The Not-So-Good Side of Raising Livestock

I've been fairly silent on this blog for a few months. Really for a multitude of reasons, but the main one is I have also had some major writer's block. I mean, how is what we do on the farm or with the meat business really that interesting? What's there to glean from our lives? Who knows... maybe this reaches people and gives them a little insight on the day-to-day. Maybe, but quite possibly its just skimmed and people move on. That's fine too.


But, I digress...


As with all businesses, no matter what kind, there is always risk. Risk that needs to be taken into account and mitigated as much as possible. In business or in normal life, we take out insurance policies. With livestock we try and keep the herds as healthy as possible. We team up with our local veterinarian and every fall we run our whole herd of Dexters through a squeeze chute. Each one: cows, calves, and bulls receive their yearly vaccinations to protect them from diseases. They are also dewormed. We are mitigating risk. Those potential diseases could cause major harm to our herd, so we protect against that. Viral and bacterial infections can run rampant, especially in growing calves, if they do not have the necessary protections.


So we protect the cattle against the known bugs that are around, but what about the sheep and goats? Once again, we protect from the known. Clostridium bacteria that cause things like tetanus are high on our list to vaccinate against. Clostridium tetani is everywhere in the environment and if you have ever witnessed an animal come down with it, you will never forget. If not caught in time and given an anti-toxin, the best course of action is to put the poor animal out of its misery.


So what about the unknown? The horrible unknown. It can be increasingly scary when you think about it. When it hits, its best to act quickly. Use your resources!


If you've been following along the last couple years you know my brother Andy and I have a flock of black-faced cross club type sheep. Its small at 18 or so ewes. Its been on an exponential growth curve since we started with them 2 years ago with a whopping 2ish years ago... we had 5 ewes then. I don't know if we're just a glutton for punishment or what. Having wool sheep isn't a walk in the park.

They require shearing, which if you know me I am 5'4" and my some of my ewes are a solid 200-250lbs. Manhandling them to shear is backbreaking work, but I am trying to keep costs down so I shear them myself. They are larger meaning they eat more and take up more space in the barn. Once again, I have small ponies for ewes... Not to mention they aren't always the brightest bulbs.

We ran two rams this year, just to give us some diversity. I purchased a new young ram last fall just before breeding season. It was an exciting time to bring in new bloodlines to move our flock forward. January came and the excitement of lambing season was brewing! It all came to a screeching halt when the "unknown" hit.

We had a 2yr old ewe, second lambing, abort her lambs. They were about 2 weeks shy of full gestation. I got the call on Thursday, January 7. I was out on a meat delivery and quickly changed my course to head to the farm instead. By the time I arrived, my mom had penned the ewe, and she had already pushed one lamb out. She was hardly dilated but was acting like she had another. When needing to act quickly, you just jump into action. I pushed up my coat sleeve and decided to reach in and check. Sure enough there was another but not positioned well for the ewe to have without assistance. I help her deliver the lamb, but it was too early. The little ewe lamb didn't make it. We cleaned up and kept the ewe penned so she could mourn and recover in peace. We didn't know what could have caused it, sometimes things happen.


Now, fast forward a few days...

  • Saturday evening- I start feeling kinda crummy. Slight fever, achy, tired. Figured I was over worked and over tired from doing chores all day out in the 15 degree weather.

  • Sunday- Head back to the farm. Still feeling slow and tired, but we were handling the farm while my parents were away. The fever persists and some stomach pain starts to set in. My mom starts to also have stomach pain and slight fever. They come home early.

  • Monday- High fever. Stomach pain. Mom is down for the count too.

  • Tuesday- I get another call while feeling half dead from my dad... another abortion. Also a 2 year old second time lambing ewe. Now we have a problem... now we had to battle the unknown.

  • My dad was trying to manage chores, Andy was working, Mom was in bed, so it was up to me to contact our vet. I call and they immediately send out one of our large animal vets, Dr. Jackie Ponstein. Obviously, I wasn't able to be there so I was on speaker phone to help answer questions. She pulled blood on the ewe and took the set of dead lambs with her for testing. We needed to get to the bottom of this fast. She told us we should know something by the end of the week. There was an abortion storm brewing

  • Wednesday- Still down for the count. Trying to keep hydrated but failing. Eating was basically out of the question. My 3yr old nurse tried her best to keep mommy comfy in the recliner. It was very painful to sit up and bend at the waist. Matt wasn't sure what was up. We slogged through another day of up and down fevers.

