Monday, March 2, 2015


Why don't the ewes eat as much hay as we expect?
Why don't the ewes eat their salt and mineral mix at the right rate?
Why are most of our ewes lambing in the last week they could possibly lamb?
Why do we have five lambs with broken legs this year?
Why does our sink have three days worth of dirty  dishes piled next to it?

Everything, including the dirty dishes, may be due to an insufficient intake of calcium, phosphorus and/or vitamin D, a result  of decreased hunger for our salt and mineral supplement combined with the oat hay we are feeding this year.

Sheep need a certain amount of calcium for their muscles to contract properly, for their nerves to work properly, for their bones to be strong enough. Our working hypothesis is that our hay didn't have enough calcium. We thought we had it covered by feeding them a salt and mineral supplement with calcium. But I read last night that when the sheep have to eat snow or drink very cold water, they don't take in as much water and so they cut down on their salt. That means they haven't been getting enough of the minerals that we add to their salt. Not enough minerals means they become hypocalcemic (low calcium levels). Hypocalcemia means that they lose their appetite, can't labor as well,  and sometimes just lie down and die.

If the ewe's hypocalcemia lasts long enough or is severe enough, she can't provide enough calcium for her babies' bones when they are in utero or when they are nursing. Then her babies have fragile bones and stand with hunched backs because they are uncomfortable. They don't nurse as well because they are uncomfortable and that means they don't grow as well. It seems to be a vicious cycle with no exit.

After blood tests, x-rays,  and long conversations with Dr Weckwerth, our local vet, we hope that we can start reversing the problem. We will supplement the ewes' feed with calcium, phosphate and Vitamin D as well as adding soy meal for protein and molasses for palatability. We will start feeding the lambs their creep feed as soon as it is delivered in stead of waiting until they are three to six weeks old. That way we can increase their calcium concentration too.

As for the dishes, I washed enough before breakfast so that we could eat our cereal. It's a start.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


Behind the black silhouettes of the trees, the rising sun stains the sky gold. As I approach the barn, I hear the low grumbling mutter of a ewe with a new baby. I step inside the door. Three  lambs circle their mother, tiny moons revolving around their own mother earth, tethered by her calls.

These lambs are up on their feet, well licked, healthy. I move them to a jug and their mother follows, calling to them the entire way. Clip, dip strip. I hang the water bucket in the pen and drop in a slice of hay. Then I inject each lamb with 0.25 cc's of selenium. Chores done for the moment, I open the big door to let in the day. A fresh breeze eases around the corner of the barn, lightly touching my cheeks.

I pause, take a deep breath. The weight on my shoulders eases.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Lying awake

Saturday evening a lamb died.
Saturday night, a second lamb died.
Sunday afternoon a third lamb died.
They all died for different reasons and they all died for no reason.

First, was the littlest triplet who never stood well. His belly was full and he was standing, sort of, at 7 pm. I was pleased that he was standing. At 10 pm he was dead.

Second was a twin who wouldn't nurse and wouldn't take a bottle. His body was stiffening and jerking at 10 pm. I gave him warm milk by gavage tube, but I had no hope. He was gone by 3 am.

Last was another triplet who cooled from 103 degrees at 2 pm when he was born, to less that 100 degrees three hours later. He wasn't born on a cold day; he hadn't had a hard delivery, he just couldn't keep his temperature up. In past years we would have carried buckets of warm water out to his pen to warm him, but we'd finally learned that unless the lamb is cold because he was outside in the cold for too long without milk, that we can't save cold lambs.

And so I lay in bed, drifting in that half asleep, half awake, 100 percent worrying state that  makes you feel terrible, from 5 am to 7 am. I was afraid to go to the barn, afraid I'd find another dying lamb. In my mind, I went through all the possibilities.

Iodine deficiency like we had three years ago? No. We were feeding iodized salt and none of the lambs had goiter, that swelling in the neck indicative of iodine deficiency.

Copper toxicity? No we were feeding oat hay from our farm and corn from a reputable mill. When we'd had problems with our feed four years ago, the Mill had sent an inspector out inspect our farm for possible problems - no lead based paints on buildings, no contamination of the well from manure ponds, nothing in the hay.

Could it be the hay? Oat hay is lower in calcium than alfalfa hay, but the minerals we mix with their iodized salt should have enough calcium to make up the difference.

Could it be genetics? Last year's lambing had been real good. If it was genetics. we would have had problems last year too because it was the same ewes bred to the same ram.

