Young animals can be needy, sometimes needing as much care and specialized attention as a human baby.
Winter can be hard on newborn farm stock. And despite painstaking care from owners, some survive, and some don’t.
When I moved to the mountains more than 20 years ago, I never dreamed I would be entertaining sheep in my living room, but tonight, in what’s become a winter ritual, there is a lamb lying by the stove. She is splayed out on an old rug and she is too quiet and still. Thanks to Romeo the Ram, who snuck through the fence in July, some of our ewes are lambing earlier than we had planned. In fact, we didn’t think this ewe was due for a couple more weeks, so she dropped her lamb into a snow bank instead of a nice pile of straw. Joe has brought the baby home to attempt a revival.
First we dunk the chilled lamb in a warm bath to raise her body temperature. My friend Cindy has a big old laundry sink that’s perfect for this, but in my house we use the one in the kitchen. Once again, I am grateful for the old-fashioned white porcelain drain board. It’s easy to disinfect and funnels any splashes back into the sink. But this lamb is not splashing. She is limp in the warm water and that’s not a good sign. We check her temperature by sticking a finger in her mouth. Once the lamb has been thoroughly warmed, Joe and I wrap her in towels and leave her to steam dry in front of the wood stove. Then, while he digs through the cupboard for a needle, I grab a bottle of antibiotic from the refrigerator. Most chilled lambs eventually develop pneumonia, so a shot of penicillin will help head this off.
NEWBORNS NEED their mother’s first milk. It’s full of antibodies and nutrients, but there’s only one way to get it. Joe and I pull on our Muck Boots and head back out into the teeth of a bitter winter wind. The barn is not a lot warmer than the raw night outside, but at least the air is still. Joe chases the mama ewe into a corner and then makes a grab for her head. Once he has her, he pushes her back until she is trapped by the corner walls of the stall. I squat in the hay and fish around underneath for her teats. She is jumpy and keeps knocking me off balance, so finally I kneel on all fours and peer underneath. My head is on the ground when I finally locate a teat and grab it with my right hand. I use my left one to clean the poop out of my hair as I straighten back up. When I squeeze the teat, I’m rewarded with a squirt of rich, yellow colostrum, but the ewe doesn’t like me messing around under her belly. She is spooky and ticklish and shuffles out of my reach every time I try to milk her.
Finally, I lean my forehead into her oily wool and push against her side until she is pinned against the wall. Then, I line a plastic pop bottle up with the gold stream of milk and pump away. It takes about 10 minutes to collect enough colostrum for the lamb’s first meal. My back is in knots by the time I stand up. The first time I milked a ewe, I set the bottle on the ground beside me as I moved out of my crouch. The ewe promptly swung around and knocked it over, spilling all of my hard work onto the ground. I am careful to hand this bottle to my husband before I creak back into a standing position.
JOE PUTS THE BOTTLE into his big coat pocket and we hurry back to the house. The lamb hasn’t moved much since we curled her in front of the stove to dry. I try feeding her some milk from a bottle, but it dribbles down her chin. She’s too weak to suck so we’re going have to tube her: a scary procedure that involves fishing a tube down the lamb’s throat. A vet would know how to get it into the lamb’s stomach instead of into her lungs, but we don’t have a vet in our remote county so it’s up to one of us. I hold the lamb while Joe prepares the large syringe, but before we can try, she gives a last weak bleat and dies in my arms. I hate it when it ends this way.
Joe bundles up the lamb and takes her outside. He will dispose of the body in the morning. I clean up the mess she’s left behind and pour the colostrum into ice cube trays to freeze for another day. I think about Frosty, a cow out in our front lot. She was born backside first on a cold night about two years ago. After helping with the tough birth, Joe piled up some hay, making a warm nest, and left mother and daughter to get acquainted. When he returned the next morning, mother had escaped the barn and daughter was frozen to the ground. That ornery old mama cow had not even finished licking her dry. Joe pried the little-calf popsicle loose and brought her inside. We rubbed her dry and tubed her several times that day, but she didn’t seem to have much life left in her. We went to bed expecting to find a dead calf in the morning. A little after midnight, I heard a racket in the kitchen. When I went downstairs I discovered the calf standing on wobbly legs, tangled in the chairs I had set up to pen her in. When she saw me, she bawled, and let out a stream of urine. What a happy sight. By the next day, she was back out in the barn with her mama who had settled down enough to let her nurse. This winter Frosty is expecting her first calf.
My pastor friend, David Ensign, writes that “God loves dust. From the dust we were born and to the dust we return.” Livestock in my living room is sometimes all about the dust.