Our little bottle lamb Zuko had to be put down a couple weekends ago. We took him off milk almost a month earlier and didn’t do additional monitoring and so took too long to catch his ongoing lack of weight gain. By the time we caught it, isolating and treating him for the accumulated parasite load and loss of muscle wasn’t enough for him to rebuild the lost muscle, so my husband gave him a painless death. It’s been hard to write this because it was so painful to lose that little guy to such a mistake on our part.
Good genetics are a bit double-edged. He took a long time to show signs of illness or poor health and he had an extremely strong will to live, something I had never seen in my experience of farm animals. Up until the very end he was still trying to eat and drink when he couldn’t move. We had a lot of household stuff going on around the time we took him off milk and by the time all that was dealt with, it had already been a couple weeks and when things became really obviously bad with him, it was instantaneous, which again I’d never seen with the livestock I was familiar with. My experiences with farm animals had always been that they showed poor health steadily and gradually and also just kind of gave up on living relatively quickly as well.
The basic lesson for us was that even if non-animal things are hectic, it’s still necessary to find a few minutes every week to check all the animals over. Also, I am pretty non-interventionist by nature, but with bottle lambs, you’ve already intervened, so you have to pay a little more attention to them anyway and not just treat them like the other lambs.
We’ve also had to reassess how bad our pasture is. We knew it was pretty bad, but the lambs are such efficient grazers that they have to be treated as adults after weaning, which we didn’t originally plan on. When we took Zuko off milk, the other lambs were also pretty weaned. They still try to nurse, but it’s obvious those udders aren’t letting much of anything down. So for us that means healthy, nursed lambs=adult sheep around 10-12 weeks. Weaning is a big milestone and we were cavalier in not considering it such with the other lambs too.
Post-Zuko, we went out and looked over the remaining 13 animals to see if there were any others lagging and it turns out Bart and Lisa, the two lambs from our second-biggest ewe Black and Tan, are starting to fall behind. And while Wingus, our grey ewe’s aggressive nurser is already slaughter-weight at 4 months, his runt brother Dingus could use a little help. Dingus was ahead of the younger lambs due to being born earlier, then stunted out, then started to recover, but since the pasture’s been decimated and we’ve had to really step up the hay, he’ll need some extra monitoring too.
What we have cleared cannot support 13 adult Icelandic sheep, and even if the rest were cleared, we couldn’t support that many ewes and their lambs. So we’ll have to break up the sheep into grazing groups and talk to some of the neighbors with overgrown acreage next spring. It’s too late this year to do so. On the other hand, if we continue to see such vigorous lambs in later breeding seasons, we’ll have slaughter-ready lambs at 4-6mos as a norm. So hopefully we see that next spring.
Lisa is not in any major trouble, she favors wool production and that accounts for a fair amount of her fall-back, as her fleece is in excellent shape and noticeably better and longer than the other ewelambs’ fleeces. But she is a little smaller than she ought to be. Bart, though, doesn’t have a glossy long coat to explain his fall-back, and neither does Dingus, so those two we will definitely keep an eye on between now and slaughter time in the fall.
The adults are basically fine, the ewes have regained their conditioning and recovered from lambing and nursing, and the two rams are in good shape with good fleeces coming in. We are a few weeks behind on hoof trims, and should be caught up this week, and will probably do some vitamins in the next few days for the three lagging lambs, but they are lagging only a little and if they are parasite-heavy, we’ve caught it a lot sooner than with poor Zuko.
The general 2-3 month age range where the lambs naturally would be getting weaned is a time to really keep an eye out, with special attention to bottle lambs. Because all the lambs transition to living on grass/hay and the occasional pellet snack differently and some will need a little helping hand of vitamins or wormer (or herbal equivalents).
We really didn’t understand that if you’re new to the animal, you almost have to put in time like they are pets until you really get to know the little signs that each kind of livestock has. We did buy well-bred animals from decent breeders, but that just means they take longer to show total collapse and have subtler signs of poor health.
This is pretty rambly, but in short, we need to keep better records and have scheduled checks of major life milestones for the flock(s) so we don’t face another Zuko situation again.