I did chores as usual this morning- I fed hay to the rams, bottle fed the two lambs, checked and changed everyone’s water…
But then I noticed that everything was too quiet. Our older bottle lamb,Steven was not baaing for the “cookie” he gets each morning . Usually, he would be insisting on my attention. The cookie has oats, cornmeal, molasses, salt and vegetable oil, so just a bit of extra energy so he won’t have to bad a setback from being weaned off milk.
Today, I found him lying down next to another lamb, looking poorly. When I got him up, he was lethargic and sad, with drooping ears and a sad posture. I’m thinking he has pneumonia and a touch of anemia – just too much stress from weaning.
I brought him in to the house, where he drearily half-followed me. Time for some penicillin, some Nutri-Drench, and a little TLC. I admit that I gave him a bit of milk, hoping that the hit of nutrients and hydration would offset the potential for an upset tummy. And he did perk up with the milk, but he certainly isn’t out of the woods.
So if you have a moment, please spare a thought for Steven. I think he will recover, but nothing is guaranteed. We are watching Great British Bake-Off and petting him on the couch.
Twenty of our thirty-three ewes have lambed so far at Cloverworks Farm. Thirty eight lambs have been born, with thirty six surviving. One loss was a little BFL ewe lamb who failed to nurse overnight with her mother. Another was 1627’s lamb, whom we had indoors and who just faded away, likely from pneumonia. Though some amount of loss is usual, I am still disappointed with my failure to keep these lambs alive. I’ve been intervening more since the first loss, feeling that I could have done more to warm and feed the lost lambs.
But the sad part aside, we have 34 healthy little lambs in the barn and two bouncy lambs in the house. Due to weather and mis-mothering, we have one lamb each from the recently-born triplets in our custody. With Steven Jr. weaned and on his own, we can deal with lambs in the house again. The lambs in the barn are happy and bouncy. Since the oldest lamb is now four months old, we have quite a range of sizes. Some of the youngest lambs still haven’t figured out how to home in on their mother, so I’ve been helping 123 find her mom, 264, often. All of the adults are struggling to tolerate the shear number of lambs who want to climb on their backs.
We are still waiting for the snow to melt and the pasture to start to green. Not much by way of spring weather yet, other than a few days with highs in the 40’s F.
Midnight: Matt tells me that Chloe is starting labor – she has a bag protruding and is restlessly shifting. I set an alarm to wake up in 90 minutes.
1:44 – I can see on the Barn Cam that Chloe has birthed one black lamb. Out to the barn I go to find a large, handsome ram lamb. I set Chloe up with a pen, and I notice a foot sticking out of Chloe. Usually, lambs are born in a crouched position, front legs forward. The sole of this hoof was facing upward- clearly the hind leg of a lamb coming out backwards. Lambs can be born backwards, but it is usually smart to help; the umbilical cord will break before the lamb’s head is out, prompting the lamb to breathe. If the lamb tries to breathe while its head is still inside, it can drown. I locate the second leg and a thin white lamb slips right out. She coughs and splutters and finally manages a big inhale and a tiny “maaahhh.” I towel her and her brother off, as it’s quite chilly out and they can chill before they muster the energy to stand.
Back in the house, I set an alarm for 2 hours.
3:44 – Despite my hopes, the lambs have chilled and aren’t standing well. Chloe doesn’t look great herself, spending an unusual amount of time lying down. I focus on the lambs – I bring them in, mix them up some stored colostrum and give them a quick first meal to help them along. I’ve found that often, a little energy boost gives them what they need to stand up and learn to nurse. Failure to intervene would likely result in hypothermic or dead lambs in the morning. I warm the lambs by the fire and feed each one. Both respond well, and soon they have little coats on and are headed back to Mom. I know that they can make it through to morning on this feeding, even if they don’t decode nursing on their own.
Back in bed at 5am.
