Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Sherlock Holmes

I joked to someone just the other day that a lot of farming is in the details...puzzling things out...what's REALLY going on here? I drew a comparison to the familiar sleuth.

Little did I know I would be trying on his shoes (what size? what brand? how recently purchased?) so soon.

The residents had a planning session the other day, and we decided to share the duty of washing the lambs' milk bucket daily, and filling it, and checking it later in the day to see if it needed filled. I drew the late-night check.

This morning, I showed A. how I wash the bucket, reassemble the teat units, mix the milk replacer. E. checked the level while I was at work, and reported to me when I got home that she hadn't needed to top it up, it was still about at the level of the top of the teat units. She mentioned how insistent the bucket lambs were, how clever they were at getting through all the gates and fences to be underfoot outside the sheep pen.


Had someone else topped it up at some point? The lambs were going through 2 scoops worth, twice a day. A. and I had filled it with 3 scoops worth in the morning. Were they sick?

I went out to for the nightly barn check. The level was still about the level she had described. The lambs--#211 and #213--came blasting out through the gates at me and mobbed my ankles, bleating and bunting at me insistently. I could hardly walk. I tried my usual method to get them to nurse on the bucket--fold their front legs at the knees and hold them down in front of the teat unit, my hand on their shoulder guiding their head to the teat. Usually when shown the teat this way, they would start sucking avidly and go on for several minutes, and I could walk away in peace.

Nothing doing. They struggled violently when I attempted to put them to the teats. They popped off the teats after a couple sucks, and recommenced mobbing my ankles. We repeated this several times.

I gave up and started building up a new "creep" area for all the lambs, bucket lambs included. It didn't take too long to set up some hog panels (lambproof, but easy to reach over) against a steel pipe fence that the ewes can't get through, but the lambs can. It's big enough that the ewes can't reach the treats that I put out for the lambs on the far side. This "kids only" area will let the lambs begin to nibble at solid food, increasing their growth and taking some of the pressure off their moms.

I put the bucket in it and tried again to get the lambs to nurse. Nothing doing.

I summoned up patience I wasn't sure I had, and worked at it for awhile. What is the deal here? The lambs are obviously hungry, but they won't nurse. They keep coming to me. Both of them.

Both of them. Yesterday, J. and I had examined them, compared their development. #211 (who bonded to his mom, even if she didn't bond to him) was clearly fatter than #213 (who's entirely bonded to humans), who was still awfully scrawny. #211 rarely bothered me at all. He was getting what he needed from other sheep, in terms of nurturing, and from the bucket, for sustenance. #213 was looking to people for everything, and not getting nearly enough of anything.

Now they are both looking truly pitiful. They are wildly energetic at trying to get milk out of my shins, but when not mobbing me, they are standing around in the hunch-backed, tucked-in posture of a lamb that is not feeling well. They are both equally scrawny.

What the heck is going on?

They are hungry--starving to death--but they won't nurse the bucket. A few days ago, they were doing well. What changed?

I reviewed every detail of washing and filling the bucket that morning. Nothing different. No new detergent that might have an off smell. It was a cool day, the milk shouldn't have soured. The teats weren't plugged--I could milk out a thin stream with my fingers. There was plenty of milk.

I watched and puzzled, puzzled and watched.

And eventually I realized there were 3 rubber teats on the bucket. At some point in the last day, I'd switched out the softer (more easily damaged, and harder to attach to the bucket) latex teats for the more sturdy, stiffer rubber teats. Before, I'd been using some of each.

I put them on the teats again, and watched. They sucked, but didn't keep sucking. And I noticed how small their mouths were compared to the teats.

Maybe the stiff rubber teats were still too stiff for their tiny, runty mouths?

I switched out the teats (a lengthy and messy project. Helpful hint: when you spill milk on the feed barrel lid, grab the barn cat. Works much better than a rag.), and tried again.

The lambs sucked on the soft latex teats for about 10 minutes without stopping. When they stopped, they came to me but didn't climb on if to tell me thank you. Then they went back to the bucket. I walked away in peace.

A big lesson in the importance of knowing your animals, checking them often, and NOTICING when something is different. In this case, not just the level of milk staying the same in the bucket, but the lambs' uncharacteristic behavior. They were obviously trying very hard to tell us all along that something was wrong. E. didn't pick these up as cause for concern when she checked the lambs this afternoon--even though she reported both things to me later--because she hasn't spent enought time in the barn to know what's normal, and she was focusing on getting the job done quickly. I figured it out because I knew these animals, as well as lambs in general...and because I have a pretty good idea how much these animals should be eating.

If I hadn't figured this out, A. might have just dumped out the extra milk in the morning, refilled the bucket, and not realized that the lambs hadn't had a thing to drink. She might have just thought that E. had topped it up more than necessary. If this had gone on, the lambs could easily have starved to death by tomorrow night. This is the danger in sharing responsibilities--things can slip through the cracks.

Just like a persistent pair of lambs slipping through the gates to tell us something is wrong.

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