Notes from Windward: #57

The Sad Story of #10

Good old #10
Six is old for sheep. In a commercial herd, ewes older than five are rarely kept for future breeding. It's a hard reality, but every year the flock doubles and someone has to go or else you will inevitably exhaust the carrying capacity of the land. Once that happens, the flock is doomed. Arguably, the toughest thing a shepherd has to do is decide who stays and who goes. It's hard to argue that a five year old ewe should stay, while her daughter goes to the sale yard.

The criteria used to determine who stays and who goes varies from flock to flock and year to year. Sometimes the decisions are made on solid, statistical data, and sometimes it's almost whimsical. In our case, we tend to keep our older does and ewes for life in the belief they're also part of the team. I don't know anyone who makes their life and livelihood working with stock who doesn't get personally and emotionally involved to some degree or another, and perhaps it's our commitment to community that causes us to keep sheep and goats long after the conventional wisdom says that they should go.

Grazing at sunset
Anyway, #10 and #11 (called "LV" for short) were the first ewes we acquired some eight years ago. They were fully grown then, so we figure that they're at least going on ten at this point. They're Suffolks, the sheep with white wool and black feet and faces.

Sheep come in vast array off different breeds, all developed to meet special circumstances and fulfill particular needs. Around here, the Suffolks are considered primarily a meat sheep, with second rate wool. While that's a fair judgement of it's suitability for hand spinning and felting, it's actually first rate for other uses such as wool batting for a coverlet or a padded jacket. The very characteristics that make it unsuitable for one use are what makes it right for the other. As with so many things, it's not so much a matter of good or bad, but rather a question of how best to use what you have.

Over time, as we acquired other ewes, they tended to follow the lead of #10 and #11. Sheep are prone to follow, but that doesn't mean that some sheep don't have more leadership potential than others. Herds are formed around pecking orders, and sheep are no different from any other herd animal in that regard.

Savanah taking a rest
Back a few years ago, a hunting dog attacked the flock, and #10 and #11 stood ground protecting the other ewes. Both got chewed up badly, but they brought the flock home safe and sound. We nursed them as best we could, and both recovered, although LV lost the use of one of her eyes. They still lead the flock out to graze the hills, but under the watchful eye of Savanah, our purebred hybrid sheepdog, there haven't been any more attacks.

#10 with her 3 lambs
This year, our breeding program focused on generating multiple births, and #10 out did the rest by birthing first, and by having triplets! We were so delighted that we didn't notice at first just how depressed she was. Post-partum depression isn't just something that affect two-leggers. We should have spotted the signs sooner, but all excuses aside, we just didn't. Her lambs were all aggressively nursing, so we figured everything was fine, and she would quickly snap out of it.

She didn't, and by the next day, her lambs were chilled and limp. We went into emergency procedures and were able to save one, but we lost the other two. In retrospect, there are a number of things we should have checked out, instead of presuming that things were fine. It was a sad lesson, but once you get behind with these little ones, it's very hard to bring them back from the brink.

#10's udder looked full
Part of the problem is that newborns don't have a rumen to generate heat, and while their mothers are kept warm and comforable by the slow fire in their belly, the kids don't have any such exothermic resource. The first milk, called colostrum, is very rich and is designed to provide the lambs with lots of energy, but they have to get it in order to derive the benefit.

In the case of #10, the stress of producing triplets had caused her body to go into a potassium imbalance and she couldn't let her milk down. We were fooled, in part, by how full the udder looked and how active the lambs were. The problem was that the lambs were sucking, but nothing was coming out.

The lambs looked like
they were nursing.
It would have only taken a few minutes to check each teat to insure that the wax plug was out and the colostrum was flowing, but that didn't happen. Looking back, I can't remember what was so important that we didn't take the little extra time it would have taken to make sure everything was operational, but the bottom line is ... we didn't.

We were able to save the strongest of the three lambs, and allowed #10 to dry off and recover, but it was weeks before she got her spirit back again. Now, she's actively leading the flock around as spring comes to the hills, and we expect that she'll be with us for another year, although we had doubts there for a while.

Pia as a newborn
The one lamb that survived became a barn baby, and was constantly underfoot. It was as though since she had almost starved to death once, she was determined to take every opportunity to ask for something more to eat. She was so insistent, that she quickly got the name P.I.A. Today, she's the largest of our lambs and looks like she'll make a good addition to the flock. We're planning on increasing the number of ewes by 25% this year anyway, and for good, solid reasons, Pia will probably be one of the keepers. It really doesn't have anything to do with a sense of guilt. Really.

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