At 8am, Matt goes out to do morning chores. Usually, this is my job, but Matt has kindly agreed to let me sleep given all of the hustle and bustle overnight. He comes back immediately, reporting that the ram lamb is bleeding out! I had noticed that the ewe lamb was bleeding more than usual from her umbilicus, but I didn’t really register it as an emergency. When Matt brought the ram in, however, he was weak and shaking, with a massive sausage-like bruised mass of an umbilicus. (I’m putting the photo of this at the very bottom of the post- it will be educational for shepherds but it’s more gross than I usually show). The vet confirms my suspicion – it didn’t look like a hernia where all of the intestines are coming out. I tied the umbilicus off with six inches of button thread from Matt’s sewing kit and we offered the ram lamb some electrolytes. In minutes, he was up and more alert. Success!
At 9am, we are noting that the ewe lamb isn’t nursing. Matt and I take some time trying to nursing-train her. We get her to latch, but she didn’t drink a lot. We are still concerned about Chloe, and it occurs to me that she could have a mild case of Milk Fever, which happens when the body deploys too much calcium to provide milk for the lambs, leaving the ewe’s calcium levels low. We ground some Tums in our coffee grinder and added water to make a drench. Some Tums and hot molasses-water had Chloe looking brighter.
We debated what to do about the ewe lamb- would she be better off on the bottle? How much intervention is too much? How do we provide just enough help without lessening her chances of ever nursing from her mother? Even after seven years of kidding and lambing, I always ponder this question at length. Matt and I agree that if she is too weak, we will bring her in for warming and go from there.
I go back to sleep after this- it’s now 11am.
I’m a little vague on times after this, but Matt went back to keep working on getting the lambs to nurse. Once the ram wasn’t bleeding, he was up and at-em, nursing away. But the ewe still needed help. He milked Chloe into a bottle and fed the ewe lamb, but couldn’t get her to latch.
At 3pm, I was up for the day and went out. Finally, after lots of patient guidance, the ewe lamb latches and suckles for several minutes. I let her go, and she latches herself and nurses again! Doing a victory dance in the middle of their bonding pen would have been counterproductive, so I saved that for my announcement of the news to Matt back in the house.
We will keep monitoring this little family, but finally, I am comfortable that everything is headed in the right direction.
Here’s the hemorrhaged umbilicus, for those who want to see it:
I thought you all might appreciate some bonus photos of the lambs in the barn. Every time I got to do some chores, they are up to something silly:
But sheep-raising as a living is more than just cute critters. I’ve been working through pounds and pounds of wool from shearing. We sent 40 pounds of raw wool to two different mills, hoping to see which will make the yarn we like the best. Most will be white Border Leicester yarn, with some natural colored Border yarn and some CormoX, too!
My usual approach is to categorize wool into four piles: the cleanest wool goes for raw Handspinning fleece. Acceptable but not ultra-clean wool goes to the mill. Wool that is too dirty for the mill will be hand-picked and hand-combed by me until it will make a good batt or roving. And finally, if I can’t clean it or if it is britch or belly wool, it goes to compost. I’m pretty picky, so we also have 30 pounds of wool in the compost category.
I’ve been madly cleaning and carding, resulting in lots of lovely batts. YouTube has given me a few tips, so stand by for some roving! I am especially excited to try the techniques. So far, the Bluefaced Leicester is clearly much softer than the Border Leicester, but both are lovely and will be a joy to spin. The Border Leicester has finally showed me its beautiful luster! My picture of the natural Bluefaced Leicester Batts isn’t completely true-to-color – the wool is a rich coffee-bean brown with gray highlights.
I hope you will take a moment to check out the shop to see our array of wool products!
Many of you may be wondering how Steven Jr., our bottle lamb, is doing. I’d like to report that he is doing very well. He was born on February 23rd, early in the morning. By that Sunday, he was finally getting up and walking on his own.
We gradually moved him to the barn. Living indoors isn’t healthy for sheep and he needs to learn to live socially with other sheep. We left him alone outside for one hour and brought him in. We then tried two hours out and four, and finally an overnight. He adjusted fine to the temperatures, as we’ve had quite a thaw in the last little bit. Getting used to other sheep has been harder. He baas a lot and seems to irritate them with his lack of lamb social skills, but they are patient and generally kind.
