Notes from Windward: #69

In Memory of Jewel

we lose a key member of our herd

     With just one more ewe to lamb, we're coming up on the end of this year's birthing season. Weather here in the Columbia Gorge is always unpredictable, and this year seemingly more so than most in that in mid-April we were still seeing intermittent snow flurries and nights below freezing.

      We keep the rams and bucks separate from the ewes and does until the end of October in order to delay the birthing season until April. And while April can at times be cold and wet, it's predictably warmer and drier than March.

     But even with the best of weather, not all lambs and kids will survive. We're partly to blame for that because of our tenure policy. In a commercial herd, ewes and does are replaced when they reach six years old. Without predators, a herd can triple in size each year--a growth rate which if left unchecked would soon crash the land's carrying capacity.

Jewel (center) with Alison (L) and Becca (R)

     Since humans have killed off most of the predators, we have to take on the role of deciding which animals stay and which go. Our primary criteria has to do with an animal's ability to prosper under the conditions unique to our land, and the animal's willingness to work with us. Another way to say that is that we cull based on attitude, a principle which we apply to sheep and people alike.

     A key part of making any system sustainable was well expressed by Carlos Castenga, "We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same."

     Instead of culling ewes and does after their sixth birthday, we figure that by then they've earned a place in the community and are welcome to live out their lives as part of the Windward herd. While they might not be as competitive or aggressive as a younger animal, those aren't the key qualities we look for. Instead we intentionally take life at the slower pace that's necessary in order to take maximum advantage of knowledge and skill in order to operate sustainably.

     In sustainable systems, nature extracts a price for every deviation away from the norm. In this case, while older ewes are more likely to carry twins or triplets, they're also more likely to decide that they aren't up to the task of raising that many lambs. When that happens, we have to either put in the time needed to bottle feed until they're able to eat on their own, or put them down.

Jewel being welcomed to our herd in '07

     Jewel went into labor in the evening, and by midnight she'd delivered two boys. We made sure that the wax plug was out of her teats and helped the two boys get their first dose of colostrum, and settled them in for the night. Come morning, the placenta still hadn't been delivered so we knew that something was wrong. Two common reasons for failure to deliver the placenta are that (1) the placenta has grown into the surface of the womb, or that (2) there's another baby yet unborn.

Jewel (center) with Mikey (L) and Leo (R)

     Opalyn gathered up our box of kidding supplies and prepared to go in. The goat barn isn't a sterile environment by any means, and reaching into the womb to help a birth along will inevitably compromise her chance of recovering from the birth. That's a risk that had to be taken because Jewel would die if the problem wasn't solved.

     Opalyn quickly determined that Jewel had another kid inside. She was able to grasp two legs to pull on when Jewel had her contractions--but the kid remained stuck. At that point, Opalyn called for more help. A careful examination of the two legs showed revealed that the kid was presenting both a front and a rear leg, a combination that was undeliverable. The kid was pushed back into Jewel's uterus until the other front leg could be identified.

     There are two primary ways that a kid presents. The usual is for the two front feet to come first, with the nose tucked close to the knees as if the kid were "diving" through the birth canal. We tried to line the kid up that way but it had died during the night and it's head was flopping back over its shoulder thereby preventing it from entering the birth canal.

     That left the second option of bringing out the kid backwards; rear feet first. The problem there was that Opalyn couldn't find the other rear foot. Oana, who's hands are smaller, lubed up and went in, but to no avail. Evidently the missing leg was pointed away from the birth canal down in the opposite end of the uterus. By that time, Jewel was in shock and not even trying to contract and expel the dead kid.

     In desperation, I lubed up in hopes that I might be able to do something, and if not, then perhaps I could figure out what had gone so wrong to cause the worst birthing crisis we'd seen in many years. I was able to grasp the kid's head, open it's mouth and grip it between thumb and hand by putting my thumb in its mouth, my hand under its chin and taking hold of the jaw bone. But still the kid wouldn't budge.

     Eventually we'd tried everything we could think of to get the kid through the birth canal. By then Jewel was unconscious and moaning, and a slow drip of blood from her uterus told a story that we didn't want to hear. At that point we were left with the heart-breaking decision of whether to let her continue to suffer, or put her down. We decided it was time to let her go since we could see no hope for her recovery, but there was one last thing that she could do for the two kids who were live born.

