Here Come the Lambs!

Lambing season is finally underway here at the farm. Our first new arrivals came a week ago, which is a bit on the late side; in most years, the ewes begin delivering in March. Given how long the wintry weather has been lingering here, though, I don’t mind the delay. Our sheep may be cold-hardy Icelandics, but every newborn does better when it’s a little warmer out.

I’m especially happy that the deliveries have been spaced out. There have been years when upwards of five ewes have all delivered on the same day — and chaos ensues. Imagine eight or nine little lambs, all running around and getting mixed up with each other, while the mothers try to track down and somehow bond with their own offspring. (My only real complaint about our barn is that we can’t separate the animals into individual stalls. Being able to do so would be a huge stress reliever at lambing time.)

As of yesterday afternoon, we’ve now had three ewes deliver a total of five lambs. Thankfully, all five are doing great.

One of our black polled ewes (no, we never got around to naming her or the one who looks virtually identical to her) kicked things off sometime late Tuesday night (April 3rd) or early Wednesday morning, with a beautiful set of twins. By chore time on Wednesday morning, she’d licked both of them dry.  Here they are, a few days later. The one on the left is a female; the one on the right is a solid moorit male. He’s gorgeous. Assuming he stays healthy, and his horns come in nice and wide, I think we already have a buyer who wants him as a breeder.

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Over the weekend, Fletcherbelle (see this post for the story of her name) gave birth to a mixed-gender set of twins of her own. It appears the solid black female will be polled; her brother will have horns. She had them up on their feet in no time, and busy getting their first meal.

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We’ve been making a point of going out to the barn several times a day, to keep abreast of any new deliveries. That vigilance paid off yesterday. Around lunchtime, I asked the 15 year old to do a check. He returned, and reported that our very oldest ewe, Pachelbelle, was right then in the process of giving birth. This was important news, because it’s the older ones who tend to have the most trouble; their uterine muscles can weaken to the point where they can’t push the lamb all the way out without some help. (Otherwise, our Icelandic sheep have had very few complications with deliveries — it’s one of the aspects of the breed that we most appreciate.)

I hurried to the sheep pen. Pachelbelle was lying alone in a corner, with a small black lamb head protruding from her backside. The lamb’s presentation looked generally correct, because a foot was sticking out alongside the head. And it moved its eyes enough for me to tell it was still alive.  However, at eleven years of age, poor Pachelbelle seemed in no hurry to start pushing again. Her eyes told me, “I’m getting too old for this.”

No problem. I gently inserted my hands into the birth canal, felt around for a secure hold, carefully drew the lamb the rest of the way out, and set him on the straw bedding.

This is the part when the ewe typically jumps up, turns around, and inspects the slimy wet bundle that she’s just delivered. But Pachelbelle was having none of it.

I made a quick decision: if she won’t go to the lamb, then the lamb needs to come to her. I picked the lamb back up, ran a finger through his mouth to ensure it was clear, and deposited him in front of his mother. She sniffed a couple of times, and then went right to work licking him off. He even began struggling to get to his feet – another excellent sign.

Wanting to give Pachelbelle a little more help, I jogged to the house and retrieved an old bath towel. Back at the barn, I gathered up the lamb, wrapped him in the towel, and spent a minute or two removing as much slime as possible. Once back in front of his mother, she again went to work licking him the rest of the way dry.

Sometime after lunch, I made a quick check on the pair. The lamb was on his feet and getting around (big relief), and so was Pachelbelle (even bigger relief). I was also relieved that she’d only had one lamb; at her age, twins or triplets would’ve been taken an awful lot out of her. Pachelbelle 04.10.18.jpg

I pulled the remaining afterbirth from her backside, and milked a couple of squirts of colostrum from each teat (to ensure everything was clear). I also massaged her udder a bit, confirming she was going to have plenty of milk for the lamb.

It’s a bit poignant, watching her do this for what will almost certainly be the last time. We’ve had terrible luck trying to over-winter sheep that get to age eleven, and have more or less resolved to butcher (in the fall) any that reach that age. This last winter was tough on her, even with exempting her from last fall’s shearing so she could keep her warm fleece. I really don’t want to put her through another Michigan winter.

