Chronicles of a Dirt Farmer: On Lambing

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In farming, there is always something to complain about – bad weather, drought, broken equipment, early morning phone calls. It’s so easy to be tense when I’m always expecting the other shoe to drop. I spend a lot of time setting up for success while waiting for the next disaster because so much is beyond my control.

For lambing season this year, as always, I planned ahead, had everything set up for success and, luckily, was met with it. I arrived to new lambs shakily standing by their watchful mother, their umbilical cords still pink and wet. The ewe sniffing and licking them, making the special guttural “baaa” that helps bond lamb to ewe. I watched as the lambs unsteadily sought along their dam’s flank towards the udder – lunging, missing, grabbing the teat, nursing. Sometimes everything just goes right.

 

Out of thirty lambs this year, twenty-nine have slid out, stood up, and nursed like they’re supposed to. The final triplet lamb lay shivering while his dam cleaned up the other two. Experience told me that she most likely had rejected him. But one bottle baby, I told myself, is still better than last year, when we had a spate of tangled triplets and twins whose rib cages were too big to pass the birth canal.

Last year, I set up for success, but I arrived again and again to disaster: a ewe in obvious distress, laboring with nothing to show for it. Which meant I literally lent a hand to find out what was wrong. The first time, I had my bluetooth in, my phone in my pocket, my (gloved and lubed) hand in the ewe, and the vet in my ear talking me through the procedure. The lamb’s legs were bent back so only the head had found its way out. How hard do I push to get the head back in? “Just shove it!” said the vet.

I shoved the head back in as instructed and then my vet told me to find the legs. Blindly, I felt all around the little body to no avail. “I’m pretty sure this lamb is legless. It’s a sausage,” I said. (I should mention at this point that I have the nicest and most patient vet in the world.)

“No, follow along the shoulder and down, cup your hand around the foot and pull it forward.” Miraculously, I felt a little hoof in my hand. I pulled it forward and the vet said to find the other one. After more feeling around, I was convinced the lamb only had that one leg. Tired of waiting, the ewe pushed and popped out the head and leg. I gave up and pulled out the whole mess. Incredibly, the little beast had all four legs and even managed to stand on them.

Too many feet coming at once, two heads, or a head and no legs. I pulled seven lambs last year – I’m now a veritable expert. Although the vet said that triplets and difficult births were the norm that season – must have been something in the winter grass – I’d used a new ram and think it might have been a bad match for my ewes. Babes just genetically too big for their mamas to birth. I didn’t use that ram again and this year’s lambing has gone really smoothly.

Sometimes, it just goes right. So many easy births and happy babes have allowed me to relax and enjoy taking cute lamb pics. With nothing to complain about, I remember why I do this job in the first place.

 

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.