When you’ve lived on a farm for 22 years, you eventually start feeling like you know it all. You’ve seen so many crazy things that you think you can handle anything, but farm life also has a way of knocking you down a peg or two, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out. The 2020 lambing season was that time for us.
My mom and I started breeding sheep when I was about seven years old. The first few years were a steep learning curve. We made lots of mistakes, lost several babies in the process, and spent many long nights in the barn. I’ve seen my mother give mouth-to-mouth to a baby lamb to save its life, and I’ve turned a lamb completely around in the birth canal.
One year we bought a pregnant ewe from a friend, and when she lambed, the twins were born with their internal organs developed outside of their abdomens. The mother had accidentally been bred to a ram that she was too closely related to, and there was nothing we could do except humanely euthanize those babies.
Sometimes, there is nothing we could have done differently.
Over the last 15 years, we haven’t had many problems. We felt like we had lambing down to a science, and not much surprises us anymore. I can deliver a lamb in my sleep, which is good, because babies are often born around 2 a.m.
What happened this February, however, shook our world.
We were only supposed to breed two ewes, because the third, named Blue Cheese, suffered from pregnancy ketosis, and we were concerned about her being able to survive another round. At the last minute, we made the choice to let her be bred. Blue Cheese is an incredible mom and gives us healthy, gorgeous babies, and we wanted one more set from her gene pool.
We noticed one morning, late in the pregnancy, that she wasn’t coming for her feed with the others, so we brought her into the barn to give her individualized care. Over the next two weeks she grew sicker, as is common with ketosis. We kept praying for her to go into labor early, because once the babies are out, ketosis is often easier to correct. Finally, one evening, I noticed that Blue Cheese was showing pre-labor symptoms. Labor can take hours, and there’s not much we can do in the beginning, so around 11 p.m., I made sure she was comfortable, set an alarm, and went to bed.
At 4 a.m., we woke, and after checking on the mom-to-be, decided we were awake for good. We took shifts sitting with her and going into the house to get coffee and prep the supplies we would need when the lambs came. After two hours of pushing, Blue Cheese was exhausted. Her illness had weakened her, so we decided to pull the lambs – meaning we reach in and assist the lamb through the birth canal. Mom volunteered to do the pulling, so I held Blue Cheese’s head in my lap.
It took 20 minutes, but at 6:30 a.m. the lambs were born. Twin boys. Little black blobs covered in goo.
Amazed and ecstatic to see that they were both alive, we cleaned off their noses and brought them to Blue Cheese’s head for her to see them. She was so weak that she couldn’t even lift her head, but she bleated to them, and with our help, was able to clean them.
We needed to get the lambs fed, but Blue Cheese wasn’t producing any milk, so we made a call. Farm people always rely on each other for help, and our neighbor Anna jumped right in. At 7 a.m., she brought us colostrum and goat milk, which is close enough to sheep’s milk to use as a replacement.
We fed the lambs and settled in to wait and see if Blue Cheese would recover. The sun was just starting to come up, and the quiet rustlings and sounds of the babies paired with the sounds of the countryside waking up was just the moment of peace we needed.
We spent most of that day trying everything we could to help Blue Cheese heal, but nothing worked. By the next morning, we knew she wouldn’t survive. We made the decision to put her down, thus making orphans of her lambs.
After mourning her, we turned our attention to the newborn lambs we were now fully responsible for.
We named them Flop and Rocket, and I became their new mom. They needed fed every four hours, and it was a sweet 24 hours as we bonded and they learned to nurse on a bottle. We thought we were out of the woods.
The lambs were two days old when Rocket stopped eating. He refused his bottle and fought like crazy when we tried to feed him via a feeding tube. All of our experience told us to keep trying to feed him because once lambs get milk in their stomach, they usually start eating on their own. When we tried to tube him a third time, the milk wouldn’t even go into his stomach.
The morning of day three, Rocket was much worse. We had stayed up most of the night with him again, and he was no longer able to stand. His abdomen was distended and we could tell he was in pain. We willed him with every breath to fight and keep living.
We went to our library of sheep resources and read everything we could find about lambs who won’t eat in between feedings and attempted feedings. I remembered reading somewhere that some lambs can be born constipated and that they may not recover if not treated quickly. I dug up the article and sure enough, Rocket had every symptom.
On our bathroom floor at 5 a.m., I performed my first enema on a lamb, and for a moment we thought it was working. He was passing small amounts of manure and started moving around more.
Meanwhile, there was another ewe giving birth in the field, so I ran back and forth between the barn and the house, taking care of the other ewe and helping Mom with Rocket. On one trip back to the house, I walked into the bathroom, and Mom was cradling Rocket in her arms, tears rolling down her cheeks. He was gone.
I sank to my knees, and she placed him in my arms. I’d been his momma for only a few hours. I held his little head close to my cheek and told him through tears how much he had been loved, even if just for three days.
Mom and I stayed like that on the floor for what seemed like hours, mourning the loss of Blue Cheese and now one of her last babies. Flop was now not only an orphan but had lost his brother as well. It was a moment to be humble and to recognize how much we still had to learn.
After a while, we wrapped little Rocket in a towel and took him to where we had buried Blue Cheese. We laid Rocket next to his mother and prayed over them both. Then we turned and headed back to start another day in the barn. Farm families know that there’s no such thing as a day off from responsibility.
Lambing season finally ended, and Flop lived. He’s now a full-grown sheep, and I’m still his momma. Typically, we don’t keep the male sheep born on our property, but Flop represents lessons learned for Mom and me, and I can’t imagine parting with him. He is 150 pounds now but still comes running to the fence when I call and goes for walks with us on a leash.
Flop has been a bright spot in my 2020, making me laugh with his antics or smile when he lays down next to me and puts his head in my lap. He came with me to classrooms at a local school when he was little and then hung out once a week with me on Zoom to teach children about sustainability and responsible ranching. He’s a huge blessing that I would not have had if his mother and brother had lived.
The biggest lesson we learned this year is that no matter how much you know in ranching; something will always surprise you. I think that’s also true of life. Life has thrown a lot at us this year, and it’s not been easy. But when we answer crisis with acceptance, gratitude, and humility, sometimes we are rewarded with a blessing. Flop is my blessing.
By Kyra Young