What makes the decision more difficult is that Pachelbelle is the very last surviving animal who made the move with us from Illinois in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels.” (She was about eight months old at the time.) When she goes, the books won’t just be closing on her life. The books will be closing on a whole chapter of our life.

Fortunately, the fall is still many months off. Lambing is just getting started, and we’re grateful that Pachelbelle has blessed us with another little one. I know we’re going to enjoy watching her raise him this summer, with much gratitude for all eleven years of her life.

 

Nobel Prize for Farming

No, they don’t award a Nobel Prize for farming. Not yet, anyway. But when I heard the winner of another Nobel announced on the radio this morning, it reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to post.

Last year, a professor at my alma mater won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. When I was on campus last October for my 25th reunion, the school had hung banners trumpeting the big news. Then, during a break in the football game on that Saturday, they made a special announcement and presentation honoring the professor. It was really cool, particularly when the stadium cheered as loudly as it would for a clutch touchdown.

Earlier this spring, our alumni magazine published a lengthy feature article about the professor, J. Fraser Stoddart. I didn’t understand much of the technical aspects of his contributions to the field, but still found them fascinating.

What particularly jumped out for me, though, were the details about his life, growing up on a farm in post-WWII Scotland. Please forgive the length excerpt; I’m pasting it all (with some emphasis added), because it’s definitely worth reading in full:

Stoddart’s father caught the farming bug as a child, and after graduating from college in Glasgow, he became the manager of two farms owned by the University of Edinburgh.

Six months after Fraser was born in 1942, his parents decided to take on the tenancy of a 365-acre farm on the Rosebery Estate in Midlothian, about 12 miles south of Edinburgh.

As an only child, Stoddart helped his parents with chores from before sunup to well after sundown. There were dairy cows, cattle, “sheep of all different complexions” and hundreds of free-range chickens to care for. The family also grew everything from root crops to grain. And Stoddart was solely responsible for the fruit and vegetable garden.

With the arrival of the tractor and the car on the farm, he soon learned to take the simple and inefficient engines apart and put them back together.

“I had that wonderful time to watch a very big and fast change in technology up close,” says Stoddart. “So in literally 20 years we went from a horse-and-cart situation to combine harvesters with everything in between.

“The farm was very important to my training because it was multitasking on quite a large scale, particularly at high points of the year, such as March, when we were lambing, or in August and September, when we were bringing in the grain crops.”

In a letter to his daughter Fiona (excerpted below), Stoddart wrote of the significance of growing up on the farm and how it taught him discipline, resilience, resourcefulness and the nurturing of creatures great and small:

“I was present at lambings and calvings from quite a young age and was soon helping by myself to aid and abet the entry of lambs and calves into the world, particularly when it became a matter of life or death and the available work force was stretched to its limits and often close to exhaustion if the weather, as was often the case in that part of the world, decided to have its worst possible say. Wet snow was a killer, and very often newborn lambs had to be brought ’round from death’s door in the bottom oven of the Rayburn cooker in the farmhouse kitchen, while being fed hot cow’s milk laced with whisky! More often than not the lambs that survived this near-death experience were rejected by their mothers, and so the army of pet lambs that had to be fed by hand from bottles of milk four times a day grew to debilitating proportions. 

“During my professional lifetime as an academic, teaching and doing scientific research in eight universities on three different continents, I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that I learnt a lot more during my first 25 years on the farm than I have at all the universities combined over the past 52 years.

“Indeed, any modest successes I have reaped thereafter can be traced back to the University of Life in the Lothians of Scotland in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s as the country recovered gradually, under rationing in the beginning, from the devastation wrought by the Second World War.”

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The tenant farmhouse where Fraser Stoddart grew up, on the Rosebery Estate in the council area of Midlothian, Scotland.

We’ve found Professor Stoddart’s words to be as true for us today as they were for his own life. A farm is a wonderful first school, and an incomparable one, for coming of age.

