liset's big scare
I woke up this morning excited about a lot of things. I had an order of chicks to pick up at the post office, and there are few cuter mail-order items than baby chicks. I was excited for the workshop this weekend. I sang to the Swedish Flower hen like I was a Muppet Chef while dumping out the laundry into a basket. I had a pot of strong coffee started, the wood stove lit, the brooder lamp had been chugging all night. Damn, things were looking good. I called the post office to make sure my animals were ready. The truck was warm and started like a normal vehicle. The sun was coming up over the ridge line, and the whole house smelled like coffee so dark you could eat it with a spoon. Heaven. All I had left to do before I got my basket-o-chicks was to feed the sheep before I left the farm.
As I was doling out the morning's hay ration I noticed Liset (number 20-06) stumble and walk oddly down the hill. My first thought was hoof needs to be trimmed. I'll check it right after I get back from the P.O. but then I watched her stare blankly at me. Within moments she was standing away from the flock chewing her upper plate in her mouth. She wasn't eating much at all.
This was bad. This was really bad.
I went through the flip-file in my head of sheep diseases. Listeria? No, she'd be circling...Rabies? No drool or twitching. Worms? No, she'd be eating like crazy.... Liset just seemed drunk. Wobbly. Like a waif in some Victorian play about to collapse on her fainting couch.
I ran inside to my lambing supply basket where my neighbor Shellee's number was located on a pink post-it note. Shellee was a large-animal Vet. She knew more about sheep than anyone on this mountain and happened to live a quarter mile away. I called, explained what I saw, and asked her she could come over? She had another appointment but said she'd come by later. Her instinct though was Ketosis; a late-pregnancy disease in sheep. It's a situation where the lambs are literally sucking the life out of her. She said she'd meet me in the farm in moments and bring up some Glycol and an oral syringe. We'd talk more in person.
I stood outside by my running truck and hung up my cell phone. I was no longer thinking about chickens.
I was so worried. These sheep were pined for—a dream come true. They took an entire summer to pay off. I had hauled and stored their hay, carried water, built them a shed and then spent frozen nights removing snow from it. I had studied. I had gone to sheepdog trials, workshops, and everything else I could think to do. What I didn't have was experience. I had no idea what a Ketotic ewe looked like. All I knew was something wasn't right so I called someone who could help. I know that much.
Shellee showed up a little later that morning as I was setting up the chicks in the brooder. She was standing at my front door with a jam jar of Glycol and this plastic-tube device and explained she'd be back later to check on her properly and run a urine test. I didn't ask her the one question on my mind. How do you want me to collect sheep urine?
I had taken the morning off from the office, and was grateful I had. Cathy Daughton was coming over with her boys to get their 15 Silver-Laced Wyandottes. I knew her boy Holden (a teenager) could help me doctor 20-06. When they arrived we set about the business of checking on the brooder and I explained the day's second small crisis. 25% of the birds died in transit or were failing fast. This was because (I think) of bad weather that delayed my order a full day). We did our best to help bring back any chicks that were fighters (and did manage to save a few) and caught up on farm talk. When the birds were as well enough as we could get them, Holden and I went outside to tend to little Liset.
There was a time in my life when walking straight up to a hundred-pound horned animal and flipping it onto its back would have been an impossible to even consider. Not today. In my Polyface sweatshirt (a barter for wool from Wendy down in Swope), my beaten-up Carharrt vest with hoof-trimmers in pocket, Muck boots, and dirty jeans I walked right into the fray and grabbed her by the horns. Shepherds (old or new) are tough stock. Soon she was on her back Holden filled the syringe and handed it over to me so I could slowly inject the energy into her throat. She didn't flinch. She was such a good girl. Holden was an amazing help.
I trimmed her hooves (she was on her back, why the hell not) and offered her more hay. She needed to bulk-up before lambing. This Ketosis is a carb-deficiancy disease. The same disease that human beings can waste away from if their body and brains don't get enough carbohydrate energy. In fact, you force your body into Ketosis to burn fat because the lack of carbs makes your body think it is starving. It's not a good thing, people. Eat bread.
Anyway, I had to head back to the office in about an hour. I debated just calling in the day to be here and keep an eye on the failing birds and the sheep but I had to go in. The office is what keeps the hay, vets, and chickens here in the first place. Also, the vet wouldn't be able to come back till after five anyway. I left the farm worried and confused, but content I was doing everything I could. I'd save my call-in days for lambing.
Work went by fast. I had completed most of my tasks on Monday in anticipation of today's morning off and so I scuttled through spreadsheets and emails. Soon as five clicked I was back on the road. Shellee had called to say she was coming back to the farm for a urine test at 4:30 and I could meet her for a diagnose when I got home. (By the way, if you turn a sheep on its back and hold its nostrils shut it pees. Fun fact for your evening read...) When I pulled back into my driveway I saw the vet-truck there and Shellee and her helper, Billy. They did the test and it turned out positive. My heart pounded. Liset was in the beginning stages of Ketosis and it could kill her if untreated. I asked Shellee what to do?
The remedy would be energy. Get the girl on more hay, twice-a-day Glycol down the throat, and start her on grain early. She would most likely recover, but this hit could mean her ability to produce milk is all but shot. Her lambs might be destined to be bottle feeders. Billy—a long-time sheep and goat keeper—said she would be fine and lambing would be fine too. My own opinion was too raw to decide either way. This morning when I woke up I thought all was well with my sheep's world. I chose to lean towards caution and do everything the Doc says and hope for the best. Tomorrow morning I'll have a date with the Glycol syringe and a skinny sheep. She might hate me for the drugs, but I'll buy back her love with Coarse-14 grain. I'll do what I can.
Now it's after 8 and things are calming down. The house sounds like a weeknight house; dryer tumbling, dogs eating kibble, computer keyboard tapping away. The remaining chicks are healthy and I'll pad the order with more Rhode Island Reds coming into Tractor Supply tomorrow. I think if I call the hatchery I might even get a refund? Right now though, I think I'll take a long hot shower, make some hot tea, and call it a night. I had a long day and another one of sheep-flipping and spreadsheets waiting for me tomorrow. I love this farm, but occasionally love is friggin' exhausting.
I promise my next post will feature adorable chicks.
FYI PDF on Ketosis in Sheep and how to treat it.