Monday, April 21, 2014

Peaceable kingdom

Where the lamb lays down with the sheep, if not a lion.

All quiet on the sheep front. But where are the other lambs? Too late for Easter lambs, that's for sure.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Two black ones

Clever girl Quinnie finally gave birth to two beautiful black lambs late Sunday night.

Ordinarily this would have made for a lousy Monday for me -- a thirteen-hour workday after all that lost sleep! But as it happened Aimee did all the lamb-watching this time.

But that means I haven't had time or daylight to take pictures.

Late this afternoon I'll be able to get out there and take some.

Sunday, April 13, 2014


We keep looking at our two sheep-mountains, ewes Quinn and Quetzal, as they waddle around, wondering when they'll pop. They are so huge! But nothing ever seems to happen. Night checks are tiring, and so I try to fit in a nap during the day, but that's impossible on Mondays and Wednesdays when I have a late class. Hopefully they and the other three smaller pregnant ewes decide to give birth soon. I need more rest!

In other news, Aimee now has the long-planned "new" car, a Toyota Matrix with just under 60,000 miles, in very good shape. This, the culmination of about three weeks of car shopping that began in earnest during our spring break. That means I'm driving the Camry now, while the Ford, whose rust has become almost terminal, is up for sale.

Accordingly a couple weeks ago I listed it on Maine Craigslist. I wanted at least $600, and so turned down a couple of offers of $500. Then I clumsily missed a gear one day while making a left turn and caught the unmistakable whiff of clutch burning. At 167,000 miles without ever having had a clutch job, this car is well overdue. And no-one in their right mind would put a clutch in a car whose body was so rusty.

At about the same time a young person with some sheep farming experience called about the ad, and so one thing led to another. The Ford had to be discounted, on the grounds that I couldn't sell anyone a "lemon" without full disclosure and a price reduction, while we needed farm help with watching pregnant ewes and lambs on Mondays. In a series of email exchanges, we agreed to discount the price of the Ford to a couple of day's of sheep watching, throwing in a promise of mechanical help with the sticker.

Since the car can probably pass the Maine State inspection after a couple of small jobs are done, and if not, has about $150 scrap value, this seemed like a fair deal.

Since then a neighbor dog appeared and sniffed around the perimeter fence before being chased off, so we are even more concerned to have the coverage.

Three more full work weeks and a few days of grading are all that is left before our three-month summer vacation. Already the list of projects is growing. I plan to finish my ongoing trailer project (of which pictures will come later), switch out the failed transmission in the Nissan truck, complete the insulation project on the main house, hang T-111 siding over the new insulation and the extension and finish it with UV-proof wood finish, build a deck, grow our usual massive vegetable garden, and on and on.

This weekend so far has been pleasant, and I've made a start with the trailer. But it's inevitable that we're in wait mode for so many such projects, as well as for the ewes to give birth.

What was it that Dr. Seuss said about the "waiting place?"
“For people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or a No or waiting for their hair to grow.”
Unfortunately, with sheep and summer breaks, waiting is inevitable.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sheep soaps: Two more, and a fight develops

Aimee found my favorite ewe Nellie in labor before going to work around 10.15 am, Thursday, and called me on the cell phone to tell me. I was already at work. I came home as soon as I could and gave an "assist" on the first of two big lambs that Nellie birthed. The second popped out more naturally around noon.

Nellie is one of our better mothers and thankfully there was no sign of white muscle disease, so I was back to work in time for my one o'clock meeting. I tried to put mom and babies out in the sun later that afternoon, but that didn't work out, the babies being far too shaky in their legs still. They went out as soon as the morning feeding was done Friday.

Then ensued the beginning of a long-run ewe-war between Nellie and Reggie, the youngster that lost a ram-lamb to white muscle Monday.

Weird sheep stuff. It's as if Reggie is looking around for her lost lamb, and her eye fixes on Nellie's ram-lamb. Either she goes to him or he comes to her, but as soon as she sniffs him, she gets horribly angry, quite mad really, and pushes him away and rams him repeatedly, bowling him over or squashing him up against hard objects. Sometimes she picks on the sister too. If Reggie can trap this poor mite or his sister in a corner or against a tree, she'll kill one or both of them, it's that bad.

It doesn't help that little Uma, Reggie's survivor, wants to sniff at and play with her new cousins.

Nellie, a placid ewe who likes nothing more than to be petted and fed crusts of bread, has been slow to respond and only slowly has learned that she has to defend her babies. And when she did begin to respond and ram back, she still didn't give Reggie a good enough hiding to deter her. I had to separate them two or three times already.

