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Limping through a lambing and out of 2021

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sheep and lambs
On a deceptively sunny day after Christmas, the last set of lambs were born at Blue Heron Farms. Later than they should have been, and in a group of supposedly open sheep outside. That was the 2021 finale. (Photo by Rebecca Miller)

Farming is often like dancing on the edge of a knife. It can be well choreographed. But one misstep, one thing slipping out of place, and – chaos.

One Sunday morning, I got up to do an early morning lamb check, after the remnants of the destructive storm that had hit Kentucky and other states in mid-December had swept through. After a tumultuous day knocking down the shelters and causing the others to jump over the fences, this morning was eerily calm. I looked out the window and noticed two sheep standing alone where the flock had sheltered from the wind. They were accompanied by two newborn lambs.

I sighed and walked out. Sometimes we go old school. Rather than having an ultrasound every lambing, we put the flock through a grader, and I check to see if a sheep is starting to produce milk. In general, I’m doing quite well. However, it is not uncommon to miss one or two.
Lambs everywhere. I approached the sheep. The herd had moved and settled on a hill far from the hatchlings. I dragged the two sheep into the lambing barn, with their hatchlings in tow.

I went out later. The herd had started to leave for the pasture. Behind was another sheep with a lamb. I rushed into the pasture. There is a window of time when a newborn lamb hasn’t quite got its β€œsea legs”, and you can catch it. Once it’s done, you’re toasted. Good luck.

As I was running after the sheep and its little lamb, I heard something in the grass. Another lamb was sitting in a heap alone. Eh. I went up a little hill and saw two sheep. One with the lamb, and the other lying upside down, stomach in the air, paws stuck in the air, in a position called “to be thrown”. This can happen when a sheep has too big a stomach or lies down in a strange place and cannot get up. If not caught quickly, a sheep can die. It happens to us occasionally. I walked over and saw why she had been chosen. She had given birth on the hillside, and the lamb, a malformed and twisted stillborn, got stuck. I pulled her all the way and she staggered to her feet.

Valley of the Caches

This lamb proved one thing: The Cache Valley virus was, in part, responsible for our lambing being full of more lows than highs. The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes and is endemic to North America, research shows. If an ewe becomes infected between 28 and 48 days of gestation, the virus can cause pregnancy failures and abortions of malformed lambs. However, the ewes do not show any obvious clinical signs, so it is impossible to identify them otherwise. There is no vaccine or treatment, although sheep have natural immunity for some time.

My mother had the dubious distinction of being part of Farm and Dairycoverage of the virus in 2014. Cache Valley crippled our lambing that winter. It is possible to avoid, with breeding times that do not coincide with the peak of mosquito activity, but given the changing weather conditions, even that is not a foolproof option.

The sheep was in bad shape. I installed it in the old barn of the bank and I went to fetch the sheep with its lamb. Do that, lambs. I brought her to the one lying in the grass and she greeted him.

Not bad at all

With her face of Moorish or brown color, she is recognizable. She had raised triplets in the spring, weaning them like some of the heaviest lambs. And, then, turned around and had twins a few months later. (Except she didn’t have enough udders to make me believe she was pregnant when I sorted it out. Oops.)

She wasn’t the only one. We have had quite a few ewes weaning spring lambs and mated for the winter. After our biggest lambing this spring – over 200 at a time – we have more than doubled the number of lambs compared to the same time last year. And more than one sheep raising triplets had more lambs this time around. The quest for balance in our lambing groups worked. These are the peaks that we have known.

Mixed bag

But it’s hard to celebrate when you’re wading through childbirth issues and lazy lambs. The provisional diagnosis, in addition to the Cache Valley virus, is also selenium deficiency. The herd has access to free choice minerals at all times, but an unusually wet summer has likely changed the nutritional value of the forage.

It is possible that the problems contributed to the identification problems of lactating ewes. At the end of the lambing, we had more than 10 ewes outside. Strangely warm temperatures at the end of the month helped to ensure the survival of most. Winter lambing outdoors is not at all ideal.
The past few weeks have reminded us that you can do anything β€œright” with your management on a farm, and things can still go wrong. It is agriculture.

Animal wellbeing

Recently a German woman visited. As we visited the farm, she thought that Europe was becoming very hostile to animal husbandry and agriculture. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. A dive into the European history of animal rights is revealing. An essay by ManΓ¨s Weisskircher, published by the London School of Economics in 2016, exposed the growing political presence of animal rights – and how the ‘moral status’ of animals played a role.

“In September 2015, the growing importance of animal rights issues in party politics became particularly visible when Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labor and Vegetarian Committed Party, appointed a vegan shadow Minister of Agriculture,” he said. writes Weisskircher.

Legislation was first introduced in the 1970s in the European Union on the humane treatment of animals, according to a 2019 article, “European Union animal welfare law: state of affairs locations, application and future activities “. The EU has built on these initial regulations over time. According to Weisskircher, such regulatory measures are supported by a significant number of factions and political groups across Europe. It’s not supposed to be about animal rights, but I find the story of why Europeans are so attached to this issue enlightening. As with most things, there is usually more to the story. I recommend checking it out.

Not easy

But the part I have reflected on is the philosophical trend that leads to such policies. I understand, sort of. Humans prefer to take the path of least resistance. Working with animals, in any setting but especially agricultural, is not the easiest option. It makes us uncomfortable and we don’t like it. There is room for better practices. It is still true. But we have moved away, socially, from raising our food. To roll up our sleeves and tighten it.

The edge of this knife? It’s boring now. And I understand. This dance becomes tiring. Our lambing percentage, which has been around 190% recently, has been put into vats. We had more than 20% losses.

Christmas dawned in steel gray tones, the rain was falling from the sky. The next day, radiant sun. And more lambs – a large set of healthy twins. Out again, and later than they should have been. As I write this I think we are done with lambing. It was a trick.

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