Friday, February 10, 2012
Baa, Baa Black Sheep
We don’t have any white fluffy lambs like you see in nursery rhyme books. No Mary and her little lambs with fleece as white as snow…
Our lambs are born black, or somewhat speckled, because they are Suffolks. That is just a characteristic of the breed. Over time, their wool fades to a creamy shade of white. Sometimes, right after shearing…right after a big rain…they actually glow with whiteness. It is an unusually beautiful sight, the bright white against the green, green grass. This doesn’t last long, as the lanolin in the wool attracts dust and dirt and most of the time they look pretty grungy.
When the lambs are first born, they are slimy and wet, weak and fragile. Although, a healthy lamb should begin attempting to stand and making an effort to look for that first crucial meal within minutes of birth. That is always astounding. It never ceases to amaze me that those little black alien-like creatures so quickly become healthy, thriving, robust lambs.
I do my best to be there when the ewes lamb. Often, some type of intervention is needed. It may be re-positioning the lamb or actually pulling it out. Then, once the lamb hits the ground, the birth sack must be removed from the face, or the lamb will smother. Most of the time, this happens naturally; although, there are times that human action is critical. Any wind can chill a lamb to the point of death very quickly. My job as a shepherd is to keep that from happening. Shelter from the weather must be provided.
So, there I am…sometimes sitting on the ground…waiting…assisting the birth. OB glove in my pocket, ready to cover my hand and arm to do any internal exam, towels at the ready, my box of vet supplies somewhere relatively handy. None of the sheep are bothered by my presence; I spend so much time in the barn that I am an accepted part of the flock. That’s just part of being a shepherd. I have a shepherd-friend who has slept in the barn with her large flock during lambing season. The mama sheep are used to me and often lick my face or chew on my hair very much as they treat their young. By assisting in the cleaning of the lambs, I assure my acceptance, and avert any potential problems. All the rubbing and cleaning not only dries the gooey, soggy newborn, it also stimulates their internal organs so that their gut begins to work properly. This is essential to survival. The Boss provides the muscle that “assisting in lambing” demands.
Once we have established that all the lambs from a ewe have indeed been born, we “jug” the new family. A jug is a small pen designed to promote mothering on. This forces the mother and offspring to adjust to one another and allows the young lambs some security from the larger animals. It is also equipped with a heatlamp to provide a little warmth during cold winter nights. While “jugging”, we clip their umbilical cords and dip in iodine. This causes the umbilicus to dry, preventing the possibility of infection. There is a definite downside to being born in a barn…lots of germs. Mama sheep gets a little pampering with alfalfa hay and plenty of feed. The lambs are monitored for healthy reactions and given a selenium shot. Since our geographic area is deficient in this mineral, supplementation aids in healthy growth.
Before turning the new family out with the flock, the lambs are given an eartag (the number allows us to track the animal), a shot to prevent tetanus and infection, and their tails are banded. This causes the tail to fall off after a period of time, preventing the issue of fly-strike and infection due to the filth held close to the body by a long tail. While the tail-banding sounds gross, the alternative is possible death. (Personally, I choose gross over death any day)
At this point, Mama Sheep is more than ready to join the rest of the flock.
She resumes eating grass hay and feed with the rest, intermittently checking on her offspring. The very young lambs spend much of their time sleeping, eating…and looking for their mother.
Within three days of release from the jug, the lambs are cavorting through the barn yard with all the older lambs. We have lambs leaping, jumping,
dancing, climbing, exploring and bleating. They form small gangs and bother the sleeping ewes with their climbing,
butting and other shenanigans. The barn cats are a constant source of investigation…much to the cats’ annoyance. The barn is a loud and raucous place. We find it a constant source of wonder and amusement.
It isn’t too long before the lambs realize that the feeders hold goodies, and they are vying for their own place at feeding time. Forget that! Those big mamas are going to claim their own place…out of the way….young ‘uns! That’s when we set up the creep pen so they have constant access to food to accommodate their constantly growing appetites.
No longer “little black aliens”…these healthy lambs can gain up to a pound a day at the early stages of their life.
Wow…and they’re just over a week old!