lessons learned in lambing (or, reproduction is risky)

Lambing. Lambing is so many things. It really can run the emotional gamut: from elation and joy watching the little fluffers leap and bound, to quiet peacefulness watching a ewe give birth, to high anxiety and fear when there is a complication, frustration when you just don't know what to do or can't get the thing needed to help. For us, in our first year, it really was trial by fire. Nothing has taught us about the difficulty of growing food the way lambing has. It really is a miracle that life regenerates itself so successfully so much of the time in the face of so much that can and will go wrong. And nowhere else is the farmer's charge to care more apparent.

All in all, lambing went remarkably well. In terms of number have some 50 babies (some of which have by now grown into monstrously large über-lambs), with about a 20/30 split in girls to boys. It's a success that, as first time lambers, is nothing to sneeze at. However, we took some truly ugly hits. We lost 1 lamb in birth, 1 the day after she was born (probably to clostridium), and 1 after several days to unknown causes. Lamb loss is almost inevitable, but what was really awful was that we lost five Katadhin ewes: 2 to complications from vaginal prolapse, 2 to instances of ringwomb (!!!), and 1 to complications from mastitis. We have no idea what caused the ringwomb, but we feel strongly that the other losses could have been prevented with more experience and better advice, mostly about what kinds of antibiotics to keep on-hand. Not having a farm vet who will service our area is a huge obstacle. We drove back and forth to Athens, GA to the vet school at UGA I don't even remember how many times dealing with all these issues. We do have one local-ish vet, but he's still 45 minutes away and the quality of care is much, much less then what we get from the vets at UGA. Having antibiotics and other drugs on-hand during lambing is pretty much a given. Most lambing kit lists will just give the recommendation to have "antibiotics," which is pretty meaningless. Without a good vet who will come out and see the animal, complications are like walking into a huge library where you know there is a book you really, really need, but there's no librarian and no card catalogue: it is frustration laced with panic (especially since the animal will likely die without the information and tools specific to her need) that causes one to shoot in the dark with what tools one has, and then resign oneself to having done all that could be done when it fails. It is not fun.

So, to hedge against this fate next season, as well as in hopes of helping others to a less stressful, more successful lambing season, here is a list of the major issues that occurred and what we have found to be the remedy:

Lambing went on way too long: We made the horrible mistake of putting the first ram in with the ewes in October, and not taking out the last ram until December. Don't do this! A good rule of thumb is for every day the ram is in with the ewes, there will be a night you will have to be awake every 2-4 hours during lambing. For the first two weeks, energy was good and excitement was high. However, as the weeks wore on to four weeks, then six weeks, the temptation to just let it go and sleep an extra hour or two was overwhelming. Of course, that would inevitably be the cold, rainy night that we would go out and a lamb would be halfway out with a leg caught and we'd have to pull it, so we persisted in our vigils.  I remember when we went to the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium a couple of years ago; a guy from Pfizer was there promoting a new drug that synchronizes oestrus in sheep, thus allowing them all to get pregnant at more-or-less the same time. I remember thinking, why on earth would you need such a thing? Well, now I know! If the ewes get pregnant at the same time, they will lamb at more-or-less the same time, thus shortening the length of time one must be awake all night (though perhaps adding to the intensity of those fewer nights).

If you know anything about us, you know there's no way we're giving our animals proprietary hormone therapy just so we don't have to stay up all night. Fortunately, the natural way to do this is to keep a ram across the fence from the ewes for about two weeks. His presence will cause the ewes to go into oestrus. Then, drop another ram in with the girls and let him do his job for another two weeks. Then replace that ram with a "clean-up" ram to catch any of the girls not yet serviced for another two weeks AND NOT A DAY LONGER.

Lambing on pasture:  I always thought that the primary purpose of lambing in a barn was to protect fragile, wet, little newborn lambs from the cold of January, February, and March (usual lambing months). With our mild winters here in Georgia, it doesn't make a lot of sense to deal with building winter housing and all that goes with that, mainly lots of cleaning and dealing with the piles of manure that accrue. That said, I clearly see one major benefit of lambing in the barn: access. We spent a lot of nights wandering amongst the sheep, looking for signs of labor, and then, if a ewe was in labor and needed assistance, we had the grand task of chasing her, catching her, ting her to a fencepost, and then assisting her. Needless to say, this situation caused a lot of unnecessary trauma both for us and for the ewe in need. The remedy will be a project for this fall. We will be building pasture jugs for the ewes. As the ewe comes close to her due date, set her up in the jug with plenty of hay and water. That way we know where the mama is, can attend to her if needed, and she and her lamb can bond more readily.

