Limping through a lambing and out of 2021

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ewe and lambs
On deceptively sunny day after Christmas, the last set of lambs was born on Blue Heron Farms. Later than they should have been, and in a group of supposedly open ewes, outside. Such was the finale of 2021. (Rebecca Miller photo)

Farming is often like dancing on the edge of a knife. It can be well choreographed. But one wrong step, one thing slipping out of place, and — chaos.

One Sunday morning, I got up to do an early morning lamb check, after the remnants of the destructive storm that had slammed Kentucky and other states in mid December swept through. After a tempestuous day that knocked over shelters and blew others over fences, that morning was eerily calm. I looked out the window and noticed two ewes standing by themselves, where the flock had sheltered from the wind. They were accompanied by two newborn lambs.

I sighed, and went outside. Sometimes, we go old school. Rather than ultrasound for every lambing, we run the flock through a sorter, and I check whether a ewe is starting to produce milk. Generally, I do fairly well. It’s not uncommon to miss one or two though.

Lambs everywhere

I approached the ewes. The flock had shifted over and settled on a hillside away from the newborns. I trundled both ewes into the lambing barn, with their newborns in tow.

I went outside later. The flock had started moving out for grazing. Trailing behind was another ewe with a lamb. I zipped out into the pasture. There is a window of time when a newborn lamb hasn’t quite figured out its “sea legs,” and you can catch it. Once it does though, you’re toast. Good luck.

As I hurried after the ewe and her toddling lamb, I heard something in the weeds. Another lamb sat in a heap, alone. Huh. I crested a small hill and saw two ewes. One with the lamb, and another lying upside down, belly up, legs sticking in the air, in a position known as “being cast.” It can happen when a sheep has too big a gut or lays down in an odd spot and can’t get back up. If it’s not caught quickly, a sheep can die. It happens occasionally for us. I approached and saw why she was cast. She had been giving birth on the hillside, and the lamb, a malformed and contorted stillborn, got stuck. I pulled it the rest of the way, and she staggered to her feet.

Cache Valley

That lamb proved one thing: Cache Valley virus was, in part, to blame for our lambing being full of more downs than ups. The virus is mosquito-borne and is endemic to North America, according to research. If a ewe is infected between 28-48 days of gestation, the virus can cause pregnancy failures and abortions of malformed lambs. Ewes do not have any obvious clinical signs though, so it’s impossible to identify otherwise. There is no vaccine or treatment, although ewes do carry natural immunity for a time.

My mother had the dubious distinction of being part of Farm and Dairy’s coverage of the virus in 2014. Cache Valley crippled our lambing that winter. It’s possible to avoid, with breeding times that don’t coincide with peak mosquito activity, but given the changing weather patterns, even that’s not a foolproof option.

The ewe was in rough shape. I moved her into the old bank barn, and went to get the ewe with her lamb. Make that, lambs. I brought her to the one lying in the weeds and she greeted it.

Not all bad

With her moorit, or brown, colored face, she is recognizable. She’d raised triplets in the spring, weaning them off as some of the heaviest lambs. And, then, turned around and had twins mere months later. (Except she didn’t have enough of an udder to make me think she was pregnant when I sorted. Oops.)

She wasn’t the only one. We had quite a few ewes wean off spring lambs and get bred for the winter. After our biggest lambing this spring — more than 200 at once — we more than doubled the number that lambed from this time last year. And more than one triplet raising ewe had more lambs this time around. The quest to balance our lambing groups worked. Such are the highs we experienced.

Mixed bag

But it’s hard to celebrate when you’re wading through birthing issues and sluggish lambs. The tentative diagnosis, in addition to Cache Valley virus, is also selenium deficiency. The flock has access to free choice minerals at all times, but an abnormally wet summer likely threw the nutritional value of the forage out of whack.

It’s possible the issues contributed to the problems identifying the lactating ewes. By the end of lambing, we had more than 10 ewes lamb outside. Oddly warm temperatures at the end of the month helped ensure most survived. Winter lambing outside is not ideal at all.
The past few weeks are a reminder that you can do everything “right” with your management on a farm, and things can still go wrong. That’s farming.

Animal welfare

Recently, a German woman visited. As we toured the farm, she mused that Europe was becoming very anti-livestock and farming. I’ve mulled it over ever since. A dive into European animal rights history is revealing. An essay by Manès Weisskircher, posted by the London School of Economics in 2016, laid out the growing political presence of animal rights — and how the “moral status” of animals was playing a role.

“In September 2015, the growing importance of animal rights issues in party politics became particularly visible when Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour party and a committed vegetarian, appointed a vegan shadow agricultural minister,” Weisskircher wrote.

Legislation was first introduced in the 1970s in the European Union about humane treatment of animals, according to a 2019 article, “The European Union legislation on animal welfare: state of play, enforcement and future activities.” The EU has built on those initial regulations over time. According to Weisskircher, such regulatory moves are backed by a significant number of political factions and groups throughout Europe. This isn’t meant to be about animal rights, but I do find the history of why Europeans feel so strongly about the issue to be enlightening. As with most things, there is usually more to the story. I recommend checking it out.

Not easy

But the part I’ve mulled over is the philosophical trend that leads to such policies. I get it, in a way. Humans prefer to take the path of least resistance. Working with animals, in any setting but especially an agricultural one, is not the easiest option. It makes us uncomfortable, and we don’t like that. There is room for better practices. That’s always true. But we’ve gotten away, societally, from raising our food. From rolling up our sleeves and gritting it out.

That knife’s edge? It’s dull now. That dance gets tiring. Our lambing percentage, which has been around 190% of late, tanked. We had more than 20% losses.

Christmas dawned in steel gray tones, rain pouring from the sky. The next day, brilliant sunshine. And more lambs — a large, healthy set of twins. Outside, again, and later than they should have been. As I write this, I think we’re done with lambing. It’s been a ride.

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Farm and Dairy Editor-in-Chief Rebecca Miller was tapped to lead the newsroom in 2019. A veteran journalist, dog wrangler and traveler, she lives on a 220-acre, 325-ewe commercial sheep farm in Lisbon, Ohio, which she runs in partnership with her mother. She can be reached at 330-817-6179 or editor@farmanddairy.com.

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