Today I've read a couple of AKDD's posts about her experiences raising bottle lambs on her excellent blog, Vet on the Edge, and it put me in mind of some of my bottle lamb experiences. I should state from the outset, I hate bottle lambs. Hate them for many reasons. First and foremost, because they represent the failure of a ewe to mother her own lamb, which usually means either that I have failed in management or she has failed in mothering. The implication of this is that one or the other of us has broken our contract. Either I have been remiss in my shepherding, or she has let me down.
The economics of bottle lambs are horrifying. Lambing is, in many ways, the end of a cycle as well as the beginning. When a newborn lamb hits the ground, I have put all the time, effort, and expense of a winter's feeding into its mother with the expectation that she will produce a lamb or two (or occasionally three) to pay for all that keep, and perhaps, return a little profit to my enterprise. In my flock, the cost of production of a newborn lamb is about $70. Over the next six to 10 months, I will continue to spend money on it -- even if the mother is raising it -- in the form of labor, supplemental feed, veterinary supplies, wear and tear on my truck, etc., etc. By the time it is ready to go to market, I will have a total cost of production of about $100 to $105, and if I'm lucky I'll get paid $125 for him.
Add two bags of milk replacer -- about $90 -- to the normal cost of producing a market lamb, and I've gone from making $25 to losing $70. In other words, I have lost my margin on three other lambs just to pay for the rearing of that one. And that is to say nothing of the fact that caring for one orphan takes more time than tending to 50 lambs being reared by their dams. During lambing, my time is a precious resource. Bottle lambs take my attention and focus away from the lambing flock, which can precipitate more problems, or let little problems turn into larger ones.
So when I came across Fiddlehead for the first time an hour or so after her birth, I was only slightly upset that she was dead. Fiddlehead was a tiny lamb, one of two born to a 12-month-old ewe lamb. Most ewes that young only have a single lamb; few will have enough milk to raise two lambs even if they are both vigorous. At that age, the dam herself is still growing, so less of her energy can be directed to reproduction and lactation than when she is fully grown. Fiddlehead's twin was full-sized and vigorous, full of colostrum and raring to go. The dam was attentive to both lambs. She was pawing and nickering at the small, lifeless heap in front of her nose. I picked her up and held her up to my ear, and, lo and behold, there was the hint of a breath sound and, yes, a heartbeat. Damn.
Now when I say tiny, I mean it. This was a lamb that could fit in the palm of one of my hands and not drape over the edges. She tipped the scale at 2 pounds, one ounce. Thirty-three ounces. She had no chance of survival. A normal newborn lamb weighs four to five times that much. She was unable to stand. I told myself the humane thing to do was put her down. I was carrying her to my truck for just that purpose, when two ladies out for a walk and enjoying the pastoral scene spotted me and my dire cargo.
"Do you think it'll survive?" one of them asked hopefully.
"Not very likely," I replied.
Fiddlehead begged to differ. She lifted her limp head, summoned what little strength she had in her under-developed lungs and bleated loudly.
"Oh! How sweet!" came the chorus from the roadside.
"Damn." I thought to myself. "So much for the quick and painless death option." Sure, I could have just taken her off and done the grim deed out of their sight. But I am a shepherd. If a lamb -- however wretched -- wants to live that bad, I try to find a way to give it every chance.
It was 48 hours before Fiddlehead could stand. Three more days before she could suck on her own. I carried her around in my jacket or shirt pocket. But once she got her feet under her, she was as full of life and obnoxious as a only bottle lamb can be, following people around and butting dogs and cats that dared get in her way.
I lost a packet on her. She never grew well. Never amounted to much. I should be angry at myself for letting those ladies guilt-trip me into making a bad economic decision. Instead, I'm glad that they helped me stay a shepherd.
But I still hate bottle lambs.