living inside, she wouldn't have need of it, and there are 2 ewes and 4 does yet to give birth out there. While there, We gave the baby some fluids subcutaneously, as well as a shot of penicillin, in case of aspiration pneumonia; while anything the baby might have aspirated would be sterile at the time of aspiration (having come from the confines of the uterus), the outside world is most assuredly NOT sterile, so this was something in the way of prophylaxis. Additionally, she was still walking with her front hooves knuckled over, although in all honesty I thought that this was something that would likely straiten out, so long as I could get her to survive her first few days.

A little later in the evening, the baby suddenly seemed to learn something about suckling, and abruptly started to nurse vigorously. She grew fat and round on my lap, going through all the colostrum in a few feedings, becoming somnolent, limp and quiet after the third one. While that is certainly a relief from the fractious, plaintive, incessant and increasingly-frantic bleating of earlier in the evening, it's one of those silences that makes you check to see if she's still breathing. She was; I snuggled her up in a flannel sheet and settled her in. Every so often she would give a congested little wheeze, but for the most part she seemed content, dozing near Pepper's watchful bulk.

This morning she is slightly better, essaying a few awkward hops, following me from room to room on her still slightly bucked-forward legs, bleating in her high-pitched voice. She seems perfectly content to be wearing a diaper - although she dislikes it when I seize her tail and pull it through the hole I cut in her Huggies for this purpose - and, while she doesn't like the milk replacer anything like as well as she did the colostrum (smart girl), she seems reasonably content to drink it. She still develops a worrisome wheeze after drinking for a few moments, but it dissipates quickly; I've checked her for a cleft palate and found none, so I'm not sure what to make of this wheeze just yet.

Meanwhile Ali is both fascinated and terrified of her. Kenzie's main interest in her is a hope to share her bottle. Finn, Raven and Pepper are tightly focused upon her, although Pepper seems inclined to treat her as a combination of sheep and bratty puppy, gnashing her teeth with sharp clicks when the baby ventures too near, and at other times attempting to herd her (usually at inopportune moments, such as during a diaper change). Having been born of a black ewe, the baby seems unfazed by the crowd of large furry black bodies around her; and after all, she has no alternate expectations. This is the world as she knows it, and she has little knowledge of anything else.

One thing is for sure, however: If there was any doubt before, this should convince everyone that I am indeed the world's biggest idiot. This is JUST what I need - another convalescent animal living in my house, and this one not only not house-broken, but also in need of every-four-hourly feedings through the night.

April fool, indeed.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lambing in Alaska

Well, it's been an interesting start to the lambing season.

To begin with, I had one ewe go down with toxemia. This was an unproven ewe, and she came from a source where I got another ewe that I had problems with. I'm not sure that that has anything to do with it, but my brain is trained to seek out coincidences, looking for cause. A few days prior, S&R had moved the ewes (without me, as I was inconveniently post-kidney stone and evidently so alarming to talk to on the phone as a result of exhaustion that S&R elected to move the sheep without telling me, fearful that I would try to come help and, say, pitch over dead in the snow). One moorit ewe (possibly this one) panicked and bolted off into deep snow, where she mired herself down and struggled to extricate herself. Might that have been a trigger? Maybe - but there's no telling at this point, and it's equally likely that it was some deficiency inherent in the ewe from her management prior to my guardianship, or from some error I made unknowing, or from bad luck or circumstance. At any rate, I did all the things I knew to do to bail her out, and just to cover my bases I called the one vet in the area who is doing any livestock professionally. She confirmed that I'd done all the right things. However, the ewe still died (most unfortunately with triplets on board still about 2 weeks from maturity). Sigh. I hate this part. People who do sheep professionally will sometimes tell you that sheep are born looking for an opportunity to die; that may be a bit of an overstatement, but the fact of the matter is that these things don't get to be sayings without there being some fuel for the fire. At any rate, we harvested what we could from the ewe, so as not to waste her. That seems grim to some, but to me this is a matter of respect. I did not want to lose this ewe - or the three lambs on board - but in order to honor her sacrifice, it is best to put her to use so that her efforts were not wasted.

Well. Not the most auspicious start to the lambing season. Still, where there's life, there's hope, and I still have five pregnant ewes to look forward to. Onward and upward.

