Lessons in farming: A drowned lamb

April 22, 2016

All lessons in farming are not painful, but it does seem the most painful ones are the ones I feel most compelled to share…hoping that somehow it might inform and prevent such a painful lesson for one of you.

As if it wasn’t already apparent, we’re new to this whole farming thing. We just completed our first lambing season, with 7 total lambs born to our 4 ewes. I’ve been keeping a farm journal and I thought I’d share a few excerpts from the lambing adventures. If you have a farm, I highly recommend taking the time to journal events, even weather. It’s already proved to be a great way to recall.

3.24.16 – I’m in SF for work, but mom was home and Lucy gave birth to twins, two rams. They did really well, no problems.

3.26.16 – David, Coltrane and I were on our way back from the airport and mom woke up to Alice with twins, 1 ram and 1 ewe. The ram was smaller and weak. Mom was able to milk Alice enough to bottle feed him. He barely ate. David and I got Vit E & Selenium gel and gave that to him. All day he was dazed, we continued to feed him a bottle. He tried to nurse a couple times. Alice’s one side of her udder was engorged so we milked her. Brought him in at night to the yurt. Fed him a couple times, but he slept the whole night. When he woke up crying in the morning, we put him with Alice and now he nurses fine. 

4.12.16 – This morning we woke early around 5:30 and soaked in our time. David took sunrise photos and I sat by the fire. Later David went to let out the sheep and called to Coltrane and I, so excited “Lambs!”. By the time we got to the stable David told me one lamb had somehow drowned in the water bucket. We felt foolish and so sad. Why hadn’t we come out sooner? It appeared we’d missed the lamb by only a few moments. 🙁 We are heartbroken. We later read that 5-gallon buckets are dangerous for lambs. How had we not known? The little ewe that made it is all black and we named her Grace, because all farmers need a little grace now and then. We replaced the water bowls with new shallower ones. Grace was having some trouble eating from Ethel’s large udder and teats. We bottle fed her all day and night. I gave her Nursemate soon after birth. Ethel doesn’t do well being milked. 

4.13.16 – Grace is doing better and nursing. Louise is next up to lamb. 

4.16.16 – Louise gave birth to one lamb this morning, a little black ewe. What a surprise after having all twins, we thought she might even have triplets. Hah! This little lamb isn’t nursing, but is lively. I made a makeshift stanchion and milked Louise and fed it to the lamb. So frustrating. She kinda tries to nurse, but Louise’s udder is HUGE.

4.18.16 – Ethel and Grace are outside now and her udder looks better. Louise’s little lamb is nursing just fine now.  

After discovering our drowned lamb, we couldn’t have felt more ignorant or stupid. Why hadn’t we thought about the bucket as a possible risk? How did the lamb even get in there? We’ve seen lots of farmers use buckets and large water troughs without problem, but we’d never even considered it a drowning risk. Although we were careful to keep these buckets only halfway full, this newly birthed lamb wasn’t strong enough to jump out of it. That combined with the cool temperature of the water, it was a no-win situation.

Each day we’ve become a little less wince-full when we see Ethel with her one lamb. And as so many farmers before me have said, “The first lesson in farming is life and death.” So this was our first real lesson in both the sweetness of life, and the bitterness of death…bittersweet farming.

Lessons learned and reinforced:

-Consider risks to lambs. Seems obvious, but not obvious enough. Newborn lambs are often small and sometimes weak. Look at your lambing jugs, is there enough room? Are there containers, gaps, wire, or anything else ‘potentially’ risky that they could get into or hurt by?

-Keep watch of your keep. You can’t be present for everything that happens, but keep a keen eye on your animals. Are you up early? Go check on your pregnant ewes. Are you on the internet or Instagram? Go check on your animals.

Build your tribe. As I’ve said before, I strongly believe in the adage that “you are the company you keep” and I think that transcends to knowledge you can obtain from that company as well. Woolful has allowed me to meet some incredible people who are now close friends and so knowledgeable in farming and ranching and there when I need them, without hesitation. This is one of the greatest blessings in life.

-Be proactive. Does something seem not quite right with one of your animals? Listen to your gut. Reach out to your knowledgeable friends (Thank you Tammy!) or vet and ask questions, tell them what’s going on, and at the very least receive comfort from them.

-Have plenty of supplies on hand. Thankfully we had Nurse Mate and other vital supplies on hand, but something we didn’t have was the Vit E and Selenium gel. Now maybe this isn’t necessary in all cases, but it helped us and was only a few dollars. Worth having in your arsenal amongst other things…like bottles and nipples.

-Have grace with yourself and others. You will make mistakes, sometimes deadly or costly ones. It’s not a matter of if, but when. So learn from those mistakes, make changes and forgive yourself.

-Be thankful. It’s easy enough to let the tough things of farming get to you, but keep your chin up and recognize the beauty and incredible gifts you’re surrounded by. And give thanks for the lessons, even the hard ones.

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  • Reply Cathy April 22, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Sometimes our lessons are hard to learn on the farm. Even though we have been farming for over a decade now we still have lessons to learn or sometimes things “just happen”. I still occasionally let my emotions get in the way making my decisions, so I am still working off farm. Our farm is or livelihood, but I have been heard to say about cattle being selected to go to market as culling, “Give her one more chance”. This is not a wise statement as I know. Fifty per cent of the time the cow proofs herself, the other 50% of the time they don’t.

    However I wouldn’t give this life up for anything;)

  • Reply Lydia Strand April 22, 2016 at 8:05 pm

    I’m so sorry to hear of your lost lamb, it is always difficult to work through no matter how experienced a shepherd one may be.
    We use a mineral for our Icelandic and Shetland sheep that has really made a significant difference in not only our fleece quality but also in the vigor of just born lambs. It is called Back in Balance mineral and the goat mineral is formulated specifically with Icelandics in mind. The base is kelp and many of the minerals are chelated so they absorb more readily. It also contains copper, which Icelandic sheep do need in small quantities. I hope this information helps.

  • Reply Wendy April 23, 2016 at 11:00 am

    It sounds like you had a good first year experience aside from losing your one lamb to drowning. It’s so unfortunate when accidents like this happen. I really appreciate the stories you share. As a society, we have really become detached from our food sources and it’s really good for people to learn and understand that growing food and raising livestock is not as easy as it sounds. Mother Nature has a way of humbling us all. I learn something new every year with raising sheep and I wouldn’t trade this for any job in the city.

  • Reply Jennifer King April 24, 2016 at 7:59 am

    I’m so sorry about your lamb…xoxo
    These wall mounts work really well with the flat backed buckets of any size. You can position them so lambs can’t reach but ewes can drink easily.
    I find often ewes need lots to drink after giving birth and this way you don’t have to use a shallow bucket and worry about filling it constantly. I hope you find this helpful. xx

  • Reply a little crafty nest April 29, 2016 at 11:01 pm

    I am so very sorry for your tale of bitterness over your little lambie. That is heartbreaking and it is easy to be so hard on ourselves…but like you said, you are sharing the story to prevent the same from happening to others. Thank you for that.

    Like you, this is our first lambing season. So far, just one ewe (my favourite!) lambed a beautiful Merino x Romney ram lamb we named Yarrow (his mama is Posey and all her offspring will be flowers). It was a very straightforward birth and I just hope our other three ewes lamb as easily. I like the idea of a barn journal, it appeals especially well to my Virgo-ness. I sort of do that on my own farm page on my Wool Maiden site, but perhaps it is time to get more serious. Besides, I like recording these wonderful farm events.

    Thanks for so much inspiration,
    xo Jules

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