Mikey and Leo eagerly press Lindsay for their noon feeding

     A baby goat's immune system doesn't kick in until they're six weeks old. Between birth and then, they're dependent on antibodies which are passed from the doe to the kid by the colostrum, a thick, creamy liquid often called "first milk." Without that, I would rate the kids chance of surviving at no better than fifty-fifty. Jewel's udder was full, and we were able to milk draw down more than half a gallon of colostrum. We made her as comfortable as we could, and then brought her two kids to her so that they could cuddle up against her.

     Two hours later, we returned to milk Jewel again endeavoring to squeeze out every drop we could. Then we took her two sons off to rest near the wood stove, and opened the artery in her neck so that she could bleed out quickly.

     The next day we took Jewel's body deep into the wood to give her back to nature, but before leaving her there, we did a necropsy in order to better understand what had gone wrong. One way we deal with the emotional impact of a loss like this is to endeavor to learn as much as we can in hopes of being able to affect a better outcome next time. These animals look to us for help, and we were all suffering from a real sense of somehow having let Jewel down.

     The first thing we noticed was that Jewel had a large internal fat deposit, larger than any I've seen in any goat I've butchered. We look for some fat, because that shows that our feeding levels have been correct, but this was a triangular mass of fat some 18 inches long, six inches high and 12 inches wide. As I said, it was huge.

     Goats don't develop subcutaneous fat like people do. Instead they develop an internal fat mass. That can be a problem since a goat's skin is literally leather which doesn't stretch very much. One of the signs that a doe is getting close to labor is that they lose their appetite since as the uterus gets larger, there's less room for the rumen to hold and process hay. The fat deposit that Jewel had built up made that problem even worse.

     Looking back, some of the mistakes we made are clear enough. For example, Jewel was penned with her two daughters, Becca and Alison, who turned one year old this month. It's our policy to not breed lambs and kids their first fall in order to allow them to more fully develop before we ask them to join the milking team. A milker of Jewel's caliber will better than 1,600 pounds of milk with a butterfat content of better than 4% during the eight month milking season, and the concern is that starting too soon will weaken their ability to build up the bone structure they'll need in order to keep up with the demands that go with an extended period of lactation.

     Jewel's daughters are young and a good deal smaller than her, and they're picky eaters to boot since they've not yet had to crank up their metabolisms to the point needed if they're going to produce a gallon of 4.5% dairy fat milk a day. This is another sustainability situation in which we intentionally de-rate our production goals to ensure that the animal is able to perform without jeopardizing their long term health, but Jewel's body didn't know that and so it prepared for the worst. While her daughters picked at their food, Jewel chowed down and evidently was eating about half of a feed allotment meant for three goats.

     Sheep and goats are ruminants. They earn their calories by harvesting a low energy product such as grass, chewing it up, buffering it to the right pH, and adding in some protein to boost bacterial growth. Then they load that mix into their rumen, a modified and greatly enlarged stomach where the cud is help at 101 °F, the temperature which is best for the bacteria that break down the cellulose in grass and leaves into sugar. When we give goats grain, we're actually feeding the bacteria which live in their stomach so that the bacteria can do the hard lifting involved in breaking down such a tough molecule. Cotton is essentially pure cellulose, which will give you an idea of how digestible cellulose is by itself--not!

     As the pregnancy proceeds, the babies start taking up more room. Late in the pregnancy, there's a direct trade off between room for the babies and room for food, and in Jewel's case the development of a large body of fat made the crush even worse than usual. More over, as the first two kids left the womb, this huge body of fat pushed the undelivered kid down and away to the point where he was laying at a right angle to the birth canal.

     To make the problem worse, the unborn kid was huge. I'd estimate that it was half again bigger than Leo, and almost twice as big as Mikey. To complicate matters even more, the unborn kid's right rear hip joint was either defective or severely dislocated, which was what was allowing the right rear and right front legs to present at the same time.

     In retrospect, we should have penned Jewel separately from her daughters for the last three months of her pregnancy and put her on a restrictive diet for the last six weeks. The extra large fat deposit inside her set an unfortunately chain of events in action.

     If we had made the decision to go in earlier, we might have been able to save the kid, and thereby save Jewel, but this was her third kidding and she'd not had problems delivering before so we made the incorrect assumption that she would be able to sort things out on her own.

     It's very depressing to lose an animal this way since we're having to deal with the emotional reality that had we been better stewards, she might not have died. All that we can do now is to lavish attention on her two newborns, and to study what happened in detail in order to be more effective should a similar situation arise in the future.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69