MySplintThis year, I bought a used Sydell sheep sorter from a friend who retired from sheep. It holds promise of being able to do all sorts of chores- sorting, vaccinating, hoof trimming, weighing and the like, all in Temple Grandin gentle style… But it will take some fine-tuning and training before we achieve the desired level of graceful flow. I’ll write more about my lessons-learned on the overall design. But here is the short-term cost of the long-term benefit of this gorgeous and expensive system.

One component of the system is the “Spin Doctor”, which squeezes the sheep and allows “spinning” them on their sides to work on their feet or do other operations. The older version of the Spin Doctor has openings on the side. Ideally, if the exit of the Doctor is a narrow chute, this would not be an issue. But I had a too-wide chute there, leading to a sort gate, which the sheep found visually aversive. So, they would tend to turn around in that chute, attempting to return in the direction of the herd by jamming into the side of the Doctor.

Some of them did gracefully, and managed to exhaust out somewhere, or change their minds and turn around again to exhaust the way they should. One big, fat ewe got her foot stuck in the lower components of the spin doctor, however, while trying to pull this maneuver. I can’t quite remember what happened, but I think she lost her balance and fell, with all her weight torquing on the entrapped front leg. I remember my brain thinking “yeeks” about what I was seeing, and it made me leap to help her immediately, as it looked urgent. I managed to extract her and send her on her way, and forgot about it. Another ewe got her foot stuck in a similar manner, but I was quicker at helping her, and off she went. Later I did something to block that opening.

That night when finishing chores late in the dark, I noticed a ewe that was quite lame, and thought “oh, it must have been that one that got stuck, she must have sprained her ankle. I’ll take a look at her tomorrow if it’s not better.” The next day I had to finish sorting, and that ewe was still quite lame, not wanting to put any weight on that leg. She three-legged into the sorting area, then lay down. So, fine, I let her hang out there and rest ‘til I finished all the sorting and other chores. I set up the ATV trailer pen and drove down to retrieve her and haul her up to the barn. It’s always a bit of a wrestle to get them loaded, but I got her heavy butt in there and brought her inside.

I unloaded her, haltered and tied her so I could get a better look at the leg, and also give her a Banamine injection before letting her join some butcher lambs in the barn pen. When I went to bend that section, the feeling of rubbery flexibility where the stiff part of her metacarpal bone should not bend made my stomach turn. Yep, she broke it clean through. I momentarily considered whether I should shoot her right then, but she was bucking around and fighting me in a determined way, and I also had it in my head that this was one of my better ewes. So, I made a temporary splint out of foam pipe wrap, paint sticks and vet wrap (my splint pictured above, lime green wrap). Then, I texted the vet to see if she could come the next day and give her a proper splint.

I gave the ewe a shot of Banamime for pain, and put her in a jug. She got right to eating alfalfa with glee, and started nickering to me to bring her grain. It’s amazing how tough sheep are! The vet was able to come the next day and immobilize the whole length of the leg with a spoon splint (her splint, below, with yellow chicken print wrap), which is to remain on for eight weeks, while she also stays in a jug. We gave her Banamine for a week for pain and inflammation. But she was perky as can be, not seeming to be in any discomfort. We’ll see if she heals, no guarantees, but the prognosis is positive. 

I  learned from the vet that when splinting, you have to immobilize the joints fore and aft of the break, because of those joints can move, they will move tendons, which will put stress on the knitting break. You can see the difference in our splints, my inclination was to just splint that single bone, where the vet splinted the entire leg. Inside the splint, the foot is suspended an inch above the bottom of the “spoon”, so if she does try to weigh-bear on the leg, the splint is transferring the load up to the elbow section. In theory, no weight bearing is happening below that point. FullSplint_thumb[1]

I looked back in my records only to realize this is not one of my best ewes, she’s only mediocre. She has nice lambs, but she has only singled the last two years, making her barely pay for her keep. The useful thing about paying for her vet care is that I am learning to do splints myself, so if this ever happens again, I will have that skill on hand.

I lamented that this occurred right at the onset of breeding season, and wondered if she would be able to breed late December once her splint was off. I pulled a blood test just to check her status, and as luck would have it (or not), she’s already pregnant. Nearly all my adult ewes have subsequently marked by the rams in this breeding cycle, so she was one of the few that bred early in the summer when the days were still very long. (August 5th was when I removed the rams, making January 3rd the last possible due date for her.) So, it may turn out that she’s got very strong out-of-season breeding genes, and is a relatively valuable ewe after all.

She’s in good shape and weight, but I’m mindful that she’s  now headed into the last trimester of pregnancy, where the demands for calcium and minerals from the fetuses are very high. So I will have to give her really good nutrition so she doesn’t rob her own bone growth and healing. Her splint is due to come off right about the time she’s due to lamb- how about the timing of that? Of course she’ll be weighing a lot by then, putting further demands on that leg. She’s also not going to get good exercise, which may make for a more difficult birth. Not to mention, hopefully her fetuses have survived all this stress to date! All that can be done is… see how things go.

In the end, I still believe strongly that the Sydell system is going to save labor in the long run, and also handle the sheep more gently, once they learn how to navigate it. But there is definitely a steep learning curve for the humans and sheep, plus some design tweaks necessary to prevent further injury. It was an expensive price to pay for my new “humane” handling system! Sarcastic smile