Important lessons come not just from the hard work, or the discipline of having to get up early for chores. Or learning that death is an entirely normal part of the cycle of life.

Among the biggest lessons is that on a farm, there are some tasks that simply cannot be put off and must be done now. If rain is threatening, the hay must be brought into the barn. Doesn’t matter how hot the weather, or how heavy those bales are. Goats must be milked twice a day. Period. Somebody has to do it. It doesn’t matter how late the family got home from celebrating Christmas, or from that dinner at a friend’s place. Those goats cannot wait for the morning. The shivering little goat kid, or lamb, that the mother isn’t attending to (or that is having a tough time for some other reason) must be brought inside and warmed up. And fed, somehow. Now. And those other “bummer” lambs and goat kids? They must be fed a certain number of times per day, too.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the two oldest Yeoman Farm Children are now carrying these lessons over to college. Neither of them hesitates about putting in whatever hours are needed for study, and both are proving extremely diligent about getting their projects finished ahead of the deadlines — while continuing to pitch in a great deal here at home.

I don’t have any expectations of the Yeoman Farm Children growing up and winning Nobel prizes, but I am confident that no matter what the five of them do with their lives … they will be more successful at it for having grown up on a farm.

 

Passages

Spring is always a time of new beginnings on the farm, and that’s certainly been true this year. In early March, before Spring even officially got here, we had over a dozen goat kids born. It’d actually been a long drought; the kids were way overdue. We woke up the morning of March 6th, still with zero kids. By the evening of March 7th, we had SEVEN. Two sets of twins, and our first-ever set of triplets. Over the course of the next week, the rest of our goats delivered. They ended on the evening of March 13th, with another set of triplets. Here they were, trying to warm up in my office, the morning of March 14th:

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One of the males was very strong and went right back out to his mother. The female unfortunately had been born in very poor shape, and she didn’t make it past the first day. The other male was in-between; he was in poor shape, but just strong enough to pull himself to his feet, stand, and take a few steps at a time. He stayed in my office for several days, hanging out with the dogs. I actually grew adept at bottle-feeding him at my desk, while checking email. (The Yeoman Farm Children were bottle-feeding a couple of others, out in the barn.)

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To say we had our hands full was an understatement. We certainly didn’t need a dozen goat kids; what we really wanted was the milk, and a few females to keep as replacement milkers. One of our goats in particular, Button, was getting really old (she was our last surviving goat to have made the move from Illinois nine years ago), and had been looking especially worn out after this most recent kidding.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer got in contact with the woman who serves as the goat coordinator for our county’s 4-H program, to see if they had any interest in our males. (The Yeoman Farm Children themselves haven’t participated in 4-H; we think it’s a fine organization, but we’ve simply had too many other things going on.) The goat coordinator was delighted and relieved to hear from us. As it turns out, they’d been unable to get kids this year from the large goat producer who usually supplies them. With the weird weather last fall, it seems everyone’s goats had gone into heat late. That meant kids were late this year. She had a long list of 4-H children who were wanting goat kids to raise; MYF’s call had come just in time.

All our goat kids are mixed dairy breeds, which is fine for our purposes, but it means the males don’t get especially large – and they’re not especially valuable as breeders. So, we let seven of the males go for ten bucks each. We gave away the frail one for free. And we even threw in what was left of the milk replacer that we’d bought.

All told, financially, we barely broke even (the 22# bag of milk replacer alone cost over $50) — but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted those bucklings gone, and we wanted to help out some local children. Above all, we wanted the milk. And are we ever getting milk: at least six quarts at each milking. That’s twelve or thirteen quarts a day. (Yes, that’s more than three gallons.)

Our eldest daughter, who’s taking a year off after graduating a year early from high school, has basically turned the kitchen into a cheese factory. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been assisting, especially with the hard cheeses; her press has been running more or less non-stop.

As if that weren’t enough, March decided to truly go out as a lamb: on the very last day of the month, we had our very first ones of the year born. FletcherBelle delivered a healthy set of twins (a male and a female), and has been doing an excellent job raising them.