But by bedtime the two combatants had staked out separate corners of the main pen and were in a stable stand-off, Reggie in one corner with her lamb under one heat lamp, and Nellie in the other. The lambs are stuffed in the corners and the ewes are outside in defensive posture, circling the wagons.

They say sheep know a hundred different ways to die, but I didn't think one of them was being rammed to death by your own auntie.

I'm glad none of my aunties were ever this mean!

With a plot like this, we could write soap opera for sheep.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"Unlikely Uma"

Here's Uma, the survivor of the two lambs born with white muscle disease Saturday, getting to explore the wide world outside the lambing pen for the first time, the injection of Bo-Se having taken hold, or apparently so.

It's sunny, but still cold, and the other ewes may try to steal her -- something ewes sometimes do -- so we will have to keep watching her like a hawk. far, so good.

Aimee and I are working shifts, watching the lamb.

That's a lot of attention so far for this little tiny scrap of life.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poor stiff lamb

I've been trying to blame something or someone other than myself for a few hours now, but can't quite manage it. I killed a young lamb yesterday.

How? By not being there when I was needed.

This is the problem with part-time farming: You have to have a day job. And while mine affords me far more flexibility than most would, there are still those horribly frustrating days when my time is unavoidably tied up with work requirements.

This particular yesterday, Monday 31st March, was my first day back at work after two week's off. I was responsible for class from 10am through 2.20 pm and then again at 6pm through 7.15 pm. I had to prepare materials for the 10am class, so I did all my chores as usual by around 7am, took a shower, put on clean clothes and headed for work around 7.30am.

I noticed just before I left that one of the two lambs was shivering a little under the heat lamp, but thought little of it at the time. It was cold and the lamb had been doing fine so far.

But if I'd thought about it, I would have remembered that this particular ewe didn't do such a great job of mothering last year. It probably would also have entered my consciousness that her two lambs this year were sorta quiet, for lambs, and not exactly jumping around. Lambs usually begin to bleat when they get hungry soon after birth, and they also begin to move around a bit more the second or third day after birth. These ones were born Saturday night, had only bleated a few times that we heard, and had spent most of their time lying down.

They were feeding though, or seemed to be, and they had a heat lamp, so we thought they'd be fine.

As soon as I could after the 10am-2.20pm class ended, I drove home. I was anxious, but not for the lambs already born. I was primarily worried that I'd missed another birth, and that some tiny mite was struggling for life because its mother had given birth over a snowbank in the rain. That stuff happens, and is why we always delay lambing until late March or early April, when the Maine weather can usually be relied upon to provide at least some warm sunshine.

But, of course, only a fool relies upon Maine weather for anything. It is always intrinsically unreliable. We had ice, sleet, rain and strong cold winds yesterday. Neither were the bad spring roads particularly helpful. Even in the Land Rover I could only manage 25-30mph on the back roads. But the teaching schedule schedule that tied me up from 8am to 2.20 pm was what really did it. Even then, it was under my control, or at least partly under my control. I probably should have cut class early and driven home during my lunch break.

If I'd stretched lunch to an hour instead of half and hour, I might have found the poor cold lamb before he died of hypothermia and popped him under the wood stove and given him a tube-feeding or a bottle.

Most likely he'd been trying to feed, but his mother was balky and wouldn't let him get enough milk, so he lay down under the heat lamp and slowly got colder and colder and died.

As it was, I didn't, and it was my fault. Not the ewe, who is stupid, but not any more stupid than most ewes, not the weather, not the roads, not even the schedule. I could have and should have put two and two together, and figured this might happen, but instead I was preoccupied, too busy-minded with work and other things to see and hear what was right under my eyes.

We're not going to make that mistake again this lambing season. The survivor has been checked four times tonight already. The mother remains balky and the lamb is still not filling out, but is at least warm, eating when she can, and has the suckle reflex. If the weather warms up, she'll get stronger. The weather is supposed to warm up after today. I have to go teach again today, but will come straight home after class. I can work from home, on grading and correspondence and committee work, and go check on the surviving lamb every hour or so.

Next year, if I get a teaching schedule like this one on Monday or any other day of the week, we'll hire a student to come by and check the lambs.

Which is what I need to be doing right now, too. Off to the barn again. Fifth time tonight.

PS: When I checked, I noticed two things, lots of lamb-poop, and a lamb that kept trying to poop, and even when she wasn't pooping, was hunched over.

