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A Modern Shepherd's Christmas
Timing is Everything
This Christmas morning dawned bright and clear in Virginia – at 7 degrees Fahrenheit. I awoke at dawn from a dream of breaking ice in an infinite line of water troughs. Such extreme cold makes feeding livestock a much bigger challenge than usual: even the no-freeze waterers freeze, diesel tractors needed to move hay are reluctant to start, and you can’t keep your fingers warm enough to actually feel and turn an ignition key. As my sleep fog cleared, I remembered those challenges are my Christmas Past, not my Christmas Present. I am between farms now and have no critters depending on me anywhere. I turned away from the dawn light, snuggled down deeper under a pile of quilts, and dozed off again.
Any kind of livestock farming is a 24/7 job. You see, the critters don’t read our calendars. They don’t want to celebrate Christmas by fasting. Or by holding onto 20 or 30 gallons of milk and cream for an extra 24 hours. Or postponing the birth of a couple of lambs.
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As much as I am enjoying NOT freezing my fingers off and NOT struggling with equipment and ice, I confess to feeling somewhat adrift this morning with nothing to do but church. The nativity scenes and carols and scripture going on about shepherds tending their flocks and watch-keeping remind me of Christmases in my years as a sheep farmer.
Christmas on a farm is frequently not so idyllic as the “country Christmas” cards suggest. There are a few ways to free up time for celebrating holidays, however. The main secret to a relatively peaceful farm holiday is learning to count backwards. Sheep have an average gestation period of 150 days. Helping the ewes through lambing is the most labor-intensive time on a sheep farm. If you don’t want to spend Christmas in the barn, you had better take the rams out of the flock over 150 days plus a week before Christmas.
Prior to modern day genetics and markets, ewes would always lamb in early spring just as the ground thawed and a little green grass peeked out of the mud. However, the highest lamb prices come with Easter and Passover and Islamic Holy Days, so we timed lambing to have slaughter-weight lambs ready just before those holidays. We also tried to space our ewes out to give us lambs year-round for cash-flow and better income. Traditional spring lambing means that you are selling all your lambs just when everyone else in your hemisphere is. You don’t get enough for your lambs to keep the barn lights on if you are selling them into a glut. In the 1980s, my parents teamed up with a few other sheep producers to bring bloodstock to Virginia from the US Sheep Experiment Station (Range Sheep Production Efficiency Research : USDA ARS) in Idaho. These USSES sheep were bred to lamb outside the usual season. They can also be persuaded to lamb more than once a year (three times in two years at best). The breed has the unimaginative name of Polypay (American Polypay Sheep Association), one of those mid-20th century made-up modern words.
Of course, realizing the potential of these genetics requires careful management. You want to have lambs at market weight when the price is high, but you don’t want to have to carry any more animals through the entire winter – all needing hay and grain – than you absolutely have to. You also don’t want them eating your feed after they are at market weight, about 8-9 months.
Unfortunately, the holidays for which our customers want lamb move around. Easter and Passover do stay somewhere in the spring, but the Islamic holidays like Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha cycle through the entire calendar year. The ewe’s gestation period can vary a week on either side. Cold-weather lambing is risky, too.
I like to think that those shepherds near Bethlehem were doing a similar calculation, timing lambs for Passover dinner and their Gentile neighbors’ holidays. They had a few extra variables – like, could they dodge capricious kings and greedy emperors long enough to have lambs to sell? The nativity scenes almost always depict at least one shepherd carrying a newborn lamb and a ewe following along. Maybe the artists just think lambs are cute or want to enhance the Jesus-was-born-in-a-stable or Lamb-of-God vibes. Maybe the artists actually understand that a shepherd could be so concerned about a newborn lamb that he’d carry it along on this angel-inspired adventure, warming it and some extra milk against his own body, with anxious Mama Ewe on his heels. That shepherd’s journey to see Jesus was harder than the nativity artists make it appear. Sheep don’t look up, so every few steps, the shepherd would have to bend over to give Mama Ewe a chance to nuzzle her baby. Otherwise she’d panic and run back to the spot where she gave birth to look for that lamb.
