Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up

Surely you have seen that commercial for the health device that you push and are directly connected with emergency services. While I’m certain this device has saved lives and shouldn’t be taken lightly…

 Right now, one of our ewes could seriously use one of those emergency buttons... (if she could only manage to push it with her hooves)

just one of the big girls eating a little hay

All the ewes have reached the hugely pregnant stage.  Many of them make little grunts and moans when they walk, and the act of laying down, or the reverse (getting up) can prove quite timely and it’s almost painful to watch.  I’m sure I personalize this far too much, but I remember being incredibly awkward and ungainly prior to both my daughters’ births.  As a matter of fact, I once lost my balance and ended up quite unceremoniously sitting in a pile of tires. You should have seen the look on the mechanic’s face! Poor guy…he didn’t know whether to laugh or not...oh, go ahead and laugh…I did.   

But, back to the sheep.

A couple of the ewes are beyond hugely pregnant…they are enormous. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a number of sets of triplets, although that’s not really the most desirable outcome.  Honestly, we would like to see healthy twins from each ewe.  No more, no less.  But, that’s not the way things go. Last year we had THREE sets of triplets.

Of the enormous ewes, one is a first-timer.  Her name is Charlene and she’s a beautiful animal. She has a large frame, a nice long back and a big butt. (all things we look for in a good “sheep mom”)  But, she’s been getting bigger and bigger and bigger…

One day last week, one back leg seemed to give out and she just sort of sat down as she was walking out toward the feeders.  I didn’t think too much of it. As the babies grow inside, they put pressure in odd and random places and the muscles and ligaments stretch to allow for the birth, so sometimes weird things happen.

Then it happened again.  Hmmm

When I went to feed on Sunday morning, she was lying in the middle of the barn.  She didn’t look particularly distressed, but all the rest of the ewes were milling around complaining that breakfast hadn’t been served.

She tried to get up, but couldn’t.  I tried to get her up, but couldn’t.  There was no obvious injury and she seemed healthy enough.  It was as if her back right leg just couldn’t straighten out and support her weight.  Ordinarily a sheep can stand on three legs, but with the added weight and the change in her center of gravity, she couldn’t seem to manage.

I pulled her up, she fell down. I tried again. She fell again. This was getting us nowhere, and I was going to get squished by an enormous falling sheep at some point.

And, so it was that the Boss was greeted with “I got a problem” as he headed out to begin the day.
Between the two of us, we got her into a stall. Here, we could make sure that she had feed and water and the other sheep wouldn’t trample her.

Neither of us could find any obvious health problem and agreed on that the only possible explanation must be the pressure from the babies.  We could only hope that it was a temporary condition and would clear after the birth.  She could stay in the “hospital pen” until she had her babies. It would mean re-configuring our jug pens for lambing and it would also mean some extra work…but, we didn’t have any other real options. So,…whatcha gonna do?

It didn’t make sense to make a vet call when we were both fairly certain he’d say the same thing that we just decided. Other than keeping an eye on her, there wasn’t really anything to do but wait.  She seemed to appreciate the special treatment and was eating well. (the first test for animal health is to assess appetite) Her bodily functions all seemed normal. She could move about somewhat. We would just have to ride this one out until her due date…in TWO weeks!  I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled at that news.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had a ewe in a special treatment/maternity pen.  It seems like every year there is some different issue. Sometimes we go to great lengths for healthy lambs. The new issues are actually a great challenge.  We learn a lot from the disasters and the success stories are always awesome.

On one my first nocturnal check of Lamb Season ’15, dozens of glowing blue orbs danced in the light of my headlamp, twinkling as ewes scattered when I entered the barn. (It won’t be long before they don’t even notice me wandering around in the middle of the night. And, the blue orbs will gaze steadily my direction, hoping for a handout) I did a cursory check as the beam shined around the barn.

Wait a minute!

Where is my patient?  …and why are there two fixed blue orbs on the floor of the barn?