Complications from vaginal prolapse: I've covered this in some detail in a previous post. Here is what we learned: as soon as you start to see prolapse, act. Delay, even just 12 hours, can greatly increase the likelihood of infection. We watched two ewes succumb to infection who did not have to had we just had enough prolapse retainers on-hand. We thought two or three would suffice, but when we had upwards of 5 prolapsed ewes, two or three was not going to cut it. We had to wait on shipping while the infection bloomed. We called a vet who recommended Banamine, but it too would have to be ordered. We gave them electrolytes, injections of Naxel, and watched them, along with their lambs within, die. The remedy for us now is simple, if you don't have a vet, you are the vet. Keep an extra stash of everything and get any drugs you might need from a vet well ahead of time, even if you think you won't need it, even if you've been advised by others that you won't need it. No two lambing seasons are alike. You will need it all.

Prior to lambing, we hunted around for good lists of equipment needed for lambing. Most of them contained the basics: the arm-length OB gloves, syringes, iodine, sutures, lube, rope for pulling, etc. Here's what none of the lists had that we found we really, really needed:

1) Headlamp. Seriously. Get two, the LED kind, and some backup batteries. Put one in your lambing kit and one in the barn as backup. Leave your flashlight at home.

2) Emergency Drugs. Banamine, CD antitoxin, and Spectam specifically. Had we had the Banamine, I'm confident we could have saved three of our ewes. Had we had the CD antitoxin, we could have saved a lamb.

3) Prolapse Retainers. More than two of both the spoon kind and the harness kind. If we had just two more of these, we could have saved two of our ewes.

4) Halters with Ties. How are you going to hold on to that ewe who needs her lamb pulled, huh? You got two extra arms to hold her while performing veterinary obstetrical maneuvers? Yeah, that's what I thought.

5) Udderly EZ. Unless you're a very skilled hand-milker, don't mess around with hand-milking in the middle of the night to get a lamb fed if mama isn't taking up with baby quick enough. This little device is a godsend.

6) Colosturm Replacer and Milk Replacer. Backup is essential.

7) Large Animal Crate. A dog shipping crate is what we use to transport single animals to the vet. It is one of our most essential tools.

8 ) Small Animal Crate. In case you need to transport a lamb for any reason. Seriously, don't mess around with putting them in a big crate were they can stand up and get jostled around.

Also, some terrific advice we got: if you have a ewe whose lamb dies or does not otherwise bond with her, milk out her colostrum and freeze it. You'll be glad to have it on hand later in the season or next season.

These lessons were incredibly hard. Nothing we have done in farming so far has taken such a physical and emotional toll on us. Plenty of times Ross and I had short tempers and bleak outlooks. As one of our farming mentors wisely advised, never make any long-term decisions during lambing, your whole perspective becomes addled with sleeplessness and stress. It's really true and another good lessoned learned in this process.

Lambing is an ego-tester. What I mean by that is one's sense of control and confidence gets stripped away; what you think you know, you find out you don't know at all. In biology there is no such thing as "always" and "never", there are no rules, only shoddy, malleable guidelines. Nowhere is that reality more apparent then in reproduction. Reproduction is risky. In the great genetic shuffle, it is inevitable that some part of it will, at some point, go wrong and the good farmer will, inevitably, feel responsible. Of course, unless there is true neglect going on, the farmer isn't really responsible for any of it. But we feel so, horribly responsible. We feel this way because we are beholden to care. It is our charge to care for these creatures, it is our job to help soften the blows of nature for our stock, as well as for ourselves. Sometimes there is meaning and a lesson to be learned. Sometimes there isn't. A huge part of farming is learning where that line is.

The truth of the matter is, if it weren't for our nightly vigils, checking for labor, assisting lambs in need, we would have easily lost a dozen or more lambs; yet the night there was a stillbirth, we we thought, if only we had gotten here a half-an-hour ago, did we miss this ewe in labor at the last check? Was some part of her feed/mineral intake wrong? Did she grow too much, not enough? We endlessly consternated when anything went wrong, trying to find a reason why, trying to find meaning in what happened, trying to find where the blame belonged. But there wasn't anything to blame. What was there, though, was a lesson. As I held the ewe and calmly stroked her and spoke softly to her, Ross pulled the dead lamb out. It was the first time he ever pulled a lamb, dead or alive. As he pulled, the shoulders broke with a sickening crunch. Horrible though it was (and it was), Ross now knew exactly how hard he could pull, exactly where the point of doing harm was; this was vital information that lead to getting all the living lambs that needed puling out safely. We will never know why that stillbirth or many of the other things that went wrong went wrong. But we will be damned if we don't try to learn from them what we can.