Life on the farm can be tough. And sometimes, it can be downright cruel. I experienced one of those moments a few weeks ago. Less than twelve hours later, a second tragedy occurred. But just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, something wonderful happened. The result of which couldn't have been better had it been written by a Hollywood screenwriter.
The drama began in the morning of the second Friday in March, right in the heart of- you guessed it- lambing season. One of my oldest ewes, "1114", gave birth to triplets- two girls and a boy. Everything seemed to be fine. The mom was very attentive to the lambs, and they were all nursing. In spite of their full bellies, I was a little concerned she might not have enough milk for three, but I would worry about that when I got home from work.
Upon my return, I quickly glanced into their pen on my way to check the pregnant ewes for any new births. What I saw was the ewe resting peacefully in a back corner with her lambs nestled around her. When I passed by again, closer observation revealed she wasn't resting. She was dead!
Raising orphan lambs is not high on my list of favorite things to do. Though feeding them the first few times is kind of fun, I guess, and the lambs always seem so grateful. "Nobody ever likes you as much as a bottle lamb," I often say.
But to take on that task is a huge commitment in time, and milk replacer is not cheap by any means. Nevertheless, I had no other option, so I mixed up some replacer, and did what had to be done. At least they were vigorous suckers.
The next morning I checked the pregnant ewes before feeding them, as I always do, and didn't notice any new lambs. But when all the ewes were eating with their heads forward and rear ends toward me, one ewe about halfway down the line had afterbirth hanging from her "lady parts." Two big, dead lambs were found, hidden behind a round bale feeder.
I must have been somewhat shaken from the loss, because a few minutes passed before the obvious dawned on me. "Catch that ewe!" Fortunately, "1368" was still eating the last remnants of corn, and had enough other ewes around her, that I was able to get her caught and haltered.
As I half led and half wrestled the ewe back to the pen of orphans, I truly didn't know what I was going to do next. My track record of grafting orphan or rejected lambs onto foster ewes isn't great. A successful graft requires time and patience, neither of which I had this busy Saturday morning. So I decided my goal would be to provide a good meal for the triplets, and like the day before, worry about the rest later.
I tied the ewe in the pen expecting her to jump, and maybe even kick at the lambs, like many ewes do when strange babies try to nurse on them. But she didn't move, not even a little. And the lambs were really going to town on her udder, so to speak.
After a couple of minutes, I untied the halter and all she did was munch on some hay. A moment later, I removed the halter entirely. That's when I saw the first hint of trouble- a nudge. She pushed one of the lambs away from her udder.
"That's it," I thought to myself. "The rejection process has begun." Then she nudged him again. Only this time it was back toward the udder. It appeared the first nudge was merely misdirected, not malicious. Apparently, I caught "1368" at just the right time, a hormonal window of opportunity where she felt compelled to be a mom, and those lambs were more than willing to oblige.
Although "1368" ultimately didn't have enough milk to support all the lambs, and they required some supplementation, that was okay with me. What she did to help ease the burden of caring for three orphan lambs was much appreciated. But what she did to provide those lambs a real family experience was a godsend.
After all, they make a replacer for milk. They don't make a replacer for moms. And to have a mom is really the most important thing.
By Dr. John H. Jones