During lambing season, action in the barn

During lambing season, action in the barn

A sheep farmer is, by turns, a pasture specialist, a dietician, a midwife, a strategist, and a detective

NEWFANE — Feb. 9: At 4:30 a.m., I swear I hear a pounding on the door.

There must be a lamb coming or a ewe stuck in labor. I run down the stairs, expecting to see April, our farmhand, but no one is at the door.

OK, so I imagined all that?

Well, I might as well go to the barn.

I gear up for a pretty mild night. I'm at the stage where gearing up for a nighttime visit to the barn means long coat over robe and jammies, with hat/glove/scarf. Boots, of course, too, and out I go.

As you head to the barn, a number of scenarios go through your head.

1. Nothing's happening - sleepy, masticating ewes.

2. New lambies, delivered sans moi.

3. Ewe in labor - in very early stages or about to deliver.

4. Ewe in labor - exhausted and not progressing.

5. A dead lamb with a mother in distress. Oy.

I get to the barn and one of the new ewes (born this past spring) is rubbing her butt against the door of the pen. This can be just an I-got-an-itch kind of thing or “something weird is happening to my body (labor), so let's see if rubbing on the door helps.”

I check the other ewes.

Salt is standing, pawing at the ground (a sign that she could be in early labor), and she sits down afterward. She doesn't show signs of pushing, so I go back outside where Spring, the one with the itchy butt, is now pawing at the ground.

I watch for five minutes and see no labor-like movements.

OK - I guess I'll go back to bed.

* * *

Feb. 13: It's 2:40 a.m. My knee is aching so bad that regardless of my flipping around like a pig on a spit, I can't get comfortable. The best thing is to just admit defeat, get up, and move around.

And you know what? Seeing as I'm up, I might as well go see if there is action in the barn.

With the full moon, it's pretty cold out. Remembering times past where I have underdressed - coming inside after a barn visit to find that my body temperature has dropped several degrees and it would take two hours before I could fall asleep - I layer up with my fleece-lined jeans over my jammies. Huge scarf, hat, gloves, coat, headlamp ... I'm ready.

Down at the barn, everyone except Midge and her two fabulous tiny twins is indoors. I have been turning off the barn light at night; otherwise, it's an indoor rodeo for those springy lambs, and the moms get no rest. I pull back the curtain that helps keep the draft down and move inside.

Such calm!

There are large forms, like boulders, lying shoulder to shoulder, all around the barn floor, with smaller repeating patterns of fluffballs cozied up next to them.

I don't turn the lights on. I love the soft light of nighttime, and last thing I want is to disturb with harsh electric lights. I point my headlamp at the ewes still waiting to deliver: Charlotte, Coral, Harriet, Frost, Salt, Spring, Pauline, and Xena.

Only Charlotte is squirming a little bit. Charlotte, like DD, lost her lamb last year. That was a nightmare.

But I can't think about that now. I want to be able to fall back to sleep. I try to not allow myself to stay too long, like I used to in my earlier days of shepherding.

I know any birth is accompanied by several hours of pre-labor, and nothing I see here merits my getting worked up. I don't expect an imminent birth.

Even the little light my headlamp provides stirs up a couple of the lambs. I want to allow mommies to rest, so I about-face and head back out into the moonlight, taking a little walk up the driveway to stretch my knee and admire the beauty of a full moon on a frigid Vermont night.

* * *

Feb. 14: Scorecard: Nine ewes delivered, eight ewes to go, 15 healthy lambs. All are either white or speckle gray - other than one black one.

Last night, Midge, a small ewe, was stuck in her delivery. I jumped in and pulled out number one. She delivered number two by herself.

This morning, DD, for whom I have a weak spot, because she was a bottle baby, started straining. She lost her lamb last year, so I was nervous about how things might go. I stuck around, and good thing I did. Sure enough, she had another huge lamb and wasn't progressing.

DD looked tired and dejected after an hour of pushing. So in I went, armed with mineral oil and the vets' special goo, and after much pulling, which felt like I had yanked loose every joint in the little guy's legs, I got the two legs out to the shoulders.

Next came the hard part: releasing the crown of the lamb's head from the cervix. Usually once you get to that point, the lamb just slides out. Not so here. The lamb was so big that even the midriff was not coming free.

I knew the lamb was alive, because I always stick my fingers in the mouth to see if I get a reaction. Indeed I did.

So I gave it a few more tugs and out he came. DD was so tired she didn't really seem very excited about her lamb, so I grabbed fistfuls of hay and gave him a good, rough massage. He was sniffling and wheezing, trying to get the gunk out of his nose and mouth. All good sounds - exactly what I want to hear.

Finally, DD began to do her motherly duties: licking the little guy clean.

I grabbed my oil and goo and, trying to be careful not to mess up my new knee, climbed back out over the pallet, grabbing hold of Nera's wool to give myself some purchase.

Needless to say, she was not particularly happy with this and took off. No matter - I had gotten the help I needed.

And into the house I went, to wash up and have my big cup of coffee.

* * *

Feb. 17: Hey, it's 2:47 again! My knee is aching, but not that badly. Clearly, I have a pretty serious physical alarm clock that someone is finding it amusing to set for the wrong wake-up time.

I get to the barn, go past the black curtain, and turn on my phone light, aiming it at the ceiling to minimize disruption. I hold the light over Salt, who is sitting beyond Nera. She had new hollows on her sides last night, indicating progression into the birth canal by the lambies.

