Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Memorable Shearing Day

Thanks to excellent assistance from many different folks during the week before shearing--some planned, some spur-of-the-moment--this year's Spring Shearing Day and Open Farm were the best ever (despite a most unusual twist, more on that later).

I felt this at several points in the day. First, when I got up (with more than 4 hours of sleep!) and didn't feel panicked about things undone...instead, it was more of a challenge to think what to do with all the volunteers who were planning to come early.

Then, when we had dozens of people contentedly milling around, waiting for the shearer to come, and I wasn't frantically scrambling around looking for some essential item.

During the shearing, when I was in the sheep pen, heading up the effort to get the sheep into the shearer's hands at the right times, and everything else was going just fine without my involvement or supervision. I was fairly out of control of what was going on among the crowd and in the wool-handling area. But everyone on that side of the sorting chute seemed pretty calm and relaxed, and everything seemed to just go like clockwork, and the main questions and answers back andforth across the chute were about names and numbers for the sheep as they were sheared, and requests to purchase fleeces.

Finally, as volunteers left one by one either after the shearing or after lunch, and I profusely expressed my gratitude to each one for all their wonderful help, each one of them replied "but I didn't do that much!" And after I heard the same protest from several folks, I realized that was the highest measure of success for the day: Everything had gone that smoothly, and no one doing the work had felt burdened by it.

A good time was had by all.

Except one.

For the ewe we call Little One--one of the two remaining CVM/Suffolk cross ewes we bought from our neighbor fall-before-last, to refresh our line-breeding to our foundation CVM ram--it was possibly the worst day of her life.

She has always been a shy, flighty sheep. She's one of those ewes that joined her former flock mostly because she was too little to go to slaughter with her cohorts, and then ended up bred, and surprisingly was productive enough to remain part of the flock year after year. Her small stature was probably a side effect of her shyness, as she hangs back when others crowd too tight around the feed, so she misses out on the best "cookies", and that keeps her small which keeps her missing out, in a vicious cycle.

In the working chute, she's the only Suffolk cross that was rarely inclined to try to climb out of the chute. She discovered a more effective, less dramatic form of resistance: she simply put her head down.

Not just relaxing her neck and drooping. No. No onecould put her dead down as effectively as Little One. Little One perfected the skill of locking her neck in a rigid position with her nose near her front hooves. You could reach under her neck, and lift with all your might, and her neck would not raise from her shoulders. Instead, if you pulled hard enough you would lift the entire front half of the animal off the ground with the nose and hooves rigidly locked in relation with each other. I am not sure but it often seemed like she somehow managed to shift most of her weight off her hind legs onto the lifting arm during this maneuver, however at odds with the law of gravity that might be.

That gives you an idea of the degree to which her neck strength had been developed.

She was the second-to-last sheep to be sheared. And she decided to fight the shearer, while he had her upside down resting on her rump with her upper body cradled against his. She fought harder than I've seen any sheep fight the shearer, for longer. I was some ways away, so I didn't hear all of his comments during the tussle, nor have a clear view. But some way into the violent wrestling match, I heard language from the shearer that he usually reserves for the llama shearing when there is not an audience of small children, and I knew something was seriously wrong. Another bout of tussling, she was somewhat subdued, and he resumed shearing her.

As I watched her fight, I commented to whoever was near, "Looks like she just bought herself a one-way ticket to the processing plant. I don't keep the ones that are that hard to work with."

Little did I know at that moment that she had, through her own sheer powerful thrashing, tried to buy her own ticket to an early grave. Danny had resorted to an extreme restraint method another shearer had once shared with him, and her next ill-timed powerful lunge had been forceful enough that she snapped her own foreleg half-way above the knee.

After he finished shearing her, and she stood there with her right foreleg dangling limp, it all came clear to me...all except what to do next. Everyone waited calmly, in an air of uncertainty. No one panicked, thankfully. Gradually the attention turned to me: "Now what? You're directing this show."

