Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tough Lessons in Animal Care

Today was one of those bitter cold, two pairs of wool socks type of mornings. I really did not want to go outside. The weatherman kept reminding us of the cold and letting those who have to go outside know that exposure of more than five minutes can lead to frostbite. Great advice but awfully hard to follow if you are a farmer or rancher and have animals to care for.
I bundled up and made my way out to the barn. The second and last set of ewes could start lambing and I was hoping against all hope that they had not. Holding my breath I opened the door and peered in. Sure the ewes had chosen that very morning to start round two. Thankfully the ewe seemed to be a good mama and was busily working to clean them off and get them up.
I fed the group of ewes she was with to get them away from her and went in to check. One of the lambs was getting up and seemed to be pretty strong. The other twin probably was the second lamb born, and had not yet gotten up. I quickly haltered the ewe, scooped both lambs up and headed to the warmer barn with the lambing jugs.
The ewe kept up with me and the mama and babies talked to each other the entire trip. That usually is a good sign. Once in the barn I got some straw, started the heat lamp, made sure the ewe had milk and left her to do her thing while I fed and checked the rest of the sheep. To my relief all of the other lambs and ewes seemed to be handling the extreme cold pretty well.
When I had finished, I cautiously opened the door and checked on the new set of twins. The bigger stronger lamb was up and making his way back to the proper place. His twin brother was not as ambitious. He was still curled up under the heat lamb but seemed to be OK and not too cold. The ewe was still being very motherly to both and I decided to go check the cows. Hoping while I was driving out to the pasture that we had not had any calves during the night.
A careful drive through the cows and an even closer inspection of all of the usual, out of the wind, calving spots revealed no new calves. I quickly went on down the road, fed the bulls and broke the ice on their water tank. All the time that little voice in the back of my head was telling me I needed to get back to the ewe and her lambs.
Upon returning to the house, I again went to the lambing barn. The bigger twin was now perched on the pile of hay under the heat lamp. He was dry and appeared to have nursed. However, his twin did not look so good. He was still under the heat lamp but his head and ears were down. This is the universal sign of a sick lamb and that is not good.
I scooped the lamb up, wrapped it in an old towel and made my way to the house and the wood stove. I noticed on the way the lamb was laboring to breath and I immediately kicked myself for not taking it in earlier. Once in the house, I put the lamb on the dog bed we use for cold, sick lambs, plugged the heater in and made up some milk. I drenched the lamb but it seemed to be getting weaker and weaker and laboring more and more to breathe. I knew it was not good.
I kept watch over the lamb, but soon I noticed it had stopped moving. A more thorough check revealed that it had stopped breathing and had died. The regret of what I might have done started to kick in. I knew it was bitter cold and probably some of the hardest weather anyone could lamb in. I also knew the lamb was small and weak, maybe premature. However, that did not stop me from wondering if I could have done more.
It is the question that haunts all of us with livestock. I have only lost a handful of lambs this year, yet I still think back to each one and wonder what I could have done differently. I guess that is what bothers me when I hear the detractors of animal agriculture. They think we view our animals only through the lens of money. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The idea that I could have done more for this lamb will stay with me for the rest of the day, week and probably month.
However, on a day like this one must shove those painful thoughts to the back of your mind and continue to care for the other animals. I know it will re-enter my thoughts tonight when the excitement of the day quiets down. I also know that the memory and the regret of not doing more will drive me to go out earlier, take action quicker next time. But it doesn’t make it any easier.

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