A few days ago, I noticed this lambs rear pasterns. Egads! What is going on here? They weren’t like this before. What seems like suddenly, his hind pasterns are completely slack, his front pasterns aren’t strong, he’s got swollen knee joints, and some patches of missing hair on his ankles. Rickets came to mind immediately. Rickets! Isn’t that, like, some embarrassing disease of impoverished, previous-century humans and neglected, malnourished livestock? Yes. But here’s why I think rickets is indeed what he has, and how it came about.

Back up to before this lamb was born. He was a triplet. His dam had a mild case of pregnancy toxemia, but I caught it in time. I brought her into the barn because I could tell she was “off” and I fed her well until she gave birth. She delivered during the day, and I was home. Her lambs were well-positioned in the birth canal and small, but it was like she had so little energy left, she just couldn’t push them out. I pulled them all, though they slid right out when I did.

This one was firstborn, and somewhat weak upon birth; he may have been in the birth canal making effort for a while before I pulled him. He got up and made an effort to nurse, but then the next two lambs came quickly (thanks to me), so there was a lot of distraction and competition to nurse. I ended up bottle-feeding him some colostrum that I milked out of her, to be sure he got some. Anyway, all this means he didn’t get the best start in life, and may not have gotten an ideal amount of colostrum.

I wasn’t sure if the ewe could feed all three of them, so I trained them to supplement from a bottle. This one took to it the most, so clearly he was having trouble competing with his sibs. But I had a hard time convincing him to nurse off the bucket; he didn’t like room temp milk. He managed to do some bumming off other ewes, and was doing ok. When he was 19 days old, I noted he was hunched and crying, so treated him with antibiotics to address his abdominal discomfort, and increased efforts to train him to drink off the bucket. Two weeks later, I had an opportunity to graft him onto a yearling ewe that had lost her single lamb, and that worked well.

He hummed along ok after that, never gaining very aggressively, but that’s ok, given his rough start and his yearling-aged adoptive mother feeding twins. At least he had a milk supply. I castrated him at ninety days, and didn’t wean him until he was over four months old, which is very generous. Ever since, he’s been managed as part of the ram and feeder lamb group, and I make sure they eat well. He’s been de-wormed six times in his nine months of life, which is way more than most of my lambs get. He’s gotten a couple of extra treatments since he’s stayed here longer than most lambs, and I’ve been trying to boost him all I can. I’ve also checked his fecal egg count, and confirmed that the de-wormers I’m using are effective.

Ever since weaning, he’s been thin, and pot-bellied. Eventually he became anemic and weak, though was still keeping up with the flock and grazing. So early October, I brought him into the barn for special feeding, to boost him even more. He’s been indoors ever since. So, there is issue #1: he’s had limited sunlight exposure for three months, which we know can create a vitamin D deficiency. But sheep get vitamin D from sun-cured hay, so being indoors doesn’t normally trigger rickets all on its own. There have to  be another set of factors.

Rickets is apparently also caused by lack of calcium, or improper calcium-to-phosphorous ratios. But he’s on a diet of alfalfa, supplemented with corn-barley. So I know the calcium is there in spades. The Ca:P ratio is good in my mineral mix, and it also has a strong magnesium component, which is another factor of rickets. So, what gives? Here is a photo of him mid-November, just six weeks ago, and no sign of slack pasterns then.

I read that rickets is also a disease of “pushed” lambs, or lambs which are fed a very rich, high-protein diet in an effort to get them to gain as fast as possible. This would normally not be true of his situation: alfalfa hay and a handful of whole grain per day doesn’t constitute serious pushing, only generous feeding.

But, in the last month or so, I’ve been having trouble with him getting his head suck in my barn hay feeders. This is a problem I have with small lambs, the 4” feeder holes are just big enough for a tiny head to go in, but not come back out, ear tags and all. The reason he’s been getting his head stuck twice daily before I free him? He’s getting in there eating all the alfalfa leaves at the bottom of the feeders. So, I think he’s been creating a “pushing” situation for himself: a diet of pure alfalfa leaves, no stems and roughage. It doesn’t help that he has to wait, standing, or even “sitting” much of the day for me to rescue him from his headlock, so he’s not using his hind limbs as a sheep normally would. He had even developed weird “balls” of dried manure on his toes, which further accentuated his strange stance.

Given that he only weighs 36 lbs, he’s seriously behind in growth and development. He’s the size of a sixty-day-old lamb in my system. So a dramatic diet change to a very high protein situation would probably explain rickets in this case, where he’s still got a lot of growing to do. I also think he’s just has some kind of metabolic imbalance for a while, with the anemia, and general ill thrift. It seems like every year I have one pathetic lamb like this.

Incidentally, here is a photo with him next to one of his triplet siblings (the brown one in the foreground), and a white raised-triplet wether from another set. The other two have taken longer to hit butcher weight than most of my lambs; due to being triplets and also,  I believe, due to some undesirable diminutive genetics. But they are healthy and have good fat cover, they just needed more time to mature.

So, what to do with the little fella? First, I’ve penned him, and provided him with a bowl feeder for his hay, rather than the hay feeders I normally use in the barn. This way, I can insist he eat all the hay, not just the alfalfa leaves; and no more head-stuck incidents. I will also give him oral vitamin D supplements for a while. And, of course continue providing him with a good mineral salt mix, plus kelp. He is cheerful and in good demeanor, and has a great appetite, so I suspect he’ll recover. Most likely he will end up going to a pet home, since it would be a long haul to get him into butcher condition. In the meantime, he’s an interesting case for learning!

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