Still grappling with this strange turn of events, I remembered we had one sheep left to shear. Then the fleece handlers could leave if they wanted, the audience could go home, I could think for a minute. I turned the other ewes out of the holding pen into the yard, opened the gate to the shearing area, and Little One limped into the holding pen on three legs. My heart ached for her, and for all the tender-hearted observers who are not used to the life-and-death, blood-and-gut realities of farming.

I called the vet, but it was Saturday, and he was out of town and unavailable. The vet covering for him was unavailable as well. I called my backup vet, who doesn't like sheep to begin with and especially not on Saturdays. True sheep vets are few and far between, and just finding a vet that does ANY "large animal" work is a challenge, let alone one that knows, let alone likes, small ruminants.

I know the drill well: Call the vet, get the answering service, "please leave your number and he'll call back. Let us know if you don't hear from him in 15 minutes." Time passes, no call-back, I call again, same story, this time he calls promptly. A flash of insight: They probably NEVER call back on the first call. The tedious delay is to give you time to figure it out on your own, for the animal to recover or die on its own, whatever time will do (hopefully!) to reduce the likelihood that you will insist that the vet actually set aside his enjoyable Saturday afternoon to make a farm call.

The vet said the same thing the shearer did, only more bluntly: "You can put her down now, or try to splint it until after she lambs and then put her down." I noticed he did not offer to come teach me how to set and splint a broken leg. I asked about pain management, and he seemed to feel it was not bothering with. Animal analgesics are apparently prescription only, and perhaps he didn't want to make a trip to the office to provide them to me. In fact, this may not be as cruel as it seems. Sheep surely experience pain differently than we do, or they would not be able to slam their heads repeatedly into one another as they do. And, pain often serves a valuable purpose of feedback to remind one to avoid stressing an injured part...helpeful with animals, where you can't exactly say "please don't put any weight on your leg for a few days". (I, myself, avoid using aspirin, ibuprofen, etc. in most cases for this same reason, to encourage me to actually stop using the affected part so it can heal.)

The next indicated thing seemed to be lunch for everyone left at the farm. Shearing and sheep handling works up an appetite, aside from the fact that it was already early afternoon. The impending challenge to my woefully inadequate animal paramedic skills would go better if I was properly hydrated and not suffering from hypoglycemia. Ditto my assistants. And those who had worked so hard (whether they thought so or not) that morning deserved a well-earned bowl of mutton stew from the crock pot, bread fresh from the bread machine, rice and lentils from the rice cooker, etc. (These small appliances are not absolutely necessary, but they are sure handy farm tools for a busy solo farmer!)

During and after lunch we brainstormed. What to use as a splint? Both shearer (now on his way to another farm) and vet had suggested PVC pipe--but what size, and how applied? We discussed various approaches to restraint, bandaging, etc. I rummaged here and there, and we finally gathered a smorgasbord of various wood and PVC splint options, "vet wrap" from the first aid kits, an old sock, and the ubiquitous duct tape, plus implements for cutting these items.

On returning to the barn, we found her in surprisingly good condition. She was calm, alert, and very interested in the alfalfa hay we offered--evidence, I've learned, of an overall will to live that is the difference between life and death.

We confined her in a smaller pen--she hobbled willingly on 3 legs--so that I could catch her without chasing. I had put a collar on her while she was still in the shearer's hands, so now I slowly sidled up to her and slowly reached for the collar. I grasped it without her leaping away, and snapped on a lead rope, so that if she got loose we could easily catch it and work our way towards her without her trying to run too much. Anything we could do to minimize trauma to the unsplinted limb.

We had decided to use the "Sheep Sofa" to restrain her for splinting. This is a device that looks like a lengthwise sling-type chair--another brand is called the "Deck Chair". It leans against a sturdy gate or panel. Then you back the sheep up to the lower end, with the cross piece hitting the back of her hind legs just above the hocks. Keep backing her a bit, then lift up on her chest, and suddenly she is sitting on her back with her legs in the air. The sheep tend to be very quiet in the sheep sofa, especially if someone holds their head from flopping to one side.