He found a friend in Ohio-65’s ram lamb. They are the same size and age, and their common interests are sleeping in the sun and play-butting each other. Steven isn’t really big enough to run around with the bigger, older lambs, so he sticks with his buddy. He has also grown impressively – we are pleased with how well he is doing on milk replacer. His mother, Dalek, doesn’t seem to acknowledge him, so there was no possibility of him returning to her care.
I was very worried about him when he was born- a lamb that can’t stand has very poor prospects unless it can make huge gains quickly because they can’t digest their food properly lying on one side. Steven completely surpassed my hopes for his recovery and I’m happy to have this cheerful little fellow in the barn.
We have 10 lambs on the ground and we’re waiting for more. With all of the girls pregnant and rather waddly, I took the opportunity to tackle a long overdue project: Identify my Border Leicesters and put names to faces.
Sue Johnson sold me 14 lovely prime-age Borders- 5 black and 9 white. One of the white ones succumbed to an irreparable leg injury, leaving 8 white ewes. The ewes have small flock-tags with four numbers, and round, white USDA Scrapie tags. The issue is that the flock tags are small and the scrapie tags are grubby. Some ewes are missing their flock tags altogether. This flock is pedigreed and registered, so I wanted to figure out which sheep needed replacement flock tags and how I might keep track of the new tags.
Sheep move quickly and though the flock has calmed down considerably since the week when we tried to get them into the barn, most still won’t let me get within 4 feet of their ears so I can read dirty tags. Nevertheless, I was able to determine that I had 7/8 white Border Leicesters that I should have. But I also had a mystery. I had a ewe on hand tagged as 1620, but she wasn’t on the purchase list. I also had no sign of ewe 2507, even after matching the scrapie tags all up. I let Sue know, and we soon realized that she had accidentally sent me the wrong sheep. She was embarrassed to have mis-loaded a ewe, and I was embarrassed to have not known for six months, so we called it even and had a good laugh.
Here are some photos from my ewe-ID adventures:
I have a bit more to say about Sue Johnson’s flock: She has many more sheep to sell as she downsizes to a more manageable flock size. These sheep are really fine animals and are perfect for flocks managed as an enterprise. They have desirable wool and grow out large (Sue had some ram lambs dress out at 70 lbs!). Too many Vermont sheep farms lose money because they raise breeds that finish too small, making it challenging to recoup the cost of slaughter with just 35 lbs of meat. These Border Leicesters are productive and very easy to care for. They have sweet personalities and jolly little faces.
We would like to find someone who would like 10 or more and who would keep them purebred for both meat and wool traits. Sue has provided me with helpful mentorship. With another nearby farm with similar goals, it would be much easier to justify bringing expensive but high-quality rams from flocks across the country.
Could you be the shepherd for this flock? Get in touch:
I woke up a 3:30 this morning. I think I was having a bad dream that woke me. My immediate intuition was to check the lamb-cam, just to be sure all was well. I scanned the barn and saw a weird black smudge on the hay. Blearily, I realized that the immobile black form on the camera had to be a lamb, so I threw on some clothes and went out.
It was a lamb! Dalek had birthed a single ram and cleaned him off completely, but all was not right. The lamb wouldn’t stand up and seemed to lack control of his limbs. Dalek had no milk to speak of, and to make matters more complicated, Ohio-65, a Border Leicester ewe, was also beginning labor and was CERTAIN the lamb was hers.
I penned Dalek and brought the lamb inside for warming and evaluation. He just flopped on the floor- he had poor control of his front legs and no control of his hind legs. We got him some colostrum-replacer, and I snoozed while he slept. I woke up and checked Ohio-65. She had a ewe out and was licking her with gusto. Good.
Eventually, Ohio-65 had a ewe and ram. Though she is not an experienced mother, she knew what to do and her babies were up and at-’em.
But Dalek’s little ram showed few signs of improvement through the morning. He and I snoozed until 7:30, when friends of mine visiting from Massachusetts came downstairs to see what the commotion was. I think I was sleeping face down on the floor in front of the stove, with the lamb curled beside me at that point. When I explained the lamb’s condition to Dani and Sarah, they started working to help him learn to stand and walk. The lamb made rapid progress – with assistance, he began to stand stable-ly and then figured out a tentative walk. He also figured out how to sit up a bit without assistance, so he wouldn’t just lie on his side.