The ewe was laid out flat on the floor, her eyes unblinking. Was she sleeping?  Or worse?  Was she dead? Hang on, I think she blinked.  But, it didn’t look good.  Was she dying? How could this be?  She was fine when I was down here hours before!

Shoving my way through the ewes (who by this time had calmed down enough to realize that the barn wasn’t being invaded by aliens and they weren’t getting any extra feed) I got to her pen. No, she wasn’t dead or imminently dying.  But, she certainly wasn’t looking perky like she had just hours earlier. Her legs were out straight and her belly seemed distended. Or maybe it was just really big. It was hard to tell by the light of the headlamp. Things certainly didn’t look good. But, she was responsive.

Why do these things always happen in the middle of the night?  I figured time was of the essence and it would be a pain to walk back to the house and wake the Boss.  Surely, I could do this.

I grabbed her neck.

Gosh, she’s big!

I tried getting a grip from a different angle.

Seriously…this girl is BIG!

Grunting and mumbling to myself, I pulled her to a somewhat upright position.  She coughed, gasped and started to fight with me.  Taking this a good sign, I tried to get her into a more natural pose.  Her enormous belly made this next to impossible. Her leg (the one she didn’t seem able to put weight on) was suddenly flailing about with great force. While that was a good sign on the one hand, on the other, I really didn’t need to get kicked in the face.  After a great deal of ineffectual tugging and pushing, I finally grabbed her back feet and got her flipped over.  I was able to use the post in the pen to prop her up so she wouldn’t roll again. 

I’m pretty sure she went to reposition herself and just got stuck. Without the full use of her back leg and the hugeness of her belly, she was rather like a beached whale. Poor thing! Did you know that if a sheep gets turned over and can’t get up (if it’s too woolly and wet…or in this case, full of babies) it can die? Absolutely.

She shook her head and looked around the barn. 

I got her a bucket of water and a handful of grain. "Grain? Did someone say grain?"  She perked right up.  Remember my health test?  She passed with flying colors.
it's not so bad in the "hospital pen"

But, by choretime, she was down again. I mean, flat out, looking like she was dying, down.

However, by the time chores were done, she was eating contentedly. After some human assistance to get in a normal “sheepy” position.

A few hours later, she was flat out again.

This time, I gave her a nutrient drench (since she seemed somewhat weak and it was hard for her to get to the food) and re-positioned her. (again)

She responded nicely.

Now that I know she will get stuck if she’s in the wrong position and she needs a little extra TLC, my checks to the barn will have to be a little more frequent.

The outcome is far from certain in this situation. I can only offer my best care as a shepherd and watch and pray.


even though she looked pretty good...

Then…she was down…

But, wait, now she’s up…

propped up with a hay bale

So…yeah…that’s been my day…all day. (and night...all night)

Did I mention her due date? 

                                                        Is…11 days away?

Oh, and the temperatures are plummeting…and the wind is blowing…

                Yes sirree,…lambing season just got “interesting”!

                                                  …and we’re just getting started.
                               We won't see the first lamb for at least a couple of days.


  1. Do hope you manage to keep her going until full time and that the outcome is positive - always such a worry at this time of the year. Keep going.

  2. Josephine suggests you just bring her in and let her sleep on the bed with you. You and Boss can act like natural hay bales.

    1. ...and the Boss says...."ain't NO way!"
      But, thanks, JB, for the suggestion. ;)

  3. Holy! Sometimes a cow will get what we call hip lock and has similar problems. Be sure to bundle up for those late night sheep checks!

    1. Thanks, Lori!
      I'll have to read up on hip lock. How on earth do you manage a COW in a similar situation? Oh, now I understand hip lifts for tractors...
      In fifteen years of shepherding, we've never encountered anything quite like this. Always something new to learn.
      It's a blistering 2* this morning. But, at least the wind died down. Hope y'all are staying warm!
      Off to check my patient..