It’s that time of year again when Farmer-in-law (my father-in-law who’s a sheep farmer) is up to his eyeballs in baby lambs and extremely pregnant or post-partum mama sheep. Every year from mid January to early March, there’s a deluge of life (and inevitably death) all around us.
But that’s not to say that Farmer-in-law is sitting around twiddling his thumbs for the rest of the year; sheep farming is a physically and mentally demanding vocation. 365 days a year he’s the sole provider of quality food and water for all livestock, farm handyman in charge of field and shed maintenance, herd health manager and on-call nurse, and accountant and financial project manager.
However, his daily duties are kicked into high gear during lambing season, when he has 80 sheep who could give birth at any moment packed into the shelter of the sheds.
In an ideal world, the sheep would give birth, or lamb, themselves; birthing anywhere from 1 to 4 healthy babies without assistance and feeding them their first milk. Unfortunately this is not always the case, which means Farmer-in-law is up every 2-3 hours, 24 hours a day, checking on his flock.
When I tell people that it’s lambing season on the farm, immediately conjured is the rosy image of baby lambs frolicking over green Irish hills with their milk-laden mothers fondly watching over them as they graze. And this may be the case a few months after the drama of giving birth! But during the first few weeks, a multitude of problems can arise.
I thought I’d give you a taste (because I don’t think I could go into all the details!) of some of the trials and tribulations Farmer-in-law faces during lambing season.
–Foot and hoof health is exceedingly important as more and more weight is carried on them. Pairing and medicating any diseased or sore feet before birth is top priority on Farmer-in-law’s long list.
-Leading up to birth, sheep face a serious lack in calcium and energy, especially if they are carrying more than one lamb. Farmer-in-law may come upon a sheep unable to rise, or even fitting. In these cases, immediate veterinary care (usually me when I’m not pregnant!) is required to save both mama and babies.
-Due to multiple births, or lousy genetics, many of Farmer-in-laws sheep are prone to having prolapsed vaginas prior to birth. This puts mama and baby at serious risk for infection, and must be corrected with surgery and holding stitches. (Farmer-in-law has gotten better at placing these himself this year as I’m unable to assist him).
–Anything can happen! Farmer-in-law has a trained eye at identifying when one of his sheep are having difficulty giving birth. Often lambs will get stuck, in that they haven’t positioned themselves correctly in the birth canal, or they have literally tangled themselves in their unborn sibblings legs in the womb. This is when Farmer-in-law becomes the expert in ovine obstetrics (usually at 2 AM) and is shoulder deep in a sheep. He often ends up teaching me little tips and tricks for turning and pulling out a live lamb from a tight situation. (He’s so adept at birthing lambs-and rather lucky that most of the lambs aren’t gigantic-that he hasn’t needed a cesarean section on his farm in almost a decade! Even though sheep c-sections are quite common in veterinary practice.)
-You can get premature births and deformities, sheep that reject their lambs, obstinant mothers who won’t feed them or can’t due to lack of milk production, or even rarely orphaned lambs left by a mother who didn’t survive the birthing process. In these unfortunate cases Farmer-in-law attempts to foster an adoption of an orphaned lamb onto a surrogate mother, but this can be very difficult and sometimes impossible.
When adoptions fail or if a lamb is struggling after birth, Farmer-in-law’s nursing skills shine in his “intensive care unit” area. Bottle-feeding with sheep milk replacer every 2-3 hours along with heating lamps, topping up hot water bottles, and keeping babies on clean dry straw consume a huge amount of time.
-Lambs, like all newly born lives, are fragile. They are susceptible to a host of problems, whether that be infection, malnutrition, or physical injury. To prevent the risk of infection, Farmer-in-law ensures all newborns recieve first milk or colostrum (rich in antibodies) after birth, disinfects their navals with iodine, and keeps straw bedding under them as clean as possible. But many still fall ill with respiratory and joint infections, usually requiring medication and/or veterinary care.
-Mothers are not immune to post-parturition problems either. Birth is a physically demanding experience, leaving them open to infections; Septicemia and mastitis being the more common problems.
So as you can see, Farmer-in-law has his hands full every year around now. though lacking in sleep and finding the physicality of the work more and more demanding, after more than forty years he still loves what he does.