Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fiddlehead, the bottle lamb

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.


  1. Bottle lambs humph! Right up there with goats eh Bill! LOL
    Still, I dont need anyone else to guilt me into that, I do a good enough job of it all on my own! Im dying to know though, where did the name Fiddlehead come from?

  2. At the risk of annoying your curmudgeonly instincts.... Awwww.

    But your point is well-taken. I know that bottle lambs are costly and genreally not worth it to a commercial sheep operation. (This is doubtless why you could get them for $0 to $5 at the local sheep ranches where I grew up.)

    OTOH.... you are, as you point out, a shepherd. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, in service of that. It might not be financially gainful.... but maybe there's a different payoff in that. Hope so, anyway.

    BTW, well-written and interesting blog! :)

  3. akdd,

    I have actually struggled with this question: does the better shepherd really take his attention away from the many to save the one?

    I have yet to come to the point where I truly felt that a bottle lamb (or a pen of them when we were lambing out 450 ewes in the winter in a shed) was interfering with the proper care of the rest of the flock, so I have not yet crossed that bridge.

    This spring, when I was still limited to some extent by the fact that I had a heart attack three weeks before lambing started, I was very fortunate that there was a couple looking for bottle lambs to raise. I had two, and they took them both. If those folks had not been there, I might have had to face the question.

    In Fiddlehead's case, she was just a string of exceptions. For a lamb that small to be born alive is an exception. For me to have found her before she died is an exception (this is pasture lambing; ewes are checked several times a day, but are not constantly supervised). For her to have had the strength to survive the first couple of weeks without getting pneumonia or simply failing to thrive is an exception.

    Had it not been for that well-timed bleat, everything about her told me that this was a lamb that was going to die. The only question was whether I let her do it on her own or gave mother nature a little push.

    Truth be told, I probably would have behaved the same without the audience. Dammit.

    Hi Darci,

    Fiddlehead was named by the children of a good friend. Her name comes from the fact that she was born at the end of fiddlehead fern season -- one of the earliest spring greens here in New Hampshire.

    And no, bottle lambs are still, at least in some senses of the word, sheep. So they do rank above goats.

  4. Yes, I believe there's a reason many bottle lambs are called "bummer" lambs.

    I had a situation earlier this year where a broody hen hatched out a handful of chicks and left the nest. It was so hot here though that a couple of days later, one of the unhatched eggs hatched. Clearly there was something "not right" about the chick, and it had a very large (relatively speaking) comb, making me think it was a rooster chick. Rooster chicks are worthless around here. I have a hard time killing the buggers to eat, and all roosters do is eat, make noise, and harass the hens, who actually contribute to our income via eggs.

    So what to do with the chick? I didn't really want him to live because I knew he would most likely just be a problem down the road. But I couldn't look at this peeping fluff ball and just walk away, letting him die. The cuteness! It hurts!

    So, I took him into our kidding area (yes, I am one of those dreaded goat people), put him under a warm light after hydrating him with a water dropper, and set food and water in front of him. He couldn't stand on his feet well, but I propped him up the best I could, and told him that the deal was, I had done what I could for the evening, and if he made it through the night, I would continue to care for him.

    He didn't, so I didn't have to. But it was a dilemma to even start. A few years ago, I would have done all I could to keep him alive...I just don't have the time any more.

    I am starting to feel the same way about our baby bucks as you do about bottle lambs. Most bucklings get castrated and sold as wethers, but they are too small to go for meat, and the pet market has just collapsed around here. Keeping them around with the hope that a buyer comes along costs me feed, supplements, vaccinations, and antibiotics if they get sick. With the way livestock feed shot up in price around here, I am looking at losing money on every one of the buggers, not to mention that if one of them gets sick, the rest of the pen is likely to catch it as well. Bleah.

  5. I've raised a few bottle lambs before. Now I have a new one not by choice. The ewe has to be on medication that the vet said would kill the lamb so I had to take him off her and she was trying so hard to be a good momma. I feel bad for her because unlike my bottle lambs of the past where the momma didn't want them this momma really does want her lamb but can't have him. I normally don't even lamb this time of the year but she was already bred when I bought her so I am with a new bottle lamb.