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We had another set of twins born two days ago; in fact, they arrived while I was out in the barn taking care of early-morning chores. The female was very strong, and immediately thriving. The male was barely alive, and looked like he hadn’t fully developed in utero (his eyes, in particular, were badly deformed). I wrapped that one in a towel, took him to my office, and made him comfortable in a box near the furnace. I also held him in my lap from time to time. We knew he wasn’t going to make it, but got some satisfaction from knowing his few hours with us weren’t spent abandoned on the floor of the barn.

It hasn’t all been joy and rebirth. Life is a cycle, and we’ve had some sad reminders of it lately (much sadder than the loss of a couple of newborns). A week ago Sunday (March 26th), we lost our very oldest animal, a sheep named Conundrum. She was nearly thirteen years old, and the last couple of winters had been difficult for her. She hadn’t produced a lamb in a while. In recent weeks, she was getting more unsteady on her feet. We really should’ve butchered her last fall, but none of us had the heart to do it — she’d just been with us so long, and was such a fixture in the flock.

Conundrum had the distinction of being our first lamb born to a ewe that’d been born on our property. She arrived on a Saturday morning: April 17, 2004. I was in California, on a business trip, when I got the call from Mrs Yeoman Farmer. I remember being so happy, and so proud, I wanted to pass out cigars to my clients at our meeting. I can’t find any pictures of her as a lamb, but this was her as a yearling:

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And this was her in the Spring of 2014, at the age of ten, with the last two lambs she produced (she had a premature stillbirth the next year, and did not lamb last year).

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She’d been especially unsteady on Saturday, despite the extra attention we’d been giving her. I checked on the flock late Saturday, before going to bed, and she’d seemed alright. Then, when I came out the next morning, I found that she’d left us sometime overnight. Hauling her body out of the barn was terribly sad, but I was grateful she hadn’t lingered in pain. And I did give thanks for all that she’d provided us over her nearly thirteen years.

We closed out that week by losing Button, our oldest goat. As I mentioned above, she’d been tired – and having twins had taken a lot out of her. She was still nursing her female, and we weren’t taking any additional milk from her; our idea was to keep this female as Button’s replacement, and build her as strong as we could by letting her take as much milk as she wanted. Button had seemed to be holding her own, despite being tired, but sometime in the early hours of Saturday … she wasn’t able to keep going.

I found her when I came to do chores that morning, and quickly moved her body from the barn. Our eldest daughter was very fond of Button, and I knew she wouldn’t want to find her like this. She’d want to remember her the way she was, like in this photo from nearly seven years ago (note the lopsided horns – Button was always getting herself stuck in fences, so we trimmed the right horn back to make it easier to free her):

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Disposing of the bodies of dead animals on the farm is always a challenge. Digging graves for mature sheep and goats is tough without a backhoe, so we prefer to give them a “Viking Sendoff” (minus the boat). Early last week, one of the Yeoman Farm Children and I built a large pile of logs and tree branches, and placed Conundrum atop it to incinerate her remains. This past Saturday, we did the same for Button.

It’s a bit sad: we’re down to exactly two animals, both of them sheep, which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007. Soon there will be none. But that’s all part of the cycle of life on a farm, I suppose.

And it’s certainly something to contemplate as we bottle-feed Button’s beautiful little orphaned doe kid, and think ahead to when she’ll be producing kids — and milk — of her own.

Surprise Caboose

We’d thought lambing was done for the year. Most of them arrived in early to mid April, with one delivery in May. That’s usually about as long as lambing goes for us; any ewes who haven’t delivered by then, probably aren’t going to deliver at all. Icelandic ewes tend to come into heat in the Fall, not in the dead of winter.

Yesterday, we got a surprise. Pachelbelle, one of our older ewes (and one of the few remaining sheep that came with us on the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois) delivered a beautiful little ewe lamb.

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As you can see in the photos, the new lamb is very healthy and alert. She’s already following her mother out to pasture and back.

