A Chilly Birth

D. E. Larsen, DVM

I stood looking out the living room window. The world was blanketed with six or eight inches of snow. This was unusual for Sweet Home. 

“Are you going to the office this morning?” Sandy asked. “Nobody has come down the road yet.”

“You need to call the girls and tell them not to worry about coming in early,” I said. “Maybe check about noon, and we will see what the snow is like then.”

“I don’t think you should plan to go to the office in this stuff,” Sandy said. “The county won’t get around to plowing this road until this afternoon or tomorrow. Last night’s news said it would be cold, down in the teens or the single digits today.”

“I have a dog in the clinic that needs to be taken care of, and I can forward to phone to the house so you can answer any calls,” I said. “Judy cleared the morning appointments before she went home last night. But with this snow and these temperatures, we are bound to get a call with a downer cow that is half frozen.”

“You shouldn’t be out on these roads until they are plowed,” Sandy said. “You won’t do anybody any good if you wind up in a ditch somewhere or worse.”

No sooner than those words were said, the telephone rang.

“Good morning, Doctor Larsen. This is Sue out on Berlin Road,” Sue said. “Our first ewe had a lamb sometime last night or this morning. She is doing okay, but the lamb is nearly frozen. This is a young ewe. I don’t think she knows what she is supposed to do. Can you come out and get a look at it?”

“I’m not sure I can get up your hill, Sue,” I said. “I guess I’ll put chains on the truck and try it. If I can’t make it, you need to get that lamb in under a heat lamp in the barn or in the house, dry it off, and warm it up. Then milk the ewe and get some milk into the lamb.”

“Bob is gone until tomorrow,” Sue said. “Maybe longer with this terrible weather. I can’t do those things, Doctor. That is why I am calling this morning. I don’t think we have a heat lamp, and I will not bring that lamb into my house.”

“Sue, I am not going risk my neck to try to save your lamb if you are not going to do your part,” I said. “If that lamb is not dried off and warmed up, it will die. So if I come out, you will end up with a lamb in front of your fireplace.”

“How long are you going to be, Doctor?” Sue asked. “I guess we will have a pet lamb for a little while this morning. At least the kids will be happy.”

“I have no idea what shape the roads are in, Sue,” I said. “My truck is in the garage, so I can put the chains on without laying in the snow. But our road is not plowed, and I doubt if have your road plowed either. I will get there as soon as I can, but I am sure it will take more than an hour. While waiting, you run a load of old towels or blankets in the dryer so they will be warm for the lamb.”

When I hung up the phone, I went to the kitchen and filled a thermos with coffee.

“You be careful out there,” Sandy said.

I pulled on my down vest and then my heavy jacket. 

“I’ll be alright,” I said. “I will give you a call when I get back to the clinic. I will stop there and forward the phone. Just take names and numbers, don’t make any promises. This will probably be a slow day. At least I can put the chains on in a dry garage.”

With chains and four-wheel drive, the truck thought it was driving on dry pavement. I stopped at the clinic, checked the dog, and forwarded the phone to Sandy at home. Then I headed out to Berlin Road. Sue’s place was up the hill from Pleasant Valley. It might be a challenge to get to today.

There were no tire tracts in the fresh snow. Things went well, I slipped a bit on the first corner going up Berlin Road, but otherwise, things were fine. Sue must have been watching for me because she was heading out to the barn as I pulled into her driveway.

I realized how cold it was when I stepped out of the warm truck. I filled my bucket with warm water and grabbed my bag before heading into the barn.

Sue had the ewe and lamb bedded down in a pile of straw just inside the door. The ewe seemed comfortable but concerned about her unresponsive lamb.

The lamb was very cold. His mouth was cold, and there was hardly a suck reflex when I stuck my finger in his mouth. The ewe had done a pretty good job drying him off, but the cold was more than he could handle.

“This guy is so cold, he could be too far gone to save,” I said. “I’m going to milk this ewe and get some milk into him, and then we will take him in the house to warm up.”

