Too Hard to Talk About

July 31, 2018

We've had a rough year. Some simple mistakes, bad luck, and bad decisions have paved the way for some serious losses on the farm. But still, I persist.


The toughest one for me to talk about was three pregnant ewes that we lost. And how surprised I was at how I felt about it.


The simple truth is it was a lack of communication. Someone unlatched a grain bin. Someone else let the sheep into the yard where the grain bins are located. The grain bin had not been re-latched or checked prior to letting the sheep out. Someone came home from work to a literal ton of grain on the ground. After shooing the ship back in their barn area, and shoveling up what was left of the grain (sorry to the customer who came to pick up ducklings in that moment, I was not a happy camper), I had no idea how much they had eaten or for how long they had access.


I knew the risk was bloat from eating too much grain, or copper toxicity from the added copper in chicken feed. I know how to treat bloat, if I see it, but had no way to treat the entire crew. And there is nothing you can do for copper toxicity.


At that moment, no one had signs of bloat, no one seemed lethargic, my heart was hoping I had caught them in the act and no harm would be done.


When I checked on everyone that night, all was well. The next morning, all seemed fine. No one had passed in the night, so I thought we were good to go.


But I came home to a dead ewe. Please don't be harsh on this next part. We knew why she died, but didn't know how long. We couldn't eat her, but instead of burying her in the ground for the worms, we decided to feed her to the pups. So we skinned her, and quartered her. Which is how we discovered she was very pregnant. With twins. We buried the babies, and let the dogs have the nourishment from her.


 The next day, another ewe was down, labored breathing, foaming at the mouth and clearly in distress. And the steer was giving her a hard time. I set Hercules out to guard her, while I called the vet. Hoping for a miracle.


Betty on her Birthday


He came, and treated her for a myriad of things, none of which would assist with copper toxicity. This was Betty, my best ewe. She was very pregnant, and has a history of giving twins. I knew my heart would break to lose her, and I knew I was already stressed seeing her in pain. She could not walk, and with Larry's bad back, we had to lift her onto a wagon to get her back in the barn, and away from the steer. She lasted the night with some minor improvements. She was alert, and seemed moderately interested in food. A few hours later, she was dead in her stall. With all the meds we gave her, she was not fit for food, and the boys already had 100 pounds of mutton in the back yard, we didn't want to add to that. We did not determine the number of lambs, but based on her size, and the size of her udder, she was close to lambing, and I would bet twins.


Betty with a set of her twins



A week went by, and no other symptoms. And then Angel couldn't walk.  I set her up in the barn, did everything for her that the vet did for Betty. In that week, I researched copper toxicity and found that only Molybdenum can help - it binds to copper and helps flush it from the body. I couldn't not find this anywhere. I did find a company in Illinois that adds moly to their salt mix, and at $75 a bag, plus triple that for shipping, I didn't order it.  So when Angel went down, I kept researching, and I found a human moly supplement - and it existed at a local vitamin shop. So I bought some, crushed up a pill and mixed it with water and gave it to her. Possibly too late, but it was worth a try.


Angel as a lamb; our first all-white lamb!



I stayed with her for hours. Then the seizures started, I checked her temp. 107 degrees! We poured cold water on her, and packed her body with as many ice packs as I could find. Larry held one to the carotid artery in her neck, and I held one to her femoral artery in a back leg. We brought her temp down to 103, but she passed. Larry asked if we should cut out the lambs and try to save them - but if she was at 107, so were they. She likely would never recover from a temp that high without some damage, and those lambs would be the same. Angel was buried next to Betty.


Angel with a set of twins



And I spent 2 weeks not talking about it to anyone. Shannon would catch me if I took a handful of carrot greens out to the sheep and I would call for Angel to come eat them. Angel was not our best ewe, actually, due to her age and her performance, she was on my short list for replacement. But I never did it. I just LOVED her. I miss Juno, Betty and Angel, but losing Angel (and 6 unborn lambs) was really hard on me.


Angel and Betty were born on the farm. Betty was my only kept offspring from Laverne, who was amazing. Angel came from Jan, who was a decent but not spectacular sheep. Angel was special because she liked us. We could always pet her, call her name and she would answer, and she was ALWAYS talking. She had a bad overbite and was missing a few teeth, I kept thinking it would impact her health, but it never did. We named her Angel as she was the first all white lamb that was ever born on the farm, which is a rarity in our flock. But boy could Angel talk! She complained about not enough grain, she hollered with joy when the grain showed up, she squawked if we didn't open the barn door early enough, or baaed when she wanted a gate opened for her. But she always liked being petted. It's really quiet without her, and it's just strange.


When I intentionally cull a ewe, I get time to prepare. To give them treats, and say goodbye. I have a chance to love on them, and tell them thank you. These three just left. They were just gone. It's like a piece of the farm is missing. It sure is much more quiet.


We know that the stress of pregnancy impacted their ability to handle the copper toxicity. We also have had several ewes give birth since, so we think we are in the clear... for now. One ewe lost both her lambs, and she may have passed copper onto them. It builds in their liver until stress makes them release it to their blood stream, and at that point, there is no turning back.  The best we can do is supplement with moly, to help strip it before it builds to toxic levels.


And now the grain bins have fencing wrapped around their bases so that this NEVER happens again.  


And in the end, we have Alderaan, who was one of Juno's recent ewe lambs, Freyja has been with us for several years, and was one of Angel's ewe lambs, and Princess Leia just gave birth to happy and healthy Linden. Leia was one of Betty's ewe lambs. The cycle of life continues, it's just not always pretty when it comes to reap what it has sown.



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