Then the penny finally dropped: White muscle disease. The lamb very quickly was given a 1 cc Bo-Se injection. I expect before the day is out she'll be much better.

This is a problem endemic to Maine. The hay around here is selenium-deficient, so we give a small ration of expensive bagged feed to the ewes, as well as cheaper, and generally healthier oats for energy and protein. You should give too much bagged feed, or you get fat ewes that struggle to give birth, but we give enough to offset the low selenium in the hay. We also give free-access minerals in the form of a mineral block.

But that doesn't mean to say the ewe will eat enough of the bagged feed, or lick enough of the block, or pass enough selenium on to the lamb, especially if the ewe is balky and the lamb not getting enough milk.

We'll have to check with the supplier to make sure that they haven't changed the formula. The mineral lick may need to be put somewhere more obvious. Right now it's probably under some bedding. And we can give the newborns some vitamin paste after they are a day or so old.

It would also help if the wind would die down and the sun come out.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

New life, begins with "U"

Here are our first two as-yet nameless lambs of the year. Their names, when they get them, will begin with "U," since that's the alphabetical system we use. Last year was "T", and we got Tansy and Tango and wotnot. Aimee can remember the names. She chooses them or nearly all of them. I have to write them down or I forget them!

We'd been wondering when we'd get the first lambs. It's eminently predictable, of course: With almost all sheep breeds, you get lambs almost exactly five months after "tupping" -- when the ram services the ewe. Five months after sheep sex, in other words. The problem is, you have to observe the sheep sex act in person and note it down. This is not nearly as perverted as it sounds.

British sheep farmers, for whom lambing is the make-or-break farm profit time of the year, use elaborate systems of harness and crayon or paint to make sure they know as much as they possibly can. The ram either wears a harness with a tablet of waxy "crayon", or has his chest covered in a greasy kind of paint, and the farmer can see the marks on the backs of each ewe and know that she's been serviced. By taking notes of the dates and making counts of the number of painted ewes observed, the farmer can plan ahead.

We have no such need for precision. It's been five months nearly to the day. Having only a few animals to care for, we can observe each animal several times daily. The signs that an ewe is about to give birth are pretty obvious, off her feed, standing alone, circling, pawing the ground, lying down, grunting, and so on. Accordingly, when last night we observed poor old skinny Nellie looking uncomfortable and off by herself, when everyone else was tucking into a feed of hay, we separated her immediately and bundled her into one of the lambing pens.

I stumbled out rather groggily to check on Nellie at around 2.30 am or so, only to realize immediately we'd separated the wrong animal, and another ewe named Reggie had already given birth to at least one lamb. She's a sensible sort of ewe for a youngun' and this is her second year, so she'd chosen to give birth in the barn instead of the nasty, sleety, rain-on-snowbanks-with-added-ice-for-good-measure, typical nasty Maine spring weather, that we had going on outside. For which we are grateful. Chasing sheep with newborn lambs to catch 'em among crusty, rained-on, manure-smeared snowbanks is no great fun for man or beast.

By the time I'd gone back into the house to pull on coveralls and warmer clothes -- I'd gone out to make the night check in my big fleece coat and plastic Crocs, nothing more -- and wake Aimee and get both of us back out there to help Reggie out if need be, there was already a second lamb. I think she had given birth to both earlier and I just hadn't seen the second one at first because, well, I didn't even have me specs on!

Anyway, mother and lambs, one ewe-lamb and one ram-lamb, went into the maternity pens, and were given a heat lamp. Mom got a feed of hay and a little grain and a bucket of water. I checked for milk, and we watched to see if the lambs would feed.

But watching newborn lambs try to find the udder is like waiting for Christmas as a five year old -- sometimes it takes forever. Both were on their feet and warm, and mom wasn't rejecting them, so we went back to bed. They'd sort it eventually. Back out at six am for another check and both were doing great, warm and dry and still on their feet, so they must have fed.

And so, without very much fanfare at all, begins another lambing season on the Great Farm of Jackson, Maine, and the circle of life keeps turning.

We're more aware of this particular circle than usual because we both had poor news of ailing older relatives yesterday. One one hand we're watching out for new life, and on the other we're worried about old age, sickness and to be blunt, death, for people we love.

But that's life, which happens, sometimes wonderful like a warm, live, wet newborn lamb, sometimes sad and scary, sometimes on the same day in the same hour, and it's probably better for the human person to be closer to it than is the norm in our very silly modern world.

Which I suppose is why we farm.