Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lambing: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

We ran out of green onions at Farmer's Market by 9:00, so with 2 hours to go I decided it was worth running home to dig some more. Housemate A. is a GREAT help at the booth, so I felt confident leaving it in her hands.

A special surprise awaited. I could tell by the dog's excitement as we approached the garden gate that we had new lambs...probably the last for the year. None of the three yearling ewes seem like they are close to lambing...and the last possible date (5 months after we took the rams to the meat processing plant) is coming up in less than a month.

The last of the Suffolk cross ewes had twins (actually, they have ALL had twins, even the single that had never had twins before). The white ewe was a nice 10 lbs. Her black curly-fleeced brother, with sire Buddy's striking white face and heels, weighed in at more than 16 lbs.! Both were freshly born but up and nursing energetically, with a very protective mama. Just what a shepherd loves to see. (Actually, same-size lambs would have been better...there is a risk of the larger lamb bullying the smaller and getting far more than its share of milk.)

But he wasn't the largest lamb this season...just the largest live lamb. A few days ago, the ewe with the pendulous, edemic udder finally gave birth to a lovely, lively white ewe lamb with curly Lincoln-style fleece. We were disappointed with getting a single, in some ways, but not too sad about not having TWO more lambs to bottle feed (the vet said it was very unlikely the ewe would produce milk, best not to even try). We draped a t-shirt "petticoat" around the ewe's udder to prevent nursing, bottle fed the lamb some frozen colostrum, did our regular "clip (cut the remains of the umbilical cord)and dip (it in 7% iodine)", and set up a new teat bucket in a "creep"area in the ewe's pen. The ewe seemed fairly alert and comfortable, though she kept trying to get the lamb to nurse.

(Warning: If you are reading this blog for mostly entertainment, and graphic details bother you, you might not to read much further. If you are thinking you might like to have a few sheep someday, read on, because this is an example of things you realistically might have to deal with, and you might as well start getting used to it. I don't think I'll ever be FULLY used to it, though. It's been a bit rough.)

A couple hours later, the membranes that normally preceed the afterbirth were still hanging from her vulva. Normally the lamb's suckling triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin into the ewe's bloodstream, and that causes strong uterine contractions that help expel the afterbirth. With the ewe not allowed to suckle the lamb, her body wasn't getting this hormone boost. We had oxytocin, but weren't sure about giving it since we wanted to STOP milk production, not trigger it. I wanted to know how long to wait before going ahead and trying to pull on the dangling membranes, but the vet didn't return my phone call.

Much later I went out, thinking I would just give it a try. I paid him to come out and do one last year, and I felt like I remembered the basics.

But now there were hooves! Yikes! It was at least 6 hours since the first lamb was born! And she wasn't having evident contractions at all.

At this point, damage to the ewe's birth canal seemed irrelevant, since her bad udder already marks her for slaughter (LONG after the labeled withdrawal time for the antibiotics!). The unborn lamb was almost certainly dead. There wasn't much to lose...and I certainly didn't think I could afford a farm visit from the vet at 1 a.m. even on a weekday night. So I just gritted my teeth, dug in my heels, and bodily pulled the lamb, no help from the ewe.

I pulled and pulled...heavy, sustained traction...working one way and another to help the lumpy parts through the ewe's pelvis. I soon realized the lamb was breech (hindlegs first, not front legs and nose). Not good; possibly a factor in why it hadn't been delivered in a normal and timely fashion. I kept pulling, harder now, ever searching for a better grip on the slippery legs (thankfully, lambs have big knobby joints, which really helps with holding on at times like this). And harder....

The lamb stretched and stretched. In a most horrible moment, I saw a soft mass balloon from the navel area...intestines popping through the abdominal wall from the force of my pulling. I pulled even harder, knowing now that the lamb was not viable. The lamb stretched from the recumbent ewe's vulva clear across the large pen, and the head still wasn't free! Finally, the whole thing flopped on the bedding with a sickeningly dead flop. The extreme lack of muscle tone, along with the tearing of the belly and the strange condition of the head, made me realize that the lamb had died in utero sometime prior to the birth of the healthy lamb. This, too, had surely contributed to the ewe's failure to deliver it...a live lamb gives its own hormonal signals to the ewe's body; a dead one contributes no energy to the birthing process.

I weighed the lamb, just for the recordkeeping. No wonder it seemed so incredibly long--it weighed more than 17 lbs! With the 12 lb. live lamb, this ewe had been carrying 27 lbs. of lamb!

When I examined the dead lamb the next day, I realized that each front leg had not two but three fully-formed toes. Very, very creepy...a birth defect the vet said he had never seen before.

A couple days later, all seems well. The vet prescribed another round of penicillin injections to prevent infection, so that's an ongoing rodeo twice a day. The ewe is getting very belligerent, even dangerous, about this routine. I can't blame her--these are 8cc injections with a needle larger in cross-section than most earring posts. She'll get the short side of the vet's recommended "3 -5 more days," and hopefully I'll escape without broken bones from being slammed against the barn wall. She's a big girl, maybe close to 200 lbs.

The live lamb, "Angel", is not just cute but clever. She has already become fully self-feeding on the bucket, and at the same time is very bonded to Mom.

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