“Will the one feeding be all he needs?” Sue asked. “I’m not sure I can milk that ewe, and I am not going to town for milk replacer in this snow.”

The ewe was fine to milk, and I emptied both sides of her udder. Then I gave the lamb a good meal via a feeding tube.

“The plan is to get this guy warm enough to take a bottle,” I said. “There is enough milk here for two feedings. Hopefully, by then, you will be able to reunite the lamb with this ewe. I would leave the ewe right here.”

“I called Bob, and he is coming home this evening,” Sue said. “At least he will be able to care for things then.”

“This lamb will do much better if we can get him back with his mother,” I said. “But he has to be up and about and able to nurse. If he doesn’t nurse, you feed him with a bottle and leave him with mom as long as he can get up and around and keep warm.”

“Doctor, if I take this lamb in the house and he dies, what am I going to do with him?” Sue asked.

“What does Bob do with dead animals?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” Sue said. “This farm thing is his business. I’m a city girl, and this is more time I have spent in the barn than all of last year.”

“I don’t think this lamb will die if we get him warmed up in the house,” I said. “But if he does die, you call me first so I can have you check a couple of things to make sure he is dead, and then you can just set him outside for Bob to deal with when he gets home. The temperature outside is colder than your freezer right now.”

I picked up the lamb and handed Sue the bucket of milk from the ewe.

“Okay, I will help you get this guy settled in a warm spot in the house,” I said. “Did you warm up some towels or blankets?”

“Yes, the drier is running, and the kids have a spot ready in front of the wood stove,” Sue said.

The lamb was starting to stir a little when we got to the house. The feeding was doing its job. We balled him up in a pile of warm towels, and the fire in the wood stove was roaring.

“You kids can help by petting this lamb and rubbing him to help him warm up,” I said. “You want to keep the dryer going and keep warm towels around him.”

“I have a heating pad,” Sue said. “Would that be okay to use?”

“It would be better not to use a heating pad,” I said. “We see some horrific burns from those things, especially in animals who can’t move around much.”

“What am I supposed to do with this milk?” Sue asked. 

“I brought you a couple of lamb nipples,” I said. “You can use them on a Coke bottle. Just make sure you sterilize it first. I want you to feed this lamb four ounces every two or three hours. I think you will have three feedings. Hopefully, Bob will be home by then.”

“Can I call you if I have any questions?” Sue asked.

“Yes, you can call,” I said. “But you are not my only client. When people start getting up and around, I might not be immediately available to the phone. But someone will answer, and I will get back to you. Sue, you are going to be fine. Look at the kids. This lamb will be up and ready to get back to mom in no time.”

“When should we put him back in the barn?” Sue asked.

“You get at least two feedings into him,” I said. “And if he is eating vigorously, you can put him back with mom. If Bob is not too late, it would probably be better to wait until he can put him out there and make sure he can nurse on mom.”

“That’s a good idea,” Sue said.

I left feeling that the lamb had a good chance of survival, even with Sue’s reluctance to become a farm girl. I slipped a little on the same corner going down the hill. And there were still no tire tracks in the snow other than mine.

When Bob got home, he called to let me know the lamb was back with his mom and nursing well. 

“Do you think I should get a heat lamp for him tonight?” Bob asked.

“That might be a good idea,” I said. “Those things are good to have around when we get a cold snap like this.”

“I hope I don’t have any more lambs until it warms up a little,” Bob said. “How do these newborns survive in a country like Montana?”

“Some of them don’t,” I said. “They try to miss the severe weather and protect things as best they can. But if you drive through that country, you will see animals with short ears where they have lost their ear tips to frostbite. Sometimes the tails on cows will also be frozen.”

The lamb did well. The ewe took him back, and they enjoyed the straw bed in the barn. Bob had a couple more lambs before the weather returned to mild temperatures typical of western Oregon. And I don’t think Sue ever became the farm girl Bob hoped she would.

Photo by Carolina Schornsteiner on Pexels.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

One thought on “A Chilly Birth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: