I have a crew of complications housed in the barn, where it’s easier for me to keep an eye on them. These resting ewes may look like they have whole litters of lambs, and in a way, they do.

 

Of the 59 ewes that lambed so far, ten had sets of triplets. Curiously, three of those ewes had stillbirths. Two ewes lost a lamb each, and had two good ones left. One of them had two dead lambs, and one lively one. Of the remaining triplet-bearers that had three live babies, only this lovely ewe and her family never had me worried:

She delivered all three freely and quickly, and had them all up, clean and nursing in no time. She kept them very, very close to her for several weeks; and they complied with this conservatism, never wandering far from their mother. The lambs are very uniformly sized, and are growing very consistently. The ewe is maintaining her weight well through nursing. This is the holy grail of tripletdom. A whole extra lamb’s worth of profit, with zero extra labor from me.

But it doesn’t always work this way, especially in a grass-fed operation. For operations that creep-feed lambs, all that’s necessary is for the lambs to get some colostrum, then manage to get enough milk to survive a week or two, until they find the creep feed and start hogging down. Once they are over that hurdle, it doesn’t matter how much milk their mother has, as they can compensate by eating more creep. If a lamb isn’t able to compete with his siblings for milk, no problem, there is creep. Lambs don’t need a huge volume of milk in their first week or so, they are just taking little two-ounce sips every hour. So usually ewes will have plenty of milk to fuel three babies for a week. Then creep feeding fills in to comprise the bulk of their diets, and in general is a big compensation for variables in milk quantity and quality, and even for poor mothering and ewe-lamb bonds.

But I don’t creep feed. I’ve tinkered with a moveable creep feeder in the pasture, but found it’s just way too much hassle to move the thing every few days with the graze.

So, all those lambs have for the first two months of their lives is milk. They eat grass, but their rumens aren’t developed enough yet to derive much nutrition from it. Thus, I really see big deltas in performance based on maternal milk. Especially with triplets.

Poor triplets have to make do sharing two teats. They all learn different ways to make this work. This group has an odd arrangement of two lambs on one side, one in the back.

As long as the lambs are fairly equal in size and aggressiveness, this can work. I often see groups like this having epic battles under there, where one is defending the teat in his mouth from another who’s trying to bump him off. The defender has to hold on so tight he can’t even suckle, but he remains steadfast, frozen, teat gripped firmly in his mouth, refusing to give in. It becomes a stiff, standoff of I’m-not-moving and I’m-not-moving-either! Unfortunately too much of this battling wastes time, and the mother may declare “time’s up!” before everyone gets enough of a chance to nurse.

Other times, one lamb is smaller, or just doesn’t have an adequately pushy personality to get in there and fight for his share. These tend to get aced out, over and over; until they run out of energy, get chilled, and lay down and prepare to die. Of course I step in before it’s too late, tube-feed them if necessary; but usually just a warm bottle is all that’s needed to give them a boost. Sometimes just supplementing with a bottle for the first couple of weeks is enough; they get some milk from their dam, and the bottle fills in the gaps. Once they have gained some size, weight, vigor, skill and experience, they have a better chance of figuring out how to get enough milk to get by. Some of them end up refusing the bottle after they reach this point.

Then there are other lambs that are just lazy nursers all around. This can even happen with twins, and it did this year for me. One ewe had a set of good twins, and she appeared to be doing her job correctly. But one of her lambs just kept getting lost and confused, she could not manage to stay with her mother and stay focused on feeding herself. I started offering her the bottle in the field, and she took it gratefully. I brought the set into the barn, and showed her the teat bucket. She took to it right away, and just completely abandoned her mother and declared herself an orphan-rear. This is very irritating, to say the least. If it had happened earlier during my vacation, I would have spent the time to jug them and insist on sorting out the problem and re-training them. But, it happened right when I was going to go back to work. So, I just gave in and let it go.

Meanwhile, I have the two true orphans whose mother died. And I brought five of the seven sets of living triplets into the barn, because each set had a lamb I was worried about. (Another set of triplets I split, grafting one onto a mother that singled.) I also had three sets of twins in there that were worrisome for one reason or another, too. This crew of lambs have been all over the map. Every time a ewe stands up, about seven lambs attack her and try to nurse. Many bummer lambs cleverly learn to nurse from the back. They go undetected this way, and can get by with nursing the wrong dam, at least for a minute. You can always spot these lambs because their heads are dirty and sticky from constantly getting peed-on. Smile with tongue out 

The true orphans had learned to take the bottle well, but several days after their mother died, they started to shift, and wanted the bottle less and less; presumably because they were bumming. Then two other triplets emerged as suddenly needing help, probably getting edged out by these new additions to the feeding frenzy.