At 7 am I dragged myself out of bed, warmed up a bottle of milk and went out to the barn. Inside, a lamb was curled up on her mother's back, all the other lambs were sleeping peacefully, bellies round and full of milk. I opened the big garage door on the east side of the barn. The sun was just rising over the trees. Mist hung in the air. I decided to check our barn records to see if the ewes who lost babies in the last few days had lost babies in the past.

I had forgotten that after an amazing beginning to lambing last year, we had lost  lambs in the last week. Dr Weckwerth had suggested that we supplement the newborn lambs with selenium. It had worked.

Dave and I gave selenium shots to all the lambs who looked cold or hungry - who stood with hunched backs. So far, they are fine. They still look cold and hungry, but I think that is because all three suck poorly so they don't get enough milk. We have been supplementing them with lamb milk replacer.

The set of twins born since then are fine. I don't know that we won't have further problems, but having a solution to try means that I don't lie awake at night.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

With a little help

Most sheep lamb completely on their own. They go into the barn to get out of the weather, find a quiet corner and lamb.

Every once in awhile, yearlings, ewes in labor for the first time, have no idea of what is happening to their bodies and need a little help. That's why we close the sheep into the barn every night, so yearly ewes don't have their babies on the manure pile on a moonless night where a shepherd won't find them, or under a dripping corner in a rainstorm, or in the sweep of the winter wind as it rounds the barn from the northwest.

Most ewes lay down in the straw and birth their babies easily, one after another, every twenty or thirty minutes until her placenta follows the birth of the last lamb and the contractions stop.

But some moms need help. The first lamb may be very large and barely fit through the pelvic opening. Or one of the lambs presents in a more difficult alignment, not front hooves and head first. Or twins and triplets may be tangled, one lamb's head presenting with another lamb's front feet. After a long labor, the ewe may even tire out, unable to deliver her last lamb.

All of these ewes need a little help from their shepherd. When we realize that labor is not progessing as it should, we can ease extra large lambs through the pelvic opening by adding a gentle pull to mom's pushes. We can rearrange lamb mis-presentations, moving a head until it centers over a pair of front hooves, or searching about inside the mother's uterus with our fingers, to locate the front legs that are actually attached to the head ready to be pushed out the vaginal opening. Sometimes we wash our hand and arm and insert it as far as we can into the ewe's uterus looking for a last lamb, which we then pull out.

Even lambs occassionally need help. Our ewe Dolly has a low hanging udder, her nipples almost touch the ground. It took her lambs almost 24 hour to stop looking high on her udder for nipples. With a bit of our help, they didn't starve to death while they were learning. Abi, the newest black lamb, bonded with Abi, the apprentice, immediately after she was born. We bottle fed the lamb until she learned that she could get  milk immediately from her mother but would have to wait for three hours for Abi the person to come back to the barn. The smallest triplet born so far this year has been bottle fed since the -20 degree night she was born. She had trouble standing and was weak after she was born and struggled to stand and nurse. Without a little bit of help, she wouldn't have survived.

Dave checks the sheep at 3 a.m. We both do the 10 p.m. check and I wake up and go out to the barn for the seven a.m. check.  Friday evening when we realized that we had several ewes lambing, I sent Dave to bed because I had Abi to help me deliver lambs, dry new lambs, clip and dip their umbilical cords and strip their mother's nipples so that they could nurse easily. Two and a half hours later, Abi and I staggered into the house and dropped into bed, knowing that the ewes were okay, the lambs had either nursed or been fed with a bottle and that Dave would be alert in less than three hours to care for the babies in the pens and any new babies. With a little help from Abi, I got to bed before Dave woke up for the next lamb check.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Cold lamb

"I always slow down when I get to the barn door," I explained to Abi as we walked toward the barn. "If the ewe is a first time Mom and is frightened or if she's have a hard delivery and she's anxious, I don't want to scare her out of the barn. It's much easier on her babies to be in the barn in this cold."

21 orange was neither frightened nor anxious. She stood just inside the door, a gangly white lamb standing beside her. 21 orange licked her lamb. The lamb shuddered.

Cold lamb! Not surprising, it was still below zero outside.

I grabbed a couple of towels from the cabinet and handed them to Abi,  then  hung a heat lamp over a pen and turned on the light. I untied the corner ties on the front panel of the pen and fluffed up the straw on the floor. Then I picked up the new lamb and carried it to the pen. I walked slowly, backwards, holding the lamb down for 21 orange to sniff and follow. "Come on Mom," I murmured. "We'll get you into a nice warm pen."