Having nativity carvings being the only lambs in my life this very cold Christmas morning is keeping my fingers from freezing, but I am experiencing some nostalgia for Christmases-Past-With-Sheep. I am thinking especially of the first Christmas after I returned to the farm, almost twenty years ago – we were trying to hit Eid-al-Fitr, in October of the following year. The plan was lambing the first few weeks of January. Or so I thought. We had just rounded up the ewes and “bagged” them a couple of days before Christmas, keeping the near-term expecting ewes in the barn. My brother Jeff was sure we had a week to ten days before they started to lamb. “Bagging” consists of running every pregnant ewe through the chute and feeling her udder (the “bag”) to see if she’s starting to make milk. You can look at a cow from fifty feet and tell how close she is to calving. Not so with the sheep in winter wool. At least not until a few hours before the blessed event. when the lambs shift inside the ewe. The fetuses tilt downward into position for delivery, leaving the ewe’s topline slightly hollow on one side. We call that “dropping” – as in, “That ewe’s dropped, better check on her every hour.”
Unlike those biblical shepherds and some of our modern colleagues in the sheep business, we did all our lambing under a roof. We had become a little too good at restoring habitat and attracting wildlife for our flock’s well-being. Predators were numerous – especially black-headed vultures, also known as Black Vultures. I’ll get into the various flavors of vultures in a later newsletter. For now, please trust me on this – unlike the red-headed Turkey Vulture, the Black Vultures prefer live prey. Newborn lambs are their idea of gourmet and very easy targets. Remember the part about sheep not looking up? We were blessed with a large barn left over from our farm’s days as a dairy, so we were not the “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay, In fields where they lay keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep…” That roof and strategically-placed wire panels blocking canine visitors at all entry points meant that we could sleep during lambing – a little, anyway.
We put the expectant ewes in a large pen that we called the “lambing jug” to watch. My eyes were more than a little out of practice that first year back, having spent more time engineering than raising sheep for a few decades. During Christmas Eve’s late feeding, however, I thought I saw a couple of hollow backs. I decided to check those ladies after wrapping some Christmas presents for my nephews. Surprise! A ewe had unwrapped an early Christmas present for me: twins! And another ewe was in labor. It turned into a late night, but manageable by me alone. But then, I had to get up before 6am to get myself and Mom over to my brother Jeff’s house because his three young boys just could not be persuaded to wait for farm chores on Christmas Day. That’s one of the things that has changed since I was a kid. With presents exchanged and some breakfast and hot caffeinated beverages, Jeff and I headed for the barn to feed and maybe scoop up another lamb or two. Ha! It was a fuzzy flood! I think I was in the barn sixteen hours that day, with only a break for a quick shower and Christmas dinner before heading back. Ewes popping out lambs everywhere. Jeff swore up and down the barn aisle that he had not put the ram into the flock until the first week of August, but it was too late for that conversation. “Figure out which ram this was,” I finally told him. “He’s really, really good at his job. Definitely a keeper!”
Any ewe that lambed had to be quickly isolated with her lambs. We used a 6-foot by 6-foot semi-portable pen for this after-lambing stage that we called a “huddle.” Some sheep farmers use the term “lambing jug” for this pen as well. The huddle gives the ewe a sense of security to focus on cleaning up her babies and getting them nursing well. One of the problems a shepherd has is “Grannies” – expectant ewes that steal other ewe’s newborns, even though they may not yet have milk. Another problem comes with multiple ewes lambing at once and getting confused about whose lambs are whose. Ewes can see and smell another ewe lambing and decide it’s a good idea to initiate their own labor. Sheep have a lot more control over initiating birth than people do. In fact, they can abort fetuses to save themselves when being chased by wolves or coyotes – or your dear Rover. But in the barn’s lambing jug, ewes start thinking about lambing when another does partially because they feel safe enough. And partially, it’s their strong flocking instinct: sheep do what other sheep are doing, and NOW. We don’t know any people like that, do we? Or perhaps the ewes all just ate well and wanted to unload some of the pressure. We’d give them the biggest meal in the morning to encourage them to unload during our own waking hours.