To acheive this without the broken limb flopping at odd angles, we first wrapped the broken area somewhat firmly just as it was, without trying to straighten or splint it. Then we hoisted her carefully into the chair, one person lifting while another supported her leg.

With her in the chair, and someone cradlng her head, I unbandaged the leg while supporting it. Then others braced her body while I pulled on the knee to pull the bone into its proper position, with ends meeting rather than slid past each other several inches. Of course this was obviously very painful for her. The feel and sound of the bone was excruciating for me, too. I steeled myself to do it only because it was her best hope for living. With the bone more or less properly aligned, I re-wrapped the leg with vet wrap to help keep it aligned, and so the splint wouldn't rub on bare skin (though even her sheared wool offered a fair amount of padding). Then we applied two wooden splints, a thin one on the inside and a thick one on the outside, and covered the whole thing in vet wrap again.

Keeping animal bandages intact is always a challenge, though it's probably easier for sheep than any other animal. Because of their wool, they have the least grooming impulse of any animal I know, so they aren't inclined to lick or chew too much. I've learned that athletic socks make great bandage covers, so cut off the toe and pulled it over the more fragile vet wrap. Duct tape at each end, above and below the splints, kept it secure over the bandages and splints.

We let her down carefully, removed our equipment, and I gave her a dose of Nutri-Drench (propylene glycol for energy, with vitamins and minerals) to help revive her. Then we left her alone for awhile. The rest was pretty much up to her--would she recover from the pain of the setting, or just give up after our torment of her? Would she figure out how to get around and lie down and stand up with this awkward, unbendable leg?

When I checked her later, again she was much recovered. She was drinking, eating alfalfa, pooping normally again (when we went out to splint her, she had displayed severe diarrhea). She lay down and stood up on her own.

An injured sheep in solitary confinement would mean increased time and effort during a season when I'm already pushed to the limits, esp. with lambing coming up in a few weeks. After some thinking, I gave a call to friends who had expressed an interest in getting some ewes from me. After a couple phone calls, we confirmed that they would take her for free, care for her, and hopefully at least get her lambs safely on the ground as the beginning of their new flock.

On Sunday afternoon, she walked to their truck on her own, with our guidance. We lifted and rolled her onto the tailgate, then pulled her rump first into their big hog-carrying crate bedded with hay. Now she did the ever-popular "rigid boneless catatonic" routine that sheep sometimes do. Oh, well. We put a feed sack under her head to keep the hay from irritating her eye.

When they got in the truck and drove away carefully, I was startled by thundering hooves. The neighbor's horses, pastured more than 200 feet from the sheep pens, were tearing around their pasture. The newest horse, Fancy, charged to a stop as close as she could get to where the truck was pulling away. She whinnied loudly, staring after the truck and looking straight into my eyes as I watched her. I realized that through the subtle communication that animals have, she had been totally aware of all that had transpired in the barn that day, and she was concerned for Little One's well-being. Perhaps because she was the outsider in the trio of horses--the other had been together for years, and she's clearly been an outcast since she arrived a month or two ago--she apparently has bonded with the sheep despite the physical separation. Maybe watching them has been her soap opera! She was intensely distressed that Little One was being taken away. I walked as close to her as I could, and spoke to her, reassuring her than Little One would receive loving care in her new home. She visibly quieted. I feel certain that animals understand far more of our spoken intentions (as well as unspoken) than we can imagine.

The next several days, every time I came from the house to the farm, Magpie (Little One's flockmate from their former farm) would be standing as close to the barn as possible, a bit separate from the rest of the flock, staring at me with the same intent look that Fancy had had. I would reassure her, too, that Little One was receiving the best care we could give her.

At best, Little One will heal and live a few more productive years; at worst, she'll feed my friends' guardian dog. A middle ground would be to deliver healthy lambs, nurse them to weaning, and then be put down.

At any rate, I think we've given her the best chance we can. And I've learned a lot.

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