It Takes a Village – Sheep Farming Version

Sunday, May 19, 2019.

WARNING! THIS IS A LONG POST. 

I STARTED IT OVER TWO WEEKS AGO, WHEN I THOUGHT LAMBING WAS ALMOST DONE.

We’ve come to the end of lambing season, and it has been surprisingly smooth and productive, albeit ridiculously long.  Read on, and you’ll understand why I say, “surprisingly.”

To set the stage…

Peg’s sister, Eileen, a frequent farm hand, turned 60 earlier this year.  Peg and Eileen are almost Irish twins and are VERY close. They decided they would celebrate their 60th’s with a short trip together somewhere.  But where and when?  They settled on when first – early March, when Eileen’s school (she is headmaster) is on spring break.  The timing is pretty good – before shearing in late March and lambing in mid-April.

But where?  Eileen suggested a quick trip to Paris.  Peg asked Eileen how many times she’s been to the City of Lights? “Five or six.” Peg then declared they would not be going somewhere Eileen has already visited.  Long story short – they flew from JFK to St. Petersburg, Russia on Saturday, March 9th for what was to be a four-night trip.  The Hermitage Museum, taking in a ballet, and other sites awaited them in slushy St. Pete.

Since I was going to be alone on the farm (no big deal), and we like to walk Jack twice a day, I decided to also take the week off.  But I wouldn’t be alone – the same day Peg and Eileen were crossing the North Pole, daughter Kate and Peg’s brother Phil showed up at the farm, and we spent the afternoon building a new hay feeder.  Daughter Loretta arrived that evening, and the three of them stayed up until 7 a.m. Sunday.  Needless to say, not much was accomplished that day.  Kate left mid-afternoon.  Phil and Loretta stayed on, as we planned to ski together for a few days.

7:15 Monday morning, I am awakened by the phone.  It is Eileen, calling from outside a St. Petersburg hospital (2:15 pm Russia time).  Five hours earlier, Peg had slipped on ice, fell and the back of her skull hit a curb.  She was in the ER with a skull fracture and a subdural hematoma (bleeding into the space between the dura – the brain cover – and the brain itself).  Not really knowing what to say, after a few back and forth sentences, I hung up saying, “Eileen, keep my wife safe.”

Peg and Eileen spent the next two weeks in St. Petersburg.  Peg first in ICU, then in the Neurosurgery ward of the Russian Railway Hospital, with Eileen in the next bed as her roommate.  Doctors there told them it would be at least two weeks before Peg could be cleared to travel home.

Back on the farm front, this news presented a bit of a difficulty.  Shearing was set (and really couldn’t be moved) for Saturday, March 23.  There was a slight chance (at least for the first few days) that Peg might be home, but even if she were, she wouldn’t be in any shape to participate.  Shearing Day is Peg’s favorite day of the year, and she does all the organizing.  My main job is moving the sheep into shearer Gwen’s arms, and pushing them back into the pen when she is done.  Time to step up.

I reached out to a few members of the spinning and knitting group that usually come to help with shearing chores.  Many experienced hands committed to attending and doing all the needed tasks once the fleece is off the animal.  Daughter Kate arrived Friday afternoon and helped me get the nylon jackets off 33 sheep.  It was AMAZING how little time that took – we were on a mission. Oh, and on Thursday neighbors Steve, Maggie and Erik came by to help me get all the sheep into the barn, as rain was in the forecast for Thursday evening – and you DON’T shear a wet fleece.

Saturday morning the crowd arrived – Kay, Ann, Vicky, Elizabeth, John (and two of his friends), Molly, Lise, Jennifer.  When Gwen was ready, I started moving the sheep, one by one, into her arms for hoof trimming, shearing, and a quick injection of CD/T.  After the first two or three sheep, Kate asked if she could help with the gathering of sheep.  She spent the rest of the morning in the pen with the sheep, moving them one by one to the gate for me to pass them off to Gwen.  In the past, I have wrestled with every sheep on my own, and I’m exhausted at the end of the day.  Lesson learned – moving sheep in the pen is MUCH easier (and more efficient) with two people.

I watched from across the barn as the skirting crowd did their work.  John gathering up the fleece from the barn floor, walking over to a step ladder, up two steps, and releasing the fleece into the air to fall (right side up) on the skirting table.  The skirters picking away at the fleece, putting the mucky parts into garbage bags, rolling up the fleece, putting it in a large plastic bag, and weighing each one.

This year, we welcomed two new helpers – Amanda and Cody.  Amanda had met Peg at the Norwich Farmer’s Market and had expressed interest in doing chores on the farm – they were thinking about starting their own small flock.  Amanda jumped in with the skirters, Cody took over completing information cards on each fleece – sheep name (or tag number), fleece weight, whether we thought each ewe was pregnant.  During the few minutes of down time we had between moving sheep, Cody asked a lot of questions about our operation.

Shearing Day went smoothly, because so many generous souls came to our rescue.