It is hard to make a call about trying to save a lamb in the condition that this young ram. Lambs are always cute and it’s easy to go to extreme measures. We’ve agreed that we will continue to help him along provided he is making progress, and provided he is in a state where he can survive. Currently, we are worried that if he fell on his back, he would be unable to roll over and could be asphyxiate on his rumen. As of now, he is developing the ability to right himself and to stand up from a lying down position. So we will see how things go with our little lamb.
Cloverworks Farm is pleased to announce that our farm is now Animal Welfare Approved! We are excited to join the program and proud that we’ve been able to meet their requirements. We were granted a derogation to continue long-docking tails for breeding ewes. It feels good to have recognition of our humane efforts in not castrating or docking rams or non-breeding stock ewes.
Some local farmers are a little nervous about “Claim Proliferation” on labels. Claims like “Gluten Free” on fresh celery and “Farm Grown” on Lay’s Potato Chips (as opposed to wild caught?) are rankling some consumers. But the more I talk to people outside of our farming community, the more I realize how much we do need to communicate these facts that feel obvious to us. When I am not talking to the consumer directly, labels like Animal Welfare Approved convey the information I need to share. I want buyers in New York or Boston to know that my lambs were raised to the highest standards of welfare.
I’ve been talking to Lisa, a long time Bluefaced Leicester breeder. We both agree that we are tired of some of the misconceptions about Bluefaced Leicesters – that they are just for small-scale hobbyists, that they don’t have a sustainable genetic presence in the US, and that “Every ram is sold with a shovel.”
It’s the last point that I was considering tonight. We are having a blizzard at the moment. A foot of snow has fallen, and it looks like more is yet to come. Temperatures have fallen to -25F some nights in the last month, and we know we aren’t done with cold temperatures.
We knew that the Border Leicesters would be fine. They have thick wool that protects them from virtually everything and are a popular breed in this climate. But come to find out, the BFLs are no less game for the weather. While I was out doing chores, they were out in the snow. Inside, others had snowfall piled on their backs, unmelted by body heat; a sure sign that they are fully weather-insulated. They seem happy and healthy.
I have noted in the past that it is a challenge to keep some of my Bluefaced Leicester ewes in top body condition. I’ve recently learned that there are some bloodlines in the breed that carry this trait, but that it is possible to avoid those lines. Some of my sheep who are leanest carry those lines. Now I know! Fortunately, Fred the ram is a the easiest of easy keeper, so we can select our way away from this tendency. We also have more than 50% of the flock without those lines. One might think that the fleece fancy has caused this issue, but I believe that it was an honest mistake. It is possible that the ram was just well-fed and appeared more adequate than his genotype turned out. The solution to this problem is improved, standardized recordkeeping, not the blame game.
Admittedly, some Bluefaced Leicesters are kept mainly for fleece. Their fleeces are light, though, and while some sheep are kept as pets, the cost and challenge of finding rams means that most flocks that are larger breeding operations have a meat operation, too. The difference is that when you are catering to fiber lovers, it can be awkward to co-market your meat. So many farms that do both separate the marketing in a way that farmers with sheep raised purely for meat don’t need to. The goal is the same, but the conversation looks different.
In Britain, they are fond of the saying that “every Bluehead Ram is sold with a shovel” so you can bury him when he dies. British sheep management is much different than ours, and it’s not really a surprise that more sheep die when there is no shelter, and when a ram is put in with 60 or 80 ewes to breed. Are Blues reasonably hardy? Yes, absolutely. Are they as hardy as Scottish Blackfaces? Perhaps not quite, but they have more lambs, more meat and nicer wool than a Blackface. A little shelter and basic care isn’t too much to pay for that. So I don’t take British grousing about BFLs too seriously.
I am raising Bluefaced Leicesters because I think they have one of the strongest suits of genetic and economic potential among breeds that have desirable wool. I still feel this way, and I hope I can help others see it too.