  • Thursday- Before Matt left for work, he told me that if I didn't feel better by noon we were going into Urgent Care. I had rebound tenderness on my stomach and he wasn't sure if it was my appendix or what was happening. Its hard as a medical professional to diagnose your family. You either overreact or underreact, no in-between. Sure enough, we went to urgent care. (hindsight we should have gone straight to the ER) They palpated my stomach, took, my temp, and blood pressure (which was way high for me). They then determined there wasn't anything they could do for me and wheeled me through the hospital to the ER.

  • ER doc orders a CT scan because they were also afraid of appendicitis. I was also given 1L of fluids because of my dehydration. CT scan showed colitis which they assumed to be from a bacterial infection. I was given a prescription for Augmentin (Amoxicillin / Clavulanic acid) to take down the bacterial infection. They didn't ever do a sample to determine what bacteria we were fighting, but at the time we didn’t even think it it was tied to the sheep. We were just happy to not have surgery.

  • Friday- I was on the upswing. THANK GOODNESS. I was able to eat! No more fevers. I get another call that evening... another abortion. S.O.B. I contact my vet directly. She goes ahead and access the necropsy report which wasn't complete yet but there was a glaring problem: Campylobacter Jejuni. An absolutely nasty bacteria that causes late term abortions in sheep.

  • Basically, you don't know the ewes are infected until they abort. NO signs otherwise. OH and it causes colitis and food poisoning type symptoms in humans. BINGO.

YES, I was sick because of my sheep. My mom and I were both sick because we handled those aborted lambs without gloves and must not have washed thoroughly enough.


The even more heartbreaking part is there isn't a very effective treatment. The human medicine mind, Matt, and the veterinary medicine mind, Jackie, came together to try and come up with a treatment for the ewe flock. Because I was given a Penicillin related medication and it was seemingly working, we treated the ewes with Penicillin. We also treated them with LA300. Every ewe, ram, and goat in the general vicinity got two shots that Saturday afternoon. Hoping that we could stop the abortion storm.


The saga however continues. For the most part, we stopped the abortions. However, the ewes that were farthest along had full term dead/weak lambs. The bacterial infection sets into the lambs liver and they have no fighting chance. Lambs are born extra stressed.


Over half of the ewes so far have either aborted or had dead lambs. Almost every one had twins. I dreaded early morning or late night calls/texts from my parents because it was always about another ewe. After consulting with our vet once again, we decided to give another round of LA300. At this point, what did we have to lose...

I had come to terms with the fact that we wouldn't have any live lambs this year.


Then, a miracle happened.

Sunday, February 7, I get a text about a ewe going into labor. Another 2 year old. She was the only ewe lamb we kept from our first year of lambing. My mom told me she had it under control. We were getting dumped on with lake effect snow. The roads were trash and I live about 7mi away from the farm. I reached out 2 hours later assuming the worst because I hadn't heard anything. Still no lambs. Ewe is very uncomfortable. For everyone's peace of mind, I asked her to put on gloves and to check if that baby was positioned correctly. Then after a bit, I call. I hear a little lamb in the background.

IT WAS ALIVE! It was alive and strong. Hallelujah! And a ewe lamb to boot. Talk about tears of joy, ugly crying was more like it. 10:30pm on Sunday night we had a success. At this point, I consider this a huge win.

While you always know you'll lose some, I had never lost so many all at once. However, you don't know what you don't know. It hard to protect your flock from things like that. These ewes will all lamb just fine the next time and will be immune to the bug. Do we know the origin? We have our suspicions, but no concrete answers. It can be spread by birds and rodents.


So now we wait. We tell our story in hopes of maybe someone learning from it. The unknown is scary. Mitigate the risk as well as you are able for there's bound to be something that comes up out of the blue. Use the resources available to you. THANK YOU Dr. Jackie Ponstein for going above and beyond for us!


January was a long, sad, and very defeating month. Here's hoping that this glimmer of hope continues for the rest of the lambing season.


~Until Next Time