ChocEweOn Friday night in the half dusk, I was watching the sheep eat and admiring all their huge, any-day-now bellies, idly letting my brain have one of those half-conscious conversations with itself. It went something like this:

right brain: that ewe doesn’t look pregnant
left brain: that’s because she has afterbirth hanging out of her
both hemispheres: gaaaaa! she’s aborting!

<sigh> She was noshing away on hay, clearly any lament over an unresponsive baby delivery replaced by the desire to snack. I went back to the house and got some gloves and Maggie, and back down to the pasture to catch and examine the ewe. She seemed fine, so I let her be. She is a ewelamb, out of one of my Montana ewes, this is her first pregnancy. Things like this never happen to animals you are thinking of culling, of course!

I couldn’t find the fetus in the dark, so looked for it the next morning. It was a dark brown ewelamb, just like its mother, laying in the mud. The llama took an interest in it as I walked by, she sure is a keen observer. She seemed bothered by it, like she knew what it was. But she hadn’t been staging any sort of vigil near it, so if she knew it was there in the mud, she also knew it was a goner.

FetusThis ewe wasn’t due ‘til the 28th, so this was a good-sized lamb for only four months along- they do most of their growing in the last month. I forgot to weigh it, but it was maybe 4 lbs already. I cut it open and looked around: all organs there, everything in order from what I could see. The only thing slightly suspicious was that maybe her liver was a little orange-ey colored. Too much copper? I don’t have a large enough database in my head of normal fetal livers to know for sure. The sheep have been eating a lot of mineral supplement the last few weeks, which I felt was tolerable since their general food and water intake is also very high. But I’m backing off on the copper supplement for a while just to try to reduce risk. I will offer them a milder mix largely diluted with a non-copper supplement and some dolomite.

LiverAbortions in some small percentage are normal, sometimes there is just something randomly wrong with the pregnancy. It’s a delicate balance between that little alien and the mother’s immune system, after all. But the very thought of ruminant abortion makes me break into a cold sweat, as I’ve heard and read enough accounts of others experiencing “abortion storms” in their sheep flocks, where a good percentage of their lamb crop is lost to some unknown cause. Figuring out the reason is apparently vexing, there are so many potential root causes- bacteria, virus, toxicity, nutrition. But many of them are trend-oriented, not just a one-off random thing. Even WSU’s WADDL lab cites only a 30-40% “at best” success rate in diagnosing abortion causes.

Last summer I had gone on a business trip, and while traveling, managed to read the Veterinary Book for Sheep Farmers cover-to-cover: all 700 pages of it. (Sorry to those sitting on the plane next to me when I was looking at the hideous photographs. Coffee, soda or snack to go with those enlarged images of internal parasites and diseased organs?) Anyway, there is nothing like 700 pages of what-can-go-wrong to get you freaked out about what can go wrong! Veterinary books make you wonder how animals survive at all. So I am waiting with baited breath for the weekend when the first lambs are due, hoping that this is not a harbinger for the rest of the season into which I have so much invested.