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Lambing With-Ease Sure Beats Lambing With Dis-Ease​

 by Hope Allen Yankey, appearing in The Shepherd, Vol. 43, No. 10, May 1998

Lambing season this year gave true meaning to the cartoon Coopworth breeders in New Zealand use to harass all other sheep breeders there–"If you're raising Coopworths, hire yourself out to the neighbors who don't during lambing." I've always thought lambing season to be stressful. Anticipating those long, often late hours on the worst of all wintry days (more often nights) no matter how warm and mild the winter, no matter how early or late ewes are bred to lamb, when suddenly you find yourself faced with the impossible, or so it seems, most unpredictable leg and head contortions of one, two, or three lamb bodies trying to find an open door to the world. It's definitely a love, hate relationship all shepherds face and have faced since sheep were domesticated–I am not alone in this, by any means.

The infrastructure that now supports the "sheep industry" worldwide would have crumbled long ago not from producer apathy and all out political hanky-panky, but from extinction of the shepherding persons themselves caused by "Shepherd's Syndrome." "Shepherd's Syndrome" would have ended careers, marriages, small and large farm operations, global lamb and wool enterprises the world over. "Shepherd's Syndrome" is the dementia shepherds face during lambing. Resulting from too little sleep and/or food; too few and too weak fingers stuck in a place with only room for one hand, five fingers, to start with; arms that are NOT bionic, that lack extensions and Godzilla-like strength; the lack of another person within reasonable distance or time either to help with a tough lambing situation or to provide you food, warm clothing, or solace; likewise, the anticipated smell of Lysol disinfectant or, perhaps, Irish Spring soap needed for lubrication and antiseptic lambing required of the more impossible birthings none of us wish to discuss or retain in our memory by choice; lambs born with less than the total number of anticipated body parts or born more-hours-than-you-can-imagine later than planned; and lastly, unforgivingly, lambs born during the one hour you left to take a shower and get some warm food in your belly. Lambs born when the wind was howling, the snow blowing, and the temperature dropped well below zero! I can feel the sense of helplessness creeping upon me as I write. And to think, it's an annual event that cannot be escaped if, in fact, the goal is to continue to raise sheep whether for profit or not.

Well, now that I have conjured up the worst scenario, enough to make me rethink putting the rams with the ewes any time soon, let's look at the "love" part of that relationship. How wonderful to see little balls of fuzz pop out, take a first breath of air, and within less than five minutes become the best little grocery shoppers incredible and how magical. We humans enter the world at virtually the same weight, we mature at a weight comparable to that of sheep, but we sure follow a different path getting to that weight. Watching those little fellows get up, shake off the last of the remnants of the placenta, their protective "inhouse" coating, find their voices and "baa" to insure recognition by their mom, just gives me goose bumps the cold and wintry rains can't chill. Will I ever stop doing it? I don't think so, but...I will tell you this, a season like this last one goes a long way in making it seem reasonable and plausible that I'll still want to be in the lambing barn when I'm 90 Years old and a bit slow–"demented," maybe, but not suffering from "Shepherd's Syndrome."

We've moved our lambing to mid March to coincide with improved breeding conditions in late fall (October, November) and to accommodate the upshot of grass in April here, and the increased likelihood of better weather, rather than February's expected winter storms and snows. As we approached lambing this year, I became especially alarmed by the incredible rains we were continuing to experience. Our barn-on-the-hill sets high, on ground that is shale, but at a depth synonymous with bedrock (for example, the poles are set not more than 18-24 inches in the ground). It became impossible to think of driving the tractor into the barn corral to clean out the barn and the barn yard prior to lambing-everything was knee deep in mud-slimy, wet, soupy mud. Every step taken with a scoopful of manure was a step that much deeper in mud, with manure piled that much higher. I am not a practicing "indoor" shepherd and I don't like confined housing. We have 50 sheep, hardly enough to warrant panic attacks, but I could not imagine how I would bring the ewes inside the barn at nights when I needed waders myself just to trek to our bedroom loft fashioned above two lambing pens inside our barn, the barn-on-the-hill. Just shy of a panic attack, expecting that I would suffer the onset of "Shepherd's Syndrome" this very year, I decided to take another view of the sheep world: God made sheep to be sheep, to beget sheep that in turn would beget more sheep, and this had been the way of things long before man was created. Too, I had been to New Zealand and had seen this particular cartoon. I had Coopworth sheep, after all, and had maintained the attitude that any ewe which gave problems during lambing was not worth her weight in either gold, silver, or lead and, consequently, adopted the practice that any ewe with lambing difficulties was not kept for breeding in the Wild 'n' Woolly flock. Ewes due to lamb within a week to ten days (we use a marking harness on our rams during breeding season) were brought close to the house and barn. Never, however, housed, day or night. Once or twice, a ewe missed her cue and remained beyond the 20-acre perimeter fence, but nature certainly worked favorably with us this year. There were no mishaps. There were only two assists-both were young ewes. One was elbow tucked. She'd have had the lamb without my being there just fine, but I felt the NEED to interfere and impress the ewes watching from afar that–Yes, I would be there when they NEEDED, and even when they DIDN'T need, me–Ha! The other assist, however, was unfortunate...big lamb, hand too large, fingers too big, too weak, ewe's cervix tight, no room to maneuver legs and head and NO HELP within an hour's reach, ewe and me panic stricken, but aware of the need to do something to expedite matters before Lysol and Irish Spring soap became mandatory. The head kept wanting to drop back, no matter which side, left, right or back, of the ewe, that is, I had up. I could feel the nose and sense the lamb's desire to breathe way before time to do so...I have successfully turned lambs around in this situation when that seemed less time consuming than attempting to bring the head and a leg or legs out first which will, in the case with large lambs, often result in the head dropping back behind the pelvic wall. Alone I propped the ewe on busted hay bales, upside down, inside out, right side, then left side up, butt up, with the lamb's head up–still, no go. I felt I had no choice but to turn the lamb around for a backwards delivery ASAP, of course, but this time I was not so successful–in so doing, whether I did it or one of the legs caught it, the umbilical cord was ruptured and the lamb suffocated from having attempted to breathe far too soon. It was too long, too messy–ten minutes that felt like ten hours. How exhausting and how sad. What a wonderful ewe, frightened, but not overly excited, just very hurt that her lamb was not alive. What would have happened had I not been there???? Who's to know? Was the lamb really that big? I've had larger lambs born to smaller ewes. How long had she been in labor? Had I really needed to intervene? Hmmmmmm.