With lots of ewes opting in on the fun, it can be a scramble to ensure that every wet, bleating baby is connected to the right tit. A healthy baby will try to stand up within minutes of birth and the ewe should be already helping that baby up and cleaning off the afterbirth, nuzzling it toward its first meal, unless she’s incapacitated temporarily by another delivery. You might want to check that out in my video at Oops! There's another one! - YouTube. Apologies for the poor lighting, but it’s hard enough grabbing a camera to capture an event like this, let alone set up studio lights that would upset Mama Ewe.
A life-or-death countdown starts when that lamb’s nose emerges from the birth canal. If that lamb doesn’t get up and nurse within 30 minutes in very cold weather, it is unlikely to survive. Getting something into a newborn lamb’s tummy right away is more important for their survival than getting them dry and warm. They are born with a layer of fast-burning fat that lasts a couple of hours, less in cold weather. They need their mother’s first milk – the colostrum – both for energy and for the antibiotics that it contains. If the lamb becomes hypothermic, it can neither swallow nor absorb any nutrients or antibiotics. That’s a death spiral. We always kept some generic colostrum, frozen, and had a microwave and bottles and tubes in the barn as a Plan B. Or perhaps I should say Plan C for Colostrum. Fortunately, the colostrum from any ewe will help any newborn lamb survive, although of course its own mother’s is best. Sheep dairies sell extra colostrum to other sheep farmers and veterinary suppliers because they can’t use it to make cheese. If you are desperate, cow’s colostrum in a lamb’s tummy is better than no colostrum at all. Colostrum not only supplies natural antibiotics and nutrition, it also triggers critical immune system functions in the baby. I just learned that people are selling bovine colostrum-based supplements for human adults! What will we try next? Oh, never mind, I don’t want to know the answer to that….!
The lamb is born knowing its mother’s smell from its months immersed in her fluids in the womb. The newborn follows its nose to its mother immediately, even before it can see. Mama Ewe recognizes the smell of the afterbirth and fluids soaking the baby, but she may not initially recognize the smell of the cleaned-up baby as hers, so it’s best if she does the cleanup herself. Licking that baby dry gives her some nutrients and energy, too. Her tongue massages the baby’s circulation and internal organ function. The baby must nurse – flooding the ewe with oxytocin -- and the ewe’s milk must pass all the way through to cement the bond. That’s why using generic colostrum is not as good as the ewe’s own, but a dead lamb won’t bond with anything besides bacteria. Mama Ewe also needs time to learn her babies’ voices. It can take up to 48 hours before a first-time mother and her lambs are completely bonded at all levels including smell and sound.
The ewe is ravenous from the effort of birthing and also driven to fill up this suddenly empty space inside her. In the huddle, we would give her high-protein meals that she didn’t have to compete for. We would give her extra nutrients to help her through this demanding time, especially extra calcium for milk production. We would make sure she had no internal damage from the births. You won’t stay in the sheep business very long without multiple births – twins at least—but it can be hard for the ewe. You also can’t stay in the sheep business if your ewes don’t survive lambing and survive many times. When a ewe has triplets or quads (once we had quintuplets!), we were thrilled but that first meal was a challenge for the “bonus” lambs because God gave Mama Ewe only two tits. If there were three or more lambs from a single ewe, we’d help Mama out by giving the lambs some of that generic colostrum. Some ewes can manage triplets or more without help or after a little initial help. But if Mama Ewe couldn’t take care of all her lambs, and started choosing favorites, we’d take the less-favored lambs, preferably the rams, and put them in the “bottle baby” gang. This allowed the ewe to concentrate on the two she could manage well. If another ewe with a lot of milk had only one lamb, or had stillbirths, we’d try “grafting” -- an adoption – of that bonus lamb.