So around rolls Saturday, my short day at work, without any lambs. So far so good, and although I am impatient to see some babies (as I have the worst case of spring fever imaginable), I am pleased that so far everyone else is staying healthy. Then, JUST as I was leaving work (I was actually outside salting down the hide from the dead ewe, currently laid out in the back of my truck) someone sticks their head out and tells me I have a phone call.

Crap. I know (without knowing how) that it's S and, that being so, she's either calling to tell me we have yet ANOTHER ewe with a problem - dystocia, illness, dead lamb, bloat, death, destruction, war, devastation and horror, or else some other disaster or combination thereof - or she's calling to tell me we have a live lamb. Somewhat trepidatious, I run inside and grab the phone. It IS S (surprise!), who tells me, "The black notched-ear ewe has a ram lamb." That's Jacinto, and she's exactly on her due date, almost to the hour.

"She has a LIVE lamb?" I ask, cautiously.

"Yes," she says. "It must've happened fast, too, because I went down and checked on them and nothing was happening, and then 30 minutes later YS went down and he was already standing and dry and starting to nurse."

Big sigh of relief.

"Okay, thanks for telling me; I'm on my way out to look at him," I tell her. "Is that all out of her?"

"Well, it's been half an hour and there's nothing else, so I think she's done," S says.

Hmph. Well, a live singleton is better than dead triplets, so I guess I have to be content. As I am driving out there, though, visions of lambs dancing in my head, I suddenly start thinking: maybe there being more lambs down by the time I get there; it's not impossible, as it's been 40 minutes or so since S called. But no, as I walk down the hill I can see all the ewes and they're out loafing around the pasture, all except Jacinto. There's a little white lamb in a dark sweater nursing away at her flank. I slip-slide a few more steps down the hill toward the sheep pen, peering through the trees as I negotiate the pitted snow of the hill. In between picking my steps, I look up to inspect the lamb, only to realize that there's no sweater; I must just have been seeing the lamb partly masked by the mother's flank. Unfortunately, for an hour-old lamb he seems to be having more trouble than I'd like him to have finding the teat, and he's a bit wobbly. I go to the gate, frowning a bit about this, debating going in to have a closer look (in case he needs help... and I DO have a camera with me, after all.) The ewe seems to be quite attentive, nuzzling and licking him, nudging him toward her flank periodically, as he seems inclined to lip at her wool, or to wander under her chest, butting fruitlessly at her armpits. I peer at the lamb, nosing inexpertly along the ewe's flank... and suddenly I realize the lamb WAS wearing a sweater after all, and his coordination is just fine. The reason I thought he was a little slow and poorly is that there are in fact TWO lambs, and this second one is less than 40 minutes old.

YAY! Twins! Now I suddenly feel aaaall cheerful.

I am halfway up the hill to get another sweater and the iodine when I see S, coming down. She gives me a big, we-have-a-live-lamb smile.

"She has another one," I tell her without preamble, earning a slightly startled look from S.

"Oh!" she says, about-facing to the house to grab another sweater (made by cutting arm-holes in olive-drab Army-surplus neck gaiters.) We go down and catch the lamb - easily done, as he is tottering around on brand-new legs - and dip his umbilicus in iodine, drying him off better and slipping him into a nice cozy neck-gaiter. The ewe is blatting anxiously, watching us closely and sticking nearby (even though she'd like to be away from us with her other lamb). S sets the second lamb on his feet near her and the ewe recommences to licking him, bleating intermittently in her deep bullfrog voice. She divides her attention between the two lambs, paying closer mind to the younger twin; the older one is kneeling in the straw, nursing again.

Well. Isn't THAT a pretty picture.

So that's the kickoff to this year's lambing season. I needed a victory. Two live ram lambs are a welcome change of pace from everything dead, or difficult - or both. There are four ewes yet to lamb, two well bagged-up and looking ready to roll at any time. The goats are getting portly as well - all except Peanut, who (while copiously bred) does not appear to be pregnant.

Wildwood Farm will soon be hopping with babies, absolutely crawling with them like ticks on a hound dog. Only way cuter.

[Author's note: I intended to post photos, but Blogger is not cooperating. Complain to them. I tried six times. I may try again later, but depending on how long Bogger is in its unspecified funk, we may have to live without.]