I moved one triplet set back outside that I thought was doing well, only to see one of them continually wander, lost and complaining, in the field, constantly trying to bum. It’s much harder to bum in the pasture than in the barn, where the ewes are more captive, and also standing still longer to eat hay. So  I brought that one back in to let her become a complete bum. She refuses to take the bottle and is very stubborn about it. Sometimes, you just have to roll with it.

One ewe lost a triplet. I think often, when an animal gets sick, more than one thing is happening. In this case, I think the lamb was not only getting a shy milk supply, he had a gut infection. This is a vicious circle, where their gut hurts, so they don’t wanna eat a lot, then get malnourished, their immune system weakens, the infection gets the upper hand, and down they go. I think should have acted quicker with antibiotics on this one. Subsequent lambs I was worried about I was much more aggressive in treating them for both things, malnutrition and infection. So, that ewe went back outside with her remaining twins.

Another ewe’s triplets seemed to be doing fine, so I finally sent them back outside, and they’ve done well. Two other ewes that are inside have had triplets before, and definitely didn’t seem to have enough milk. So I’ve kept them in, and sure enough, each one has a wimpier lamb that was pleased to become a bottle baby.

It’s been slow-going teaching a couple of them to transition to the teat bucket, but I finally have everyone self-serving who seems to need it. I have to remind myself when training, that if the animal isn’t getting the next step, the step is too big. Back up to the previous step, then make the increments smaller. So, for the stubborn lambs, decrementing the bottle temperature has to be slower, until they accept room temperature milk. Then I do short sessions on the bucket while they are hungry, and end with the bottle to make sure they get enough.

I often find that just holding the bottle right next to the teat bucket teats does the trick: the lamb keeps reinforcing latch here with that picture of the white bucket in front of him while he nurses. Eventually, the light bulb just goes on, oh, I can do this any time I want, I don’t need to wait for the human with the bottle…. Sometimes I do what I call the “Helen Keller method” where I lose patience with encouraging them to find the bucket on their own, and grab their skulls and force them onto the teat and hold them there! Winking smile Usually this backfires and makes them fight it more. But sometimes, it works, and the concept clicks. This little white blaze guy figured it out that way and is now a bucket nursing fool.

Other lambs catch on amazingly quick. One little lamb was weak and cold one morning before I went to work. I  gave her a bottle, and she took it eagerly and filled her belly full. When I got home from work, she was busy nursing on the bucket, all on her own. Amazing! She was set after that.

I brought inside another ewe with a single who had a concerning, huge bag, to help feed some of these bummers. They are doing a good job draining her down, and helping her avoid mastitis. And my twelve-year-old lady #33 was also in the barn, just because. She had a single, and a huge bag, so she’s helping to fund some of these freeloaders as well.

So, finally, everyone’s getting adequately fed and things are stable. The only thing I hate about this is how it screws up my NSIP data. Each lamb needs to be encoded for how he was reared, as a single, twin, or triplet. Each ewe gets credit for how many lambs she raised to weaning; and adjustments are made based on how many she nursed. Bottle babies are encoded as single-reared, in their own group. Any lambs which do not grow up with the same circumstances as the majority group need to be flagged in their own rearing group, in order to compare apples to apples.

So, all this round robin nursing behavior introduces some error into the data. For sets that were in the barn for a long time, many weeks out of the 60-day window of time before their weaning weights are taken, I’ll note them in a separate comparison group. As far as which ones were raised as singles, twins, or triplets, I have to try to estimate, based on observation of how much nursing their doing, versus bucket feeding; and how many lambs I think they are each competing with on the dam. If I’m really in doubt, I can always exclude their data altogether; but usually I figure out a reasonable approximation that I’m satisfied is good enough.

All these high maintenance families sure make me appreciate all the rest of the sets in the field that have needed nothing from me! There is definitely an “80/20 rule” element to this, where the minority of lambs require the majority of work!

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