Grafting is easier when the lamb smells like the ewe being asked to mother it. I confess that I’ve rolled many a bonus lamb in an unrelated ewe’s afterbirth and plugged that lamb in on her while she was still a little dazed from birthing. This may sound gross to you, but it’s leveraging nature. Mom used to say that “It’s not dirty until it hits the ground.” This observation makes more sense when you have your hand in the birth canal of a straining ewe or cow feeling for feet or a head or anything that you can grab to help the poor lady. Many times, the befuddled ewe would adopt the bonus lamb after we arranged its acquaintance with one of the ewe’s stray placentas. It worked best when you were replacing a stillborn lamb with a live one. But some ewes can count. They can’t count past three or four, but some could count how many lambs had passed through their own birth canal and weren’t very receptive to our “plus one” offering.
In the case of a stillbirth, some shepherds will skin the dead newborn and tie that hide on the adoptee if the afterbirth trick doesn’t work. I am a bit too squeamish to do that, I guess. And concerned about the reasons that ewe’s lamb was stillborn. Of course, we were also just too busy with dozens of ewes lambing to get that fancy. We’d put a reluctant foster Mama in a headgate (a device that kept her from butting away a nursing baby but allowed her to eat and lay down) for a while, to give the orphan lamb a chance to nurse. Often, the ewe would change her mind when her milk passed through the baby, making the little critter smell more like her. This became our standard approach as science revealed that a rare but devastating imported prion-based disease could be carried in placentas. Counting placentas became one of our new lambing chores.
Some shepherds try triggering the adoption by asking their herding dog to press the ewe into a defensive mindset, convincing her that she must protect the lamb in question. Their rationale: since a ewe will instinctively protect all the lambs around her from a predator, she would jump to thinking that lamb was hers for more than protection. I never tried this. The ewe is already under a lot of stress from lambing and perhaps pain from lambing gone wrong, so I thought that extra stress could backfire. Sheep are not nature’s smartest creatures, outside of their prey instincts. A dog will trigger those prey instincts, so it does make a kind of sense. But to pull this off, the sheepdog needs a lot of training, and the handler needs a lot of experience with sheepdogs.
During the few days in the huddle, we’d devote extra attention to the mothering behavior of the first-time ewes with their own lambs. Mothering is partially instinct and partially learned behavior. We bred for mothering instincts as well as for lack of lambing complications. Sometimes we bred ewes so good at mothering that they became those Grannies, or “Snackbars.” A Snackbar is a ewe who will allow lambs that are not her own to nurse. Snackbar was our farm’s term for this – I’m sure there’s a special shepherd term (probably Gaelic!) for these overly generous little sheep-souls -- but I don’t know if I ever knew it. This generosity is convenient if you have an orphan or someone else’s bonus lamb that you’d like to foist off on her to save the expense of bottle-feeding; however, if a ewe allows every lamb in the field to snack on her, her own lambs might starve. Plus, she can’t eat enough to keep up the milk production at that rate and can die of starvation herself. So, there is a balance here, too. You want ewes to be all over their own offspring, immediately protecting them from predators, getting them up and eating, and drying them off. You want them to keep those offspring healthy until weaning time. You want them to wean their own two or three lambs at a good weight. But you also want them to send someone else’s young back to their own mama. Well, except when you are trying to graft if they come up short on birthing their own, of course.
A ewe will clean up her baby and guide it to her tits and massage it with her tongue to get its intestinal tract working very quickly if she is both bred to do it and has been well-mothered herself. Once the nursing starts and the oxytocin begins to flow, ewe and lamb are well on their way to a maternal bond. You have to watch any ewes that were bottle-raised especially carefully, because they may not have been mothered enough to trigger the instincts. That’s why we tried to give all female lambs some experience of being mothered before deciding that their mother needs fewer lambs to raise and make the loser a bottle baby. In my experience, every time I saw an animal mother who didn’t know how to mother, or wouldn’t mother -- horse, cow, sheep, dog, or cat – either her own mother was clueless also or she was an orphan who did not have any natural mothering herself. Believe me, we would know who mothered or did not mother whom. Flock improvement requires tracking that with a host of other data. And regulations require that any livestock can be traced to the farm of origin. Every lamb gets a pretty little ear tag with a unique number within hours of birth. Sometime during those first days in the huddle, the lambs would be inspected and weighed and vaccinated and records updated. Lots of paperwork followed each lamb. And it would get a few more eartags.
