Last night Alston came down with a fever, so I stayed home from work today. Will and our new farm hand John had a lot to plant before the five days of rain expected for the remainder of the week. The good news is they planted over 300 potatoes. The bad news is that they would have gotten further if not for the final sheep going into labor.
Around 2 PM, I went to check on the pregnant sheep before driving the toddler to a local strawberry farm as a means of coaxing him to nap. Her bag of water was out, and she appeared to be in labor, but she hadn’t isolated herself from the herd – she was standing right next to another sheep who was napping in the mid-day heat. I plopped Alston in front of the TV, told Will to come up when he finished the next row and parked myself in the pasture, binoculars in hand. The strawberries could wait for another day.
I positioned myself so I was out of her sight line, but still able to watch for progress. She was pacing, and occasionally would take what looked like a deep squat, but after a half hour of this the bag of water was still hanging intact and there were no other signs of progress. This was starting to feel eerily like our first lambing. Will came up after about 45 minutes and I talked him into calling John to help us move the sheep into a tighter enclosure. Will wanted to let her keep trying, but I was concerned that we had no idea how long that bag had been out. We both wanted to avoid a repeat disaster. Will called for John.
We tried to trap the sheep in the corner like the first and last lambing, but the sheep were onto us, specifically mama. She had no interest in our getting anywhere near her. We thought it being daylight would make our jobs easier, but it also aided the sheep and they managed to flank us, escaping to the other half of the pasture. Luckily, they headed towards the woods near the pig enclosures, cornering themselves. Will and John grabbed either side of a spare piece of hogwire fencing to tighten them in. Once we were in close, they let the fencing down and Will was able to jump on mama. She dragged him a few feet out of the woods, but he held on and managed to subdue her. John grabbed on and I headed to her backside. Nothing was showing, no head, no foot, nothing. I sprinted down to the house to grab gloves and lube.
Her birth canal was still very tight, but I was able to find both the legs. When I’d grab them by the ankles, the lamb would pull away, which I took for a good sign. I then found the head, but it was pretty far back and I just couldn’t get a grip on it to pull it forward. Stupid small hands. I asked Will to try while John and I held the sheep. He, too, found the legs and head, but he couldn’t fit his hand in and have both legs out. We decided to call the vet. Will used Tuck’s collar and leash to tie up the sheep and I sprinted back to the house.
I called the vet and was told that the on-call vet would phone me shortly. Ten minutes passed and no phone call, so I called again. Another ten minutes and I called a third time. Then another, and this time I was yelling. “Do NOT tell me someone will call me right back, I need to talk to someone NOW. My sheep is bleeding out and I’m sure I’ve already lost the lamb on account of waiting for your phone calls.” I was placed on hold while the receptionist called instead of paged the vet. “He’s calling you right now.”
I stared at the clock with my finger on redial, giving them 5 minutes. At 4 minutes he called and 15 minutes later he was at the farm. So yes, that’s an hour from when we realized we needed help. And our vet’s office is 10 minutes away, tops. Are you sensing my frustration?
The vet arrived and was thankfully a very likable guy. He was unable to grab the head with his hands so he used a plastic coated wire (think bike lock chain) to secure the head like a neck tie. He tightened straps around the lamb’s legs. He pulled. He repositioned. He pulled some more. Repeat for about 20 minutes. Maybe more. But the lamb finally did come out. It was dead, and covered in blood.
Mama had a tear, but the question was where. He examined her and didn’t think it was her uterus. More likely it was her vagina, which is a more recoverable tear. He gave the sheep antibiotics and anti-inflammatory injections and he and Will lead her over to shade near the run in shed. Our instructions were to wipe off some of the blood in order to keep the flies away, give her food and water and keep and eye on her. He said there was nothing we could have done differently. Will still thinks we should have let her labor longer on her own. I’m not so sure. After witnessing how much work it took for the vet to extract that lamb, I doubt mama could have birthed on her own, but I do share his gut feeling that this shouldn’t have turned out like it did. Not again, anyway.
After the vet left, I washed off her backside while Will held her still. We moved her into the shed, as she looked so uncomfortable tethered to a tree. The shade was cooler but it was already 4 PM and the shed wouldn’t stay overly warm for long.
Will cursed to himself while we walked back to the house. John had already gone back to potato planting once the vet removed the stillborn lamb. Will needed to get back to work as well. I went in the house to check on Alston, who had fallen asleep on the couch, giving me enough time to shower off all the blood.
I just checked the sheep now and she was standing. She’d passed her afterbirth and eaten all the grain, so I gave her some more. She’s looking ok. We’ll see how she looks tomorrow.
Lambing season is now over. We had one disaster, one idyllic, one heroic and one unfortunate birth. We started out with 5 sheep and now we have 6. Were we naive and maybe a bit arrogant to think a couple of rookies could handle lambing? Obviously. Yes, we’re going to continue to raise sheep here at Red Row Farm. We’ll probably even purchase another ewe (or 2) before the summer is out. In theory, it’s supposed to be easier when your ewes have been through it before, but in my mind I only have one truly experienced mama, one total rookie and two who ought to be terrified of giving birth, so I don’t expect next year to go that much more smoothly unless the sheep gods see fit to give us a friggin’ break. And now I’m going to give future-me some advice on how to handle things next year.
1. When the ewes are ready to lamb, tighten up their perimeter. No need to chase sheep over half the property, not to mention in the woods where we can’t see them.
2. If we need to intervene and we don’t see a head already out, call the vet to have on stand by. Then make one and only one attempt to fish out the lamb. If that fails, call the vet back immediately. No more realizing we need help and then sitting around waiting for an hour.
3. If we do intervene and succeed, we should try to use the shed as a lambing jug next go around.
4. Buy lambing straps. Probably have some antibiotics on hand.
5. Knock the girls up earlier, like November – sure it will be colder out, but it will also be more sanitary (less flies).