Peg and Eileen flew back to JFK on Monday, March 25th and they spent the night at Eileen’s Montvale, NJ condo.  Weeks earlier, Peg had driven the truck to Eileen’s, so we needed to get Peg and the truck back home.  Loretta came to the farm Monday evening, and Tuesday morning we drove the CRV south to Troy, NY where we met Phil and Peg and the truck at a Starbuck’s.  Peg got in the CRV with me, Loretta hopped in the truck, and Phil waited for brother Jim to arrive to take him back south.  

Here is Jack welcoming Peg back home after being away almost three weeks…

Three hours after getting back to the farm, Peg told us she felt dizzy.  A few hours later in the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center Emergency Room the doctors told us the CT scan was showing “new blood on old” and Peg would need to have a craniotomy (a surgical operation in which a circle of bone is temporarily removed from the skull to access the brain, in order to drain the blood) Wednesday morning.  She was discharged the following Monday 4/1, but went back to the ER on Friday evening 4/5, again complaining of dizziness and suffering some bouts of slurred speech and difficulty finding words.

Saturday morning, April 6th, 6:40 am – I head up to the barn to feed and water the sheep before heading to the hospital.  As I start working, I hear a high bleat – much higher than any of those animals would issue.  There’s a newborn lamb somewhere, which also means there is a ewe mom somewhere.  First I find the dark lamb in a place in the barn that none of the pregnant ewes had access to (?!?!?).  Next I track down the mom, who is nickering and snorting like new moms do.  I reunite them, get them contained in a 6’ by 6’ jug, put some drench (mostly molasses) in the lamb’s mouth, somehow dip the umbilical cord in iodine, tie it off and cut it to a stump, express each of the mom’s teats, and basically leave them alone to figure out the rest.  Sadly, as I was doing all this, I found the twin cold on the floor.  The survivor is a ewe, the fatality a ram.  I clean up and head to the hospital.

We weren’t expecting lambing to begin until April 10th.

In Peg’s hospital room, she asks me, “When do you think lambing will start?”  My reply, “I don’t know.”  I didn’t have the guts to tell her about the ewe lamb in the barn, not knowing whether she would make it. After visiting for a while, I went back home, up to the barn, only to see this (click for a video):

First Lamb of 2019

 

That afternoon, back in the hospital, I showed the video to Peg.  Lambing had begun.  Our first mom is 1723 – a first time mom.  (We have yet to name the lambs that were born in 2017 and 2018).

After a CT scan, an MRI and an EEG over the weekend (all came back positive), the doctors increased Peg’s anti-seizure med prescription to the maximum dosage and discharged her on Monday, April 8th.  We went back to see a neurologist on April 10th, who told Peg she was going to have a complete recovery, but it would take time.  She will be on the anti-seizure meds for six months.  He advised pushing herself a little each day, and then backing off.  He asked whether she was feeling any side effects from the meds, which could be sleepiness or irritability.  Peg’s reply, “I’m not an irritable person.”  That’s my Peg.

We were going to need some help.  The troops had already been recruited.  The week prior, I had sent an email to Amanda, asking if she could help out.  She immediately came back with a “YES!” but she and Cody were in San Diego and wouldn’t be back in the Upper Valley until Tuesday 4/9.  To fill that gap, Loretta came on Sunday and stayed until Tuesday.  Also, when Laurel (from our old neighborhood in Wilmette, IL) heard about Peg’s accident, she emailed offering to stay for up to a week. She arrived on Friday 4/12, and stayed until Thursday morning 4/18. Easter weekend, Jim and Eileen were here Friday until Monday.  Kate and Colin were here Saturday night and Sunday morning.  Loretta was also here Saturday through Monday.  We always had help.

So here’s what happened:

