First Lamb!

We’ve been prepping because we knew they were coming.  The shearing, the barn cleaning, the setting up of the south barn, and mounting the barn cameras.  One of the craziest baby intensities on our farm has just begun—lambing!

 

The momma sheep (called ewes) are loafing about in the barn, their close-cropped wool showing their prominent baby bumps.  Protruding from their sides, we call this the “pontoon” look.  The girls grunt as they push their way to the morning’s hay.  They’re more than ready to lighten their load.

 

Kara’s watching the udders fill in anticipation—a helpful sign that showcases who is getting due to deliver.  Especially full udders bulge backwards between the ewe’s legs, showing the udder’s “shoulder,” which means that the little internal timer is ready to buzz for babydom.

 

But the first lamb of the season came from a surprise momma—a yearling ewe.  This was her first pregnancy, and like a true beginner, she hadn’t a clue what was going on.  While an experienced ewe will dig herself a nest in the bedding and lay down to deliver her lambs, a yearling prances about and tries to hide amongst the other sheep.  This can make it tricky to know she’s in labor!

 

It’s certainly helpful to have our barn cameras going, which offer three distinct views of the sheep’s loafing area (especially since the girls have a way of hiding in the corners).  We can watch the cameras from any computer or smartphone, checking in regularly to see if any behavior or posturing suggests that labor is imminent.  You can watch the cameras too and maybe catch a live birth!  Log to www.streamn.com/berlage to view!  It may take a few seconds to load, depending on your internet speed.

 

Don’t expect too much of a soap opera if you log on.  Mostly the girls will be laying about, chewing cud.  I call it the “heavy on character development, low on plot” sheep channel.  But sometimes you may get lucky and see some interesting action.  Feel free to watch our farm’s Facebook page for up-to-date announcements about watching the barn cam.

 

The yearling ewe, though, wouldn’t have been in view because she had rushed outside to the loafing pen behind the barn where Kara throws the morning hay ration.  Mom and Steve were running errands, and I was working in the garden when I got Kara’s call for help.  Yearlings don’t understand that it’s best to lay down and relax—instead trying to hide in the group or run about—and she needed me to hold her in order to check that the baby was presenting properly.

 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people at Farmstead Creamery ask “do you need to help them?” in regards to ewes delivering.  “Wouldn’t they do that on their own in the wild?”  It’s helpful to remember that modern-day sheep are not wild.  They’ve had innumerable generations under the care of people, who have altered their genetics for specific reasons—a long and dense coat, a uniform udder, or a bigger frame, for instance.  These would not necessarily be selected traits in the wild, and the offset of breeding for what humans want in an animal is that we become intrinsically responsible for their care.  We certainly don’t expect human mothers to go have their babies off on their own!

 

This yearling’s delivery was a perfect example of why it’s important to be present at each birth.  This is because there’s only one way for a healthy lamb to come out of the uterus, and that is in a swan-dive position.  If one leg is back, or the head and neck is back, or the legs are presenting as one front foot and one back foot, the baby cannot come out.

 

Yearlings often have only one lamb their first year, so the chance of one leg from the first lamb and one leg from the second lamb presenting together isn’t so likely, but it’s always good to check.  Kara and I were able to capture the worried ewe and ease her onto the ground, where I held her head and neck and tried to be calm.  Kara strapped on her gloves and checked the baby.  Indeed, one leg was folded back at the knee joint, and she was able to ease it into the correct position, offering traction on the presenting feet to help the new mother, whose ligaments are still rather tight.

 

When the lamb emerges, it’s covered in the mother’s fluid.  Kara has blue bulb syringe she uses to suck the mucus from the lamb’s nostrils and throat so it can breathe properly.  Sometimes she has to gently swing the lamb by the back feet to bring the mucus forward, otherwise the baby can suffocate.  An experienced ewe will place the lamb’s head in her mouth and do the sucking herself, but the yearling was too frightened by this new bodily experience to have much lamb interest yet.  She needed her body’s oxytocin to kick in first.

 

Once the lamb is dried off and breathing adequately, Kara has a vitamin solution she squirts into its mouth to give it an immunity and energy boost, then milks out several ounces of colostrum from the ewe and carefully tube feeds the lamb, who is still not strong enough to stand and feed itself.  Lambs need energy right away, or they can quickly go downhill and become hypothermic.

 

Kara handed me the lamb bundled in a towel (a little boy with a black face and gray patches on his baby wool), and she led the ewe.  I kept the lamb near her face.  The amnionic fluid on the baby is salty, and the ewe is enticed to lick it, which stimulates the lamb.  The pair is then led to the south wing of the barn, where we have individual pens (called jugs) set up to receive them.

 

Because sheep are so distractible, the first few days of bonding is crucial to making certain that the mother doesn’t reject her lamb(s).  In the jug is also a nice heat lamp to keep the baby warm, fresh straw, and personal feed and water buckets for the ewe.  Kara spends several hours with the new mother, helping her calm down and accept the lamb and helping the lamb learn how to find the udder and nurse.  It’s a delicate process for the first day until the two settle into their new routine.  Sheep are very much attached to routine.

 

And now we watch the cameras again, waiting for the next round.  Will it be a sneaky yearling ewe, or one of the experienced “pontoon” mothers?  Feel free to check in on the barn cam and see!  See you down on the farm sometime.

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