Honestly, I’d rather deal with granny mischief or snackbars all day than deal with lambs starving or freezing because their own mothers did not take care of them. The ewes at our farm who didn’t mother well went to the church mutton BBQ and their lambs went to the tele-auction as soon as they weighed enough to be lambchops. That’s why I roll my eyes when I hear some man waxing poetic about how women know how to mother instinctively and therefore God created her to do all the mothering of children. It doesn’t jive with a lifetime of watching God’s creations, great and small.
Lambing days are among the hardest and most rewarding days of a shepherd’s life—the reason we keep farming. All that new life and work doesn’t leave you any time to worry about the price of wool and lamb, rising insurance premiums, taxes, zoning, neighbors’ complaints, regulations, or anything else that does not keep lambs and ewes alive and well. By that Christmas afternoon, we were on our way to a single-day farm record. We ran out of the huddles already set up and had to pull more panels down from the barn rafters and set them up. After all those were full, we put ewes and lambs in the barn aisle and separated them with bales of straw. We couldn’t get the skid-loader down the aisle with hay. Even getting the wheel-barrow through the maze was a challenge.
I remember finally walking out of the barn that Christmas and being surprised to find it was the dead of night. The clear winter sky was spangled with stars, not nearly as many visible as I remember from my childhood before light pollution, but more than usual. They gave just enough light for my way up to the farmhouse without the flashlight that I had not thought to bring to the barn. My feet fortunately had the way memorized, even avoiding the frozen puddles. I remember thinking that it was about the right time for the angels to show up, like on that First Noel. I couldn’t linger out there in that cold and wait for them – I had a weak lamb in my arms, still wet from his trip through the birth canal, last and smallest of a set of triplets, an easy bonus lamb decision. Mom had left the Christmas tree lights on for me, so I could see some angels – the ones decorating the tree – through the front windows of the farmhouse. I found Mom still in the kitchen, dozing in her rocker by the fire, another newborn sprawled on her lap in a towel with a full tummy and four more in boxes by the hearth. No one could revive a starving newborn with hypothermia as well as my mother could.
Is my kitchen memory just that night, or one of hundreds of others? Still cradling the lamb, I started some colostrum defrosting in the microwave with my free hand. Then I grabbed a rag from the basket by Mom’s rocker and scrubbed the newest kitchen-lamb dry. Next, I found an empty “lamb sweater” warming on the hearth – really a sleeve hacked off of an old sweatshirt with holes cut in it for the lamb’s front legs – and worked it on over the newbie’s head and around his legs. Mom woke up with the chime of the microwave and traded the lamb in her lap for the new one, without a word. She soon had some colostrum in our newest best friend. Perhaps that lamb was just strong enough to suck something out of the bottle. Or maybe he was one of the many that she had to “tube” to get those desperately-needed calories in his tummy so that he’d have the strength to suck on a nipple later. No matter how much practice I had putting a tube down a lamb’s throat, I could never do it as fast as Mom could, even in her eighties with her hands crippled by arthritis and her vision failing. I’d usually just hold the little bugger’s head just so while she fished that little tube down his throat. As her hearing faded, she’d ask me to listen to the top end of the tube for a moment -- to be sure that she had it in his stomach and not his lungs -- before we dripped colostrum into it. She never did miss a lamb’s tummy, but she never failed to check that she had it in the lamb’s tummy either.
And I still miss Mom terribly, especially at Christmas, her favorite holiday, lambs or no lambs. She held flock, family, and farm together for over fifty years.
In memory of Farmer Number One, Edna “Livy” Haley Farry (1922-2016), bottle-feeding a newborn lamb in the farmhouse kitchen.
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