21 orange is an old ewe; she knew the routine. When I set her baby down and moved away, she walked right into the pen and began licking him again. I gestured Abi in after him. "Dry him off with the towel." Once the lamb was dry, I cut his umbilical cord and dipped it in iodine. Then I stripped milk from his mother's teats. Abi filled a bucket with water and hung it on the pen wall. I added a slice of hay.The lamb was still shivering, so we hung a second heat lamp.

When we returned with the barn to introduce Dave to our newest addition, the lamb was still shivering.  I ran back to the house for a thermometer and a lamb bottle. Dave milked 21 orange into a jar while I took the lamb's temperature. Normal. The shivering was probably due to the cold, not to an inability to keep his temperature up, a problem that has haunted us for several years. If we could get him nursing, he'd be fine.

Dave put the lamb onto his mother's nipple, holding mom in place with his shoulder and the lamb in place with his hands and knees. The lamb sucked a little, but got distracted easily. Finally, Abi poured the fresh milk into the bottle and held the lamb while I fed him. He nursed well. When we left the barn his shivers were almost gone.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Waiting for lambs - learning to dye

Abi, a high school senior, loves knitting and wool. She came to stay at the farm this week to learn about raising sheep. It should have been a perfect time-  one week into lambing, the barn should have been full of new babies. We should be cutting umbilical cords, checking for third lambs in mother's uterus', feeding lambs and their moms in their pens. We might even have had a bottle lamb to feed. We should be busy. Very busy.

This week, however, no one has lambed. We have no bottle lambs. In fact, no lambs have been born since February 7. All we have to do is check the sheep every three hours and that doesn't fill up much of a day. So Abby and I have been playing with wool. We skirted and washed a couple of fleeces on Sunday. On Monday, we dyed a fleece navy blue and began experimenting with space dyed yarns.

Most yarns are dyed before they are spun. Color variations are a part of the spinning process. But space dyed yarns have two or more color variations that are created by adding color after the yarn is spun. Sometimes the variations are simple but regular and produce a regular pattern in the knitted garment.

Sometimes the variations are complex and regular, but the knitted garment doesn't necessarily reflect that regularity. The regularity makes it easier to reproduce the pattern again and again on different skeins of yarn.

Sometimes the dye patterns are very complex. Abi introduced me to Koigu yarns on the Internet. They have absolutely wonderful color variations. We decided that reproducing those yarns would be fun. I got out my old space dyeing experiments for examples, but I'd never tried any space dyeing with such complex patterns.  We spent the entire day adding six or eight different colors to a skein of yarn. Then we steamed the yarn to set the color, let it cool enough that we could judge what we had created to learn what worked well and what didn't, and then began on the next skein. In spite of short breaks to check the sheep and eat, we only finished three skeins. Time flew.
 Space dyeing yarns is addictive. We wanted to do more. The knitting that Abby had seen from Koigu yarns had each stitch a different color. Those yarns come in dyelots of 22 skeins. That means that they only guarantee that 22 skeins will knit up in exactly the same collection of colors. They must have found some way to make their seemingly random color choices reproducible.

Dave helped us design a  machine to make our space dyeing more repeatable. We finished it last night. Today we'll try to create a repeatable pattern in lots of colors, while we wait for lambs.

Saturday, February 14, 2015


                                           photo by Amber Walker

Saturday morning, I woke to my grandson Jasper's shouts.
"Grandma, there are two babies in the barn!"

I had just been out there, four hours earlier, and decided that no one looked ready to lamb. No one even looked as if they would lamb before Jasper and Amber had to go home on Sunday. Even thirty years of lambing isn't enough to allow me to recognize a ewe about to go into labor. You'd think I'd have learned something after all those years.

Of course, after the first ewe lambed, I expect new babies every time I go out to the barn. I look for ewes  with sunken areas in front of their hip bones. We have three old ewes who look like that, but I'm pretty sure one of them isn't even pregnant and none of them has lambed in the last six days. I look for ewes who are reluctant to get up when I open the barn door in the morning. Lots of them exhibit that behavior, but so do I when Dave turns on the light to dress in the morning, and I'm certainly not pregnant. I look for really big, obviously pregnant  sheep, but most of them are in that state.

That's why we check the sheep every three to four hours, because we can't predict when a ewe will go into labor. It seems, like Jasper, I'll just be surprised when I find new babies in the barn.