  • Wednesday, 4/10 around 7:15 pm – Amanda and Cody come back from dinner and head up to the barn to check on things. Amanda calls the house.  Belle had dark male triplets.
  • Friday, 4/12 around 3:30 am – Cody comes down the hall telling us a lambing is happening. Ariel had a single dark ewe lamb.
  • Friday, 4/12 pm through Thursday, 4/18 am – Laurel is with us, but no lambs. Ariel’s lamb is only using one teet, so Laurel and I (and Peg) try expressing the other one for a couple days to no avail.  We throw the fleeces from shearing (which had been sitting in the garage) into the truck and Laurel drives Peg to Green Mountain Spinnery in Putney, VT to begin the process of turning 215 pounds of fleece into yarn.
  • Saturday, 4/20 around 12:30 pm – On a barn check, I see lambing action and come back to the house and yell “triplets!” Eileen and Jim come up to help.  Madison has dark triplets, two rams and a ewe.  As I’m setting up a jug for them, Eileen says, “Another one is coming!” and I think, “Damn, not quadruplets!”  I turn around to see white ewe 0013 dropping a lamb.  Eileen helps out. The twin is not far behind.  Twin white lambs, a ewe and a ram.
  • Monday, 4/22 around 6:15 am – as I’m heading up for early morning check and hay/water chores I see a lamb outside the barn. I rush back and march upstairs and announce “lambing!”  Eileen follows me back to the barn.  Gabby has triplet ewes, two dark brown and one moorit (cinnamon brown). One of the dark ones is barely moving on the ground and is cold.  I immediately tell Eileen to go back to the house and tell Peg to get the heatpad set up.  When she comes back I hand her the lamb.  Over the next 90 minutes, Peg and Loretta work on warming the lamb back to normal body temperature by heating from the outside with heating pads and from the inside with milk formula put into her stomach with a tube.  At first, Peg couldn’t even get a temperature, but after about an hour it reads 95 degrees. At around 101.5 degrees, the ewe lamb is standing on the kitchen table so we take her back and Gabby immediately starts licking her.
  • Monday, 4/22 around 7:00 am (that’s right, just after Gabby’s triplets) – Yoohoo starts going into labor. Eileen and I watch as a hoof pushes out, but not much more than that. We decide to investigate.  Eileen disinfects and lubricates her arm, I hold Yoohoo steady.  She reports feeling one hoof and the head.  I tell her she needs to reach down the side of the lamb and bring the other hoof forward.  She corrects herself and says she feels two hooves, but no head.    She slowly pulls out a dark ram lamb.  Not long after, two more hooves poke out, and I pull out a dark ewe lamb, also breach.
  • Thursday, 4/25 around 3:30 am – Cody calls from the barn. White 0014 has white twins, a ram and a ewe.  Not long after that white 1706 has a white ewe lamb.  0014’s twins are large, and immediately go to the teat, but this new mom doesn’t hold still for them to suck.  We help the lambs get first nourishment, and I set up a stanchion to hold her in place, but she pulls herself free TWICE.  Desperate, I tie a loose noose around her neck with twine, and tie the other end to the jug panel.  She stayed like that for about 30 minutes, the lambs get their milk, and she seems to get the idea.  I cut off the noose, but leave the stanchion in its place as a reminder.  We are in the barn until about 5:30.  Cody, who thought the 3 am barn check would take 5 minutes, is pretty cold without a jacket.
  • Thursday, 4/25 around 9:30 am – Amanda calls my cell (I’m at work) and says Christy is in labor. When I get to the barn about 30 minutes later, Peg and Amanda are looking at dark twins, a ewe and a ram.  Peg had pulled both of them out.  Since I can take it from there with Amanda, Peg goes back to the house.

Here is a shot of our tally sheet after the 4/25 lambs:

April 28, 11:20 am
  • Sunday, 4/28 I’m sitting down to a lunch of ramen, and Peg calls out, “Come take a look at the monitor.” I head up to the barn to find Ally has had a single dark ram lamb.
  • Friday, 5/3 – Eileen is back on the farm for the weekend and checks out the action around 8:45 pm. 1705 is definitely getting ready to lamb.  Eileen pulls out a dark ewe lamb.  Waiting, we find there is a twin, breech, and I pull out a dark ewe.  The second one is hypothermic so we take her inside to warm up.  Back outside, 1705 isn’t all that receptive to the second lamb, but she won’t take a bottle.  We tried several times over the next two days, and almost gave her up for lost.  Finally, Sunday night she started drinking from the bottle.  Our only bottle lamb of the season.
  • Sunday, 5/19 around 3:00 am – The barn check finds a small sac hanging out of 1606. (We had gone to bed pretty confident that 1606 would deliver soon.) A little after 4:00 am, Peg starts trying to pull the lamb out.  I try my hand at it and pull out a huge white ram lamb.  At 4:45 am a black ewe lamb slides out like a bar of wet soap.  Final lambing is done.

Lambing season lasted six weeks, more than twice any previous season.  We’ve never had lambs born in May, much less mid-May.  Total count – 25; 14 ewes and 11 rams. The most lambs we’ve ever had, and also our highest success rate.

Late morning today, Cody and Amanda came over to help with chores that needed to be done.  First we got all the animals penned in the barn.  Peg and Amanda took on banding 9 of the rams’ scrota – two have been claimed by other farms so will remain intact – and giving all the lambs CD/T vaccinations.  Cody and I dewormed (orally) and treated for lice (externally) all the adults.  During shearing, Gwen had found a few of the ewes had little nits, so we treated them all.  Again, we just could not have done these chores without them.

The ewes and lambs are now happily eating grass in our back yard.  From shearing through lambing to time-consuming chores, we have been blessed with the support and assistance of family and newfound friends.  Only 4 of the 25 lambs were born when Peg and I were the only ones on the farm.  Eileen was here for 12 of the lambs. Now we need the grass and lambs to grow!

Todd

One Response to “It Takes a Village – Sheep Farming Version”

  1. Bob Wagner

    Wow! Great story! I’m so glad everything worked out and that lambing/shearing were a success. It would appear that you two “Flat-Landers” have settled into the life of successful farmers. Congratulations! I hope we can catch up soon.
    BTW, How big is the flock now?
    Cheers!
    Bob

    Reply

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