So I'm watching her closely. I don't see anything at first. I shine my light over to the middle bay, where the yearling ewes are lying about. Nothing seems to be happening over there, either.

I return my light to Salt, and then I see them: Two huge sacks filled with liquid hanging out her backside. OK - showtime. No more sleeping for an hour or two.

So I shut off my light and begin to write. Temps are so mild tonight that I can type out here in the barn - without gloves, of course.

Suddenly, I hear a voice.


“Yes,” I answer, as April steps in to see what's going on.

She's a little freaked out to find me in here, we usually try to have alternate timing, and she did not expect to find a person - only sheep.

Salt is pawing, getting up, lying down, straining a bit. She puts her head down briefly, which makes me nervous. I'd like to see actively straining now. Her water has broken, the clock is ticking.

The lambies are waking now. Some are coming up and head-butting me or nibbling on the edges of my clothing.

By 3:54, I've seen the tip of a hoof. White. Not surprising - Salt is, of course, white. The lamb is presenting properly: two hooves with a big nose seated atop. Just right.

We're progressing nicely. She baas, pushes, her body arching, dragging in to use her most powerful muscles to push out this large, offending body which now needs to separate from the mother ship. The contraction ends, and she sits dazed, looking around.

After a minute, she rises, looks both ways, comes toward me. She smells at my phone and my fingers, she baas again, confused: Where is that lamb? Dang, do you mean I have to push more?

Another round of contractions. Lips curl in pain. Head drawn back, eyes bulging, front legs extending.

Up she gets again, then down almost as fast. I need to get a picture, but when she turns around, the hoofs have disappeared back inside.

It's raining now. We're becoming like Scotland or England - soupy weather.

More straining, for two or three good minutes. The lamb's head finally pushes past that point of constriction: You know the one, ladies - the point where you just wanted to crush something because the pain in childbirth is so intense.

Ten or 15 more full body contractions, and the little yellow-coated white lamb slides smoothly out of Salt. Full of life, the lamb baas, even as a thick film still encases him.

Salt is distracted by lambs and ewes walking around near her face, and it seems she's not ready to rise and welcome the lamb. Truth is, I don't think she knows he's out yet!

When she realizes, she pops up and back to begin the licking process and bond with her new baby. It's 4:20, and the lamb is officially breathing on his own. At 4:28, he is up and having his first taste of mother's milk.

Imagine how fast that is. A lamb is born, and just eight minutes later he is standing and trying to find the mother's teat. It's amazing.

* * *

Feb. 25: Today was a reminder that a farmer is not just a farmer. A farmer is, by turns, a pasture specialist, a dietician, a midwife, a strategist. (Think: How do I move across a main road 30 animals - animals who would like to taste every blade of grass half a mile away - without losing anyone or causing an accident?)

And today? A detective. Let me go get my trenchcoat and cigar. Columbo, reporting for duty.

So, this morning, I shot a cute video of lambs enjoying powdery snow for the first time. I stood and watched the flock for a few minutes after they had eaten, checked the coop for eggs, and turned to head back to the house.

As I passed the barn, I says to meself, “Self, let's just go check that no little cherubs got left behind.”

It happens that the sleeping ones miss the off-to-the-races shot sometimes and wake up to find themselves all alone. Panic generally ensues.

I walk into the back area, and there stands Harriet with a very strange assortment of three lambs! Between the feedings at 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., she had given birth.

But wait - I look more closely, and one of those lambs is absolutely enormous. The other two clearly just were born. They're about 7 or 8 pounds; they're very wet and very wobbly.

Meanwhile, the chunky one is dodging in to nip some milk off of “mum,” but she's not happy about it and steps away clumsily, knocking over the tiny lambs and stepping on them.

What the heck is going on here?

To further add to my confusion, Chunky has Harriet's classic white stripe down the face, smeared with blood from her placenta, which is still hanging out her backside. I don't recall any of our current lambs being Harriet lookalikes.

I pick him up. He's a little wet, but he's so heavy, I can't imagine Harriet birthing him as well as the other two.

So where did he come from?

I put him back down, flustered, and as he continues to shove his way to her teat, Harriet dances around to flee his huge appetite. Something has to be done here, or she's going to hurt one of the lambs.

I run up to the house and ask April if she'll join me in solving this mystery. She comes down, looks at the situation, and is just as stumped as I.

We contemplate bringing some of the other pregnant ewes back inside - maybe one of them gave birth this morning, and I missed it. Coral - still pregnant, or so we think - has been standing at the gate looking longingly at the barn. Maybe she dropped this hulking lamb?

April tries to get Coral to come out, but she slinks away when the gate is opened.

Doodle, who is the most protective mom ever, has also been standing by the gate. She's not usually interested in returning to the barn.

We get Frost, another preggo, out and over to the barn. She's not interested in mongo boy, either.

Ugh. We've picked him up several times now, slathering him with human smells - the kind of thing that can lead to mom rejecting a newborn - and we haven't shed any light on his origin.

Finally, I say, “Let's try something else.” We pick up the lamb and carry him out to the moms, hoping that one of them will claim him.

Immediately, Doodle runs up to him and, to our astonishment, allows him to nurse!!

April looks at me, I look at April, and we both can't believe that the facial feature on this lamb has escaped us all this time. He had displayed Harriet's classic white stripe only when the red from a thin coat of blood put it in relief.

Oh, good grief.

Frustration and satisfaction mingle as we head back to Harriet, to finally, calmly, appreciate the good job she's done bringing two more healthy lambs into the world.

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