Agriculture: Intestinal Fortitude

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It has been a tough couple of weeks. Four days of post-vaccination malaise, followed by a routine maintenance visit for my car that became a $1600 bill, in turn followed by juggling writing of a trial brief in my law practice with the annual farm “Lambalanche”. That’s the term I coined to describe the avalanche of births that generally starts 152 days after I end the summertime separation of the rams and the ewes.

The legal brief which occupied almost all my waking hours involved the mind-numbing task of showing that an insurance company had illegitimately switched billing codes to reduce payment for a medical service. It required endless parsing of the history of arcane Medicare regulations, in a fight over a relatively modest amount of money. Knowing that even victory would be unlikely to be worth the time, the whole project depressed me. But there was an upside. The more I focused on it, the more it pushed aside a disturbing image from the Lambalanche.

Last Sunday I arrived at the barn to find a two year old ewe with a lovely set of twin lambs, all cleaned off and up and nursing, just as I would have wanted to find them. But I also heard unusually ungodly moans from another ewe of the same age, in another corner of the barn, of a sort I had never heard before. She was lying on her side, one leg wide up in the air, clearly straining to push out a lamb. I had seen a number of lamb births before. A couple of them where I came in at literally the “tail end” seemed like effortless 15 minute affairs in which a ewe pushed from a standing position and made not a single noise as the lamb wriggled out. Labor does often involve periods of lying down and pushing, but in the ones I’ve seen they have been generally in a slightly angled “sternal” position, with front haunches upright. This ewe, in contrast, was almost on her back, and didn’t seem to alternate positions at all. Her cries seemed incredibly pained.

Sad Package: The Lamb Returns for Burial Photo by Mark Scherzer

Karakuls are known to be self reliant and in the nearly 20 years we’ve had them only three or four times have they needed birth assistance. It felt like this one was going badly, however. I called and texted my usual local vet, Elaine Tucker, and a large animal vet from farther afield, Isaac Angell, but neither was immediately available. A bit more than a half hour later, the ewe had made virtually no progress, the birth sac had only slightly emerged, and her cries continued. I was reluctant to reach inside, but once I could see the lamb’s feet coming out, the normal position for birth, I figured I would not risk too much if I assisted by pulling the lamb out by its feet. I did so. It was a very large lamb (perhaps the reason the birth was so hard). The ewe proceeded to clean her off and I thought “problem resolved”.

The ewe was also carrying a twin, and the second birth was far quicker and easier, all accomplished by the ewe herself. The next lamb, considerably smaller, was wriggling vigorously in the birth sac and I liked the sign of vitality. The mom, however, was not doing such a thorough job of licking the birth fluids off the second one. I put the mom and twins in a pen, thinking maybe they just needed time alone without my presence upsetting things, and decided to check back in an hour or two. Often that’s enough to get the regular ewe-lamb bonding process solidly under way.

When I returned, the first lamb seemed to be nursing and doing fine, but the second was barely cleaned off at all. I got some iodine in which to dip the umbilical cords of all the day’s new lambs, and a towel to clean off the second lamb, turning it over as I do all of them to check on the sex. And then I saw it — not the testicles or nipples I was looking for, but the Spaldeen-sized mass of its bright red intestinal tract which had grown outside of its body rather than within. An image which still returns to me at various points throughout the day.

By then I had heard back from Elaine, who was out of town. I took a picture and texted it to her. I think you can conjure up this intestinal mass in your imagination without my providing the photo. Once I saw the mass I was amazed that this adorable lamb could stand up and try to nurse as it had, but I was not surprised to hear Elaine tell me that it could never survive. Nor was I surprised that the ewe had not bothered to continue cleaning it off, perhaps instinctively sensing the hopelessness of the situation.

Elaine gave me the name of another sheep and goat vet nearby, Gillian Ferguson, who turned out to be a compassionate treasure, and much of the rest of the afternoon was occupied with bringing this lamb to her to euthanize, and then burying it. Perhaps this will explain how prone I was to a morose state all week, and how even the study of CPT Code 90899 could seem something of a diversion and relief.

It would be nice to offer an original take on the enduring theme of how “Farming is not for the faint of heart.” I googled this phrase and came up with over 302,000 entries, all of the leading ones linked to farm blogs not unlike this one with similar tales or worse. We deal with life and death; the death part sucks. I’m afraid there is no new insight to be had.

Luckily, there have been twelve other lambs born so far this season and I’m not sure we’re even half way through the Lambalanche. Yesterday there were two new ewelings, one quite tiny (Eric decreed: “She shall be called Tinnity”). Today a ramling. A kindergarten play group of sorts has already formed. There are new alternative images to push out of one’s mind that awful red ball.
sad package

WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK

Cheese pumpkins, $1/lb

EGGS: production has doubled, feel free to order, $5/doz

MEATS:

CHICKENS: They were quite uniform in size, all just around 6 lbs, a few under. We’ve already had one and the freedom rangers have been what you want them to be, deeply flavorful. They are now frozen. $6/lb. Separately, bags of chicken livers, also $6/lb.

FARM PICKUPS:

Email us your order at farm@turkanafarms.com, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.



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