In 2011, I kept a ram lamb which I intended to sell, so he could pinch-hit for another ram which I feared may have been rendered temporarily infertile by a raging infection. The pinch-hitter’s lambs turned out so nice I kept him for another year. He and one of my best ewes produced a particularly amazing set of twins- a ewe and a ram- which were by far on the edge of my bell curve for most traits.

I so wanted to see if I could repeat that genetic nick. I doubled-down and bred him back to that ewe, plus her daughter and granddaughter (and some others). I have been looking forward to seeing the results of that breeding for five months!

Right at the beginning of lambing season, the ewe skipped dinnertime. I thought, oh, hmm, she must be going into labor. Until I checked my records and realized she wasn’t due for two weeks! Egads! (Thank goodness for ram marking harnesses, which tell me when ewes should be due.) The ewe was feeling really poorly, so much so that I could walk up and grab her- not a good sign at all. Her temp was 102.9, so slightly elevated, indicating possible infection. Not only had she lost her appetite, but she did not want to be jostled by other sheep, so must have felt crummy or painful to boot.

Full of fear of repeating the loss of the first ewe and her lambs, and losing this awesome breeding, I gave this ewe every drug in the fridge. AnnoyedI also treated her for pregnancy toxemia, in case she had a low-grade version of that. She rallied. Then I watched her with baited breath for the next week and a half.

Monday morning, I ran to the grocery store. When I came back, she had two lambs on the ground, and one looked pretty listless. The vigorous one was a lovely 12 lb. ram. The listless one was a 10 lb. ewe. The one ewe out of all births that I really wanted to get this year. Dammit if I’m going to let this one die, I thought! I also didn’t want her to turn into a bottle lamb, and compromise her own and her dam’s excellent NSIP ratings. (This is the first time I’ve observed myself being subtly influenced by worry over scores. It reminds me of a parent maybe doing a teeny bit of her daughter’s homework for fear of the kid’s 4.0 average slipping!)

I worked with the lamb in the field for a while, but she just didn’t want to get up or suckle, and she was shivering. She coughed and sputtered more than is typical. Once they get cold, the only hope of saving them is to get them warm. I coaxed the ewe into the barn and into a jug by carrying her twins in slings. I put the lamb on a heating pad and bundled her up tight.

After a while, I could get her to stand up and walk around, but still no suckle reflex. The best I could do was trickle milk into her mouth and wait for her to swallow. Normally I can always tell if the lamb has nursed by just pinching the stomach- it’s easy to feel whether or not they are full. Oddly, this lamb’s tummy felt very full. And yet, I was certain she had not nursed. I noticed that she kept peeing, and peeing, and peeing. If I had to guess, I’d say she had eight ounces of urine in her bladder. Why would a newborn have such a full bladder??

As the hours were ticking by, I finally decided to tube her once with colostrum. Usually this does the trick, the energy of the colostrum perks lambs back up, and their suckling reflex returns. Another hour: still alert and able to walk, but completely lazy and disinterested in nursing. Fearing some raging bacterial infection festering in her abdomen, I gave her antibiotics, NutriDrench and a shot of vitamin B to kick-start her appetite and metabolism. Then I tube-fed her again.

I slept some. When I checked on her again, she was standing near her dam, still looking alert, but passive. I offered her a bottle of perfectly warmed milk: nothing. Her stomach still felt full, but I wasn’t trusting this gauge very much. I set her back down with her mother, and she stepped up and nursed. Casually, as if she’d been doing it for weeks!

So, it turns out, she’s fine. Today she’s as normal as can be. I suspect what may have happened was that somehow she drank a lot of amniotic fluid during the birthing process. In reading up on the topic, I learned that fetuses normally drink/pee the amniotic fluid in a constant cycle, which preps their systems to “go live” after birth. Sometimes fetuses can have problems where urination is blocked, but usually this results in drastic effects where the bladder radically overfills, and amniotic fluid is robbed, resulting in life-threatening conditions early in the pregnancy. Since this lamb was able to urinate normally immediately after birth, I assume her systems were generally in order.

So, perhaps she was a backwards birth, her head was in the birth canal for a long time, and for some reason, she just guzzled a lot of fluid. Maybe this made her feel bloated, creating no drive to nurse until she emptied her stomach over the next several hours. That’s my best guess, anyway! If it’s true, I hope that all that fluid didn’t interfere with her absorption of colostrum antibodies. Only time will tell.

As for what was wrong with her dam two weeks ago, I’m still not sure. It may have just been mild toxemia. Her placenta looked normal, and the lambs were born normally on day 145, so I don’t think there was anything wrong with the pregnancy itself. Whatever it was, I’m relieved it all worked out!