This year I saw three lamb actually born, the two mentioned above, and one other healthy ewe lamb born later to a yearling ewe. All other years I have made an all out attempt to NOT miss any lambs being born. (We had given intranasal P13 vaccinations in the past no more than 30 minutes after birth to all lambs, but discontinued the practice in 1997 after a ten year period with no cases of pneumonia.) This year I found lambs mostly–already born, nursed, requiring only my reassurance and a dose of iodine on their navel cords, a shot of BLS–Baby Lamb Strength–and a pat on their heads. I didn't panic at night and get up to see if ewes were lambing in the corral that weren't in the barn–none were either place. I didn't sit idly by or pace the corridors waiting and watching to experience every water bag, every grunt. I checked hourly or bi-hourly during the day around the paddock and made certain I could account for those ewes whose birthing was imminent. The ewes were free to forage on their own, they were made to walk some distance for hay, and doubly that distance for water. They were free to remain in the company of those ewes they chose to be around rather than those I chose for them. Stress was minimal. They were allowed access to wooded areas and protective gullies. Ewes that lambed were simply transferred within 24 lo 48 hours from the field in which they lambed to the field on the other side of the fence where ewes and lambs were pastured. They were not housed in jugs, but allowed to separate themselves from the flock at large for as long as they deemed necessary to permit adequate bonding with their lambs. I did sneak a bucket of water and a pan of grain to them when I could for those first two or three days they weren't willing to come to the feeders at graining time. Only in the severest conditions (blowing, icy rain at temperatures below 25º F) did I give in to my need to bring little ones and moms into the barn, still not penning them in jugs, but allowing them room to come and go within the confines of the corral and front 20 X 20 foot area inside the barn. The worst mishap of the season occurred when our 16.1 hands, 1,300 lb. Percheron Spotted Tennessee Walker mare accidentally stepped on the leg of a newborn lamb and snapped it–not compounded, but simply fractured, I was able to set the leg myself and now you cannot tell which lamb it was-he does not limp. Our horses had been pastured with the ewes due to lamb only because the wetness prevented our keeping them in the bottom fields in which they're normally pastured. "Shooting Star" had simply come to say hello to the newborns. I should have moved them then, but didn't.

It was a wonderful lambing season, nevertheless. I was more relaxed about the entire lambing experience than ever. And, I relaxed even more when the first two of four yearlings bred, lambed within two days of each other and their lambs again simply appeared on the scene, got up, found groceries, and greeted me bright eyed and waggly tailed. So, what was the fuss all about all those it possible that in raising Coopworths, having set my goal as one to "get sheep to be sheep," beget sheep, and thrive as they would "in the wild" was paramount to attaining a flock of ewes that "lamb with-ease?"

Yep...I was relaxed...the EWES were relaxed. Our Coopworth ewes were far better off with little to no intervention at lambing. Exercise and pastoral contentment were more conducive to lambing with-ease than confinement and panic driven, chaotic shepherding on my part. Fifteen years of maintaining the "Coopworth" philosophy, keeping only those ewes who lamb consistently without difficulty and retaining only their offspring as ewes in the flock, paid off, it would seem.

Does this mean that I should consider working for the neighbors who don't raise Coopworths this next spring during lambing?



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