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Given the five month gestation period, Pachelbelle must’ve been bred the first week of January. What most likely happened is that she came into heat earlier, but was either (1) missed by one of the rams, because they were so preoccupied with breeding other members of the flock or (2) bred, but didn’t achieve a pregnancy, so came into heat again.

The absolute latest in the year we’ve had a  lamb born is August, when one of our very old ewes truly surprised us. In her case, extreme age seems to have thrown off her normal reproductive cycle; we thought she was past being able to lamb.

Our oldest current ewe, Conundrum, is now now the same age (twelve) as the one who made an August delivery a few years ago. Conundrum didn’t lamb this spring. So…who knows what surprises may still arrive this summer.

Lambing on a Sunday Morning

Blogging will be light this week, as I’m extremely busy with projects for work. Plus, we have our chicks coming tomorrow (and I still need to get the brooder set up for them). I wanted to post a quick update about the lambs, however.

First, the runty lamb is thriving in my office. She’s getting around great, and has become a sort of house pet in my office building. We’ve transitioned her to milk replacer, and she’s taking a good amount of it with each feeding. The 13-year-old boy has been put in charge of this job, and he’s mastering the technique well.

I’ve been waiting for nicer weather before we put the lamb back in the barn with all the rest. It’s just a little too cold, and I think she’s just a bit too small to hold her own in that increasingly crowded space. For now, this is the typical scene under my desk as I work:

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We had three new arrivals on Sunday. One of our younger gray ewes had a singleton, who is doing well:

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One of our more mature ewes had twins. She’d delivered one shortly before I came to check on the flock, and was dutifully licking it off. From what was hanging out of her rear end, and the way she would stop to paw the ground as she licked, I knew we had another twin incoming.

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While she did some initial pushing, she used her muzzle to draw the first lamb close and make sure he didn’t wander away. Note the hoof that’s visible in the amniotic sac. The hooves always come out with the head in a normal delivery.

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She continued laboring, and soon the little lamb’s head emerged. The whole time, she never stopped licking off that first lamb!

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Soon, the entire lamb was coming out…

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…and tumbled to the barn floor:

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Only then did she stand up, break her attention from Lamb #1, and begin cleaning the newborn.

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Both are male, both are horned, and both are thriving two days later. And why wouldn’t they thrive, with such a great mother sheep?

Pet Lamb

Monday evening, we had to make a tough call regarding the runty lamb born over the weekend. She was not making any move to nurse on her own, and was not taking a lot of milk each time we went out to feed her. Nasty cold weather was moving in, and the draftiness of the barn was beginning to take a toll. The lamb was expending so much energy just keeping herself warm, she’d never get to the size needed to thrive. Worse, she squeezed out of the separating pen and wandered off to various corners of the barn on more than one occasion.

I really didn’t want to move her out of the barn. That’s a last-resort option, especially for the lambs, because the mother ewes virtually never take a lamb back after it’s been gone for more than a few hours. That’s why I left her out there as long as I did. But by Monday evening, it was getting clear she’d likely die if we just left her there. And since she wasn’t nursing directly on her own, there wasn’t much of a “relationship” left to disrupt.

So, here she is, living in my office building.

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We got a large box, and lined it with an old towel. I got another old towel, and swaddle her with it for each feeding, in case she decides to pass something out her rear end while I’m holding her (it happens).

Getting her warmed up has definitely helped. She’s still not eating as much as I would like, but she’s taking anywhere from an ounce to two ounces at each feeding. Yesterday afternoon, she walked all around my office exploring it. She’s urinating and defecating, so something is definitely moving through her system.

Even so, she’s weak. She curls up and sleeps a lot. She’s not terribly steady on her feet. Her right front foot skews outward at an incorrect angle. Everything about her screams “cull,” and I suppose we’re silly for not finishing her off right now.

But I just can’t do it. It’s the Principle of the Thing. For whatever reason, we’ve been given stewardship over her. As long as she’s willing and able to take a bottle, I’ll give her one. We’ll cuddle her in our arms as we watch television. Bottom line: we’ll let this thing play out, and see where it goes.

