I mentioned last time that I found myself in a situation of having a ewe with a single dead lamb and a miserably full udder at the peak of milk production. And, I had two lambs out of different sets of triplets who were needing supplementation with milk replacer. This seemed like a perfect storm, or the Brady Bunch, or both. I wondered if I could marry these three inconvenient situations into one good one.

I debated whether to try to give her one lamb or both. But figuring that she killed her first lamb via milk abundance  (with the help of resident bacteria), I decided she could likely handle two, even though she is only a yearling. Plus, I was just really keen on the idea of being done with milk replacer for the year.

I’ve been meaning to build a head stanchion forever, and have had a couple of instances in the past where it might have been useful. So this time I did it. It only took me about a half an hour, which made me think why didn’t I do this ages ago? But that’s the trouble, I have a million half-hour tasks on my to-do list. It’s just a matter of which ones bubble up enough in priority to actually get done. This time, it just worked out that I had a free Sunday, the same Sunday there was a need for some lamb grafting.

SheepHeadStanchionPlansI had once saved a page out of Sheep! magazine (at left, all coffee-stained or something) with a building plan for a freestanding stanchion. However, I decided to build this one into the side of my barn pen, so I really only needed the dimension of the width of the head gate itself, which is a narrow 3.5” at the bottom. (It turns out, a yearling ewe’s neck really is that narrow.) Since my pen was built with screws, it was easy to take out some boards, cut them shorter, add in a few spare pieces I had laying around, and put it all back together in a different formation. This is in a section where I can set up 4×5’ jugs if I need them, though this time I didn’t because these were the only sheep in the barn, and the lambs are older and quite mobile.

I chose to use 2x4s for the vertical sections that hold the head in. The photo on the building plans looks to me like it might have 1x2s, and the diagram says 2×2”. Maybe with old-fashioned, strong lumber these thinner dimensions worked. But, with wimpy modern lumber from the big box stores, I suspect a ewe’s melon could easily crack a 1×2 or a 2×2; if she were to bust around in there like a bronco (which she’s pretty much guaranteed to do). So, better safe than sorry, I went with something beefier. For now, I just drilled a big hole through the vertical 2×4 and top rail, into which I stuck a long bolt with a nut on the end. Later I may make a snazzier latch that can slam shut once I get the sheep’s head in there. Because it’s a bit of a wrestling match once she figures out where she’s headed.

Now, for the process of grafting. Ewes first identify their lambs by sight, sound and smell during the several-hour bonding period right after birth. So that is obviously the most ideal time to sneak in a foreigner. Smell is their strongest identifier, and a ewe frequently “butt checks” her lambs as they latch on to nurse, to confirm their identity. Another old fashioned method for grafting is to skin the dead lamb and “jacket” the live lamb with it, to fool the ewe into thinking she’s still got her lamb. I could have done that, but it would only work for one lamb, and I wanted her to take two.

So, the stanchion is the last resort. The reason it works, in theory, is that the ewe can’t turn around to sniff or see the lambs, so she can’t verify their identity. Meanwhile, the relief they’re offering to her full udder makes her give-in a bit, despite mixed feelings about this unnatural arrangement. After several days of this caper, her memory of how her lambs looked and smelled likely starts to fade. So, by the time you free her, she accepts the situation and assumes whomever was nursing on her are indeed her offspring. The claim on the building plans is that usually three days is all that’s needed for this cunning scheme to work.

The head stanchion physically allows the ewe to stand up and lay down, and eat and drink, but not turn her head around. The building plans make for a more restrictive scenario, where the ewe also can’t move side-to-side much either, thus protecting the lambs from getting bashed or kicked. And this may be necessary for newborn, weak, or timid lambs; or especially big or violent ewes. Those are less common scenarios for me, so I think this freestanding headlock will work just fine.

This ewe is actually very sweet. I brought her up to the barn pen and stuck the two lambs in with her while I built the contraption. She immediately started talking to me in the gentle, conversational greeting tones that nice sheep use when they are asking for reassurance or join-up with a herd. She instantly joined-up with the lambs and didn’t mind them flocking with her, even looking after them with some concern. But she drew the line there, and wasn’t interested in allowing them to nurse. These lambs, however, were thirty-day-old opportunists who’d already been doing some bumming. Lambs like this become professionals at spotting an inattentive ewe with an unoccupied udder, snatching moments here and there to steal before they get caught. So the minute I haltered her, they zoomed in on the victim and nursed aggressively.

Once the ewe was in the stanchion, the lambs took full advantage. Maybe too  much advantage. The ewe could not figure out how to lie down to stop them from nursing. And, even when I helped her, it still didn’t stop them from nursing! Poor girl. I imagine her only respite was when they feel asleep from the exhaustion of digestive overload.

This made me take pity on her, so before bed, I’d put a halter and lead rope on her and turn her loose in the barn, dragging the lead (so it would be easy to catch her again in the morning). This way, at least she could have a peaceful night. In the morning, I’d find her curled up with her new adoptees, but still saying no to the nursing part of the equation. So, back in the stanchion.

I may have been breaking the rule of learning by letting her out, which allowed her to re-confirm these were not her lambs every 12 hours; and this probably prolonged the process. But given her sweetness and general affection for the lambs, I just had a  hunch it was  going to work, with some persistence. And, I just couldn’t leave her sweet self standing in that gate for 24 hours, not figuring out how to lie down. So, for five days, she went back in the stanchion each morning, when she showed me that she wouldn’t let the lambs nurse.

But, sure as shootin’, on morning six, I went out to the barn, prepared to lock her back up. The trio was snuggling together, as usual. She stood, both lambs dove in on the udder in a microsecond, and she squatted a bit to accommodate them. Then, she sniffed both butts with a certain deliberateness, then looked casually at me as if to say, yup, these are definitely my lambs, always have been. Nuthin’ to see here.

Reprogramming complete.

Me: 3 points (one for the saved udder, two for two lambs I don’t have to bottle feed). Mother Nature: 1 point (for the dead clostridium lamb). Hah. This week, I win.