If there’s any upshot to the situation, it’s that we’re getting to milk Cocoa Puff. We still have her in the separating pen, meaning we’re able to give her extra feed (including a little grain, to keep her milk production up.) Yesterday afternoon, Homeschooled Farm girl got a full quart out of her – with plenty left over for the healthy lamb. HFG is planning to make yogurt out of that quart of sheep milk, which is one of Mrs Yeoman Farmer’s favorite treats.

And, in the meantime, all three of the other lambs are thriving. I just kind of wish the rest of them would hurry up and get born!

Feeding Runty

I always hate leaving the property during lambing season; you never know what you’ll find when you come home. Still, you can’t simply suspend the rest of your life. So, after getting the flock as well-situated as we could yesterday morning, we went to my father-in-law’s house and enjoyed a nice Sunday afternoon visit and dinner. (Including a leg of lamb from last year’s flock, which we did up in the Crock Pot with potatoes from last year’s garden.)

As nice as the visit was, I was anxious to get home and check on the sheep. Last April, over the course of a 48-hour period early in the month, we had something like a dozen lambs born. It was pure chaos in the barn. If a deluge like that was coming, I wanted to be there to help manage it.

Fortunately, the lambs appear to be taking their time and spacing themselves out for now. None was born while we were gone. After getting hay for the sheep and goats, I climbed into the makeshift separating pen we’d built yesterday morning for Cocoa Puff and her twins. The larger twin seemed to be doing quite well. The smaller one was looking much worse. She was curled up in pretty much the same place where we’d left her in the morning. I picked her up, and she seemed very weak. I knew it was time to intervene.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I got a pan of warm, soapy water. I then used a towel to clean Cocoa Puff’s udder thoroughly. The warmth has the added effect of helping the udder relax and the milk to let down. I held Cocoa Puff securely, and HFG milked about two cups of colostrum into a bowl (leaving plenty in the udder for the larger lamb). After milking Cocoa Puff twice a day last year, HFG knew exactly how to do it. It was just like old times, and those two cups of colostrum came out in a flash.

I found one of the bottles and nipples that Little Miss Sweetness had used in the NICU as an infant, filled it with fresh colostrum, and sat down to feed Runty. My fear was that she would be too weak even to suckle. Fortunately, we’d gotten to her in time. As soon as the first drops reached her tongue, she went right at it. Within a couple of minutes, shIMG_20160404_111650265e’d taken all 2.5oz. I refilled the bottle, got her back on the nipple, and she took another half ounce or so.

Just to make sure that everything was going well with the other new arrivals, I offered the bottle to all three of the other lambs. I caught each one, sat down with it, and put the nipple into its mouth. None was the slightest bit interested. And that was a relief! Combined with how substantial each of the lambs felt, their disinterest in the bottle confirmed for me that they’d been getting plenty of milk from Mom.

Runty took another bottle before I went in for the night, and one this morning when I came out to do chores. (No lambs were born overnight, BTW.) I just checked on them again at 11:30, and gave her another bottle. She’s not really strong, but she did take 2oz. I’m definitely concerned about her small size, and not terribly optimistic about her long term prospects. But as long as she’s going to keep fighting, I’ll keep feeding her. For me, it’s a difficult emotional balancing act: I want to do everything I can for her, while not getting too attached. That’s tough to do sometimes, when you’re working so closely with a little creature.

While she was feeding, her twin sister nursed directly from Cocoa Puff. That was good to see. I put Runty down, and Cocoa Puff sniffed her all over. Then she did the same with the other lamb. This is a bonding ritual, and the primary way a mother sheep recognizes which lambs are hers. When she sniffs one that isn’t hers, or that she’s rejected, she typically head-butts it away. Cocoa Puff didn’t do that with either lamb, so that’s a good sign. If we can get Runty big enough and can teach her to nurse directly, that would be excellent — and, for her part, it’s looking like Cocoa Puff will take her back.

In the meantime, it’s looking like Runty is going to be a bottle baby. And that’s okay. Cocoa Puff is a very milky sheep, so this will mean a good bit of milk — and sheep cheese — for our family.