By DOUG CLOUGH/Farm News staff writer
(Editor’s note: This the second in a series of monthly articles in which staff writer Doug Clough, a city boy, visits area farms and works for part of a day and writes about his experiences.)
IDA GROVE – From the moment the Whitneys invited me to help with lambing, I felt like a doctor on call.
I told my wife we had to start driving separately to our kids’ school events. “You never know when I’ll get the call,” I said.
Normally, neither of us want to carry our cell phone; now I always wondered where it was – I couldn’t miss this call.
Of course, a call you look forward to only comes when you don’t look for it.
I was leisurely reading the Sunday comics when Rand Whitney rang my cell at 8 a.m. and asked, “Can you come at noon today?” I would shower after coffee, and then get ready.
About a half hour later came a second call: “Can you come now?” asked the Whitney’s daughter, Paige. I grabbed my overalls and headed for the Whitney’s farm just south of Ida Grove.
A 15-year-old sheep showman, Paige Whitney has lambing credentials.
Certificates? They line the family’s barn office.
Trophies? Several and she is most proud of the “Overall Showmanship” received at last year’s Ida County Fair.
Legacy? Her dad’s achievement of earning the same trophy when he was 16 has been her inspiration.
“Ever since I was a little girl, my dad would set my lambs up for me, training me to become the showman I am today,” Paige Whitney said. “When I started 4-H, all I could think about was showing my lambs at the county fair and hoping someday I would be as good as him.”
Working beside her, I had a chance to see how a showman is made.
During February and March, the activity center of the barn is the lambing room. Her parents, Rand and Anita Whitney, met me in the insulated room with happy news.
“You’re in luck,” said Rand. “This one had quads this morning; that’s a first for us.”
I had a few moment to enjoy seeing the little ones, and then our chores began.
An unexpected task
“Come on over to this pen,” said Rand. “This mother’s having a little trouble. She’s a bit stressed and doesn’t have milk to give to her lambs.”
He handed me a syringe with an inch and half long needle.
To be honest, the only homework I did beforehand was watch a few lamb births on “YouTube,” but nothing about giving sheep shots. I don’t look when I get a shot, so this was uncharted territory for me.
“Do I put the whole needle in?” I asked.
The ewe seemed to say, “I don’t want the short, balding guy anywhere close to me with that thing. Back away and give the needle to Paige,” and just at that moment, I put my full weight against her right flank and pressed her against the pen’s side.
Finally, I stuck half the needle into her neck, pushing the plunger down slowly. I’m pretty sure I heard the ewe sigh as I exited her pen for the hayloft.
The hay and straw were in square bales. Paige Whitney instructed me to place one “leaf” in each mom’s stall with the exception to the ewe that was still expecting.
My gracious host didn’t even smirk when I carried on about how it must have been a great innovation when bales could be segmented in leaves, easily pulled away for feeding or bedding. How it’s done is a mystery to be solved another day.
In the loft, Whitney shows me the two holes in the ceiling where I need to toss three leaves each.
Downstairs, we find that I am a poor shot, since three of the six leaves missed the bunks. Rand wonders how “we” missed the bunks by more than a couple feet; Paige points out that her trainee requires more practice.
We went back to the “Paige Addition” – named so as it was built for her show lambs – to disperse the bedding. While we separated the bale’s leaves, Paige explained that expectant mothers will go through an exaggerated nesting behavior with the straw when they get closer to birth.
Whitney also told me about the veterinarian technician who ultrasounds the ewes on site.
“It’s good to know ahead of time how many lambs you’re going to have,” said Whitney. “The ultrasound can be deceiving at times though, our mom with quads was supposed to have only two lambs.”
The Whitneys make a mark on the back of each ewe, one for each lamb they have been ultrasound to have.
Marcus Welby, M.D.
When we return to the lambing room, the ewe I gave the shot to is chewing its cud; Anita tells me “is a good sign.”
Rand saID that the ewe we brought to the lambing room will need some help as her mother has been in labor for two hours, hooves only showing.
Anita hands me a plastic glove which is as long as my right arm. Just how long is this old girl’s birth canal?
Anita takes my camera, switching roles with me, and I get a bit of a rush at the thought of doing something so out of my comfort zone.
“Grab the hooves between your two fingers of your right hand,” Paige said. “With your right hand make sure the nose is down and then pull firmly.” I do what my mentor says, but without her confidence.
“It’s OK to pull harder.”
I am afraid that I will hurt the lamb, so I ask Whitney to pull the lamb part way and she does. She turns the lamb’s hooves over to me, and the rest is a piece of cake as the lamb slides out easily, falling to the ground.
“That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” I said.
“I don’t usually hear that from people,” Paige said.
If I had had a cigar, I would have exited the barn for a celebratory smoke.
The romance is broken by Paige telling me that I need to help the lamb clear her mucous from its nose.
Immediately, I have a Marcus Welby, M.D. moment and wonder if I’m supposed to pick the lamb up and swat its butt.
Seeing my hesitation, Paige tells me to “take a piece of straw and put it in the nose. The lamb needs to cough to clear the mucous from its nose.”
I do as she says and the little girl gives me a textbook cough and then stands, wobbly-legged.
She seems fragile. Rand picks her up by a hind leg and sets her in the heat lamp area. I take a mental note: newborn lambs not fragile.
“Next,” he said.
Next? I notice the two marks on mom’s back. I think of the quads and then understand why the plastic glove on my right arm is so long.
The ewe decides to lay down and this makes delivery more complicated. Rand takes over. The second is born and, ultrasound being correct, there are no others.
After the lamb’s birth, I was to jump start the lambs’ nutrition through a force feeding.
I wasn’t a quick milker; I would have been a penniless dairy farmer in the days it was done by hand.
Eventually, I got enough into the tube to do the job. Attached to the tube was a long rubber tube that I was instructed to put down the lamb’s throat to the stomach. I pushed slowly on the plunger.
Rand could sense my tentative feelings about this and finished the job as the lamb could possibly drown if the milk went into her lungs.
From the lambing room, we returned to the Paige Addition where the ewes are kept that recently lambed. I was to band the tails of some recent deliveries.
“This is done for show lambs and also for hygiene,” explained Paige while her dad fit a band on to a pliers-like device that help to stretch out the thick band.
After Rand demonstrated, I gave it a go. The lamb was amazingly cooperative while I did this, and I felt good about my attempt; Rand said, “We got a good picture, now let me cinch it up.” It was clear that I left too much tail for a show lamb.
Banding isn’t just for tails. Some lucky males get to stay rams and romance the ladies, others become ‘wethers’ as in, “I don’t know ‘whether’ I’m a girl or a boy now.”
Rand was checking that both testicles had dropped on the lamb; if so they got banded: “His testicles haven’t dropped yet, so that’s a chore you won’t get to do today.”
Imagine the lamb’s and my relief.
Showman Paige can tell you about her best show sheep going back to her own birth. As we tagged the newborn lamb’s ear, she told me what the numbers meant – birth date and a few other vitals.
Afterward, she referred to a large three-ring notebook that has records dating back to her birth.
“I can tell you what ewe my lambs have come from,” she said. “I know everything there is to know about the sheep that are bred on our farm.”
Student as teacher
When I taught high school English years ago, I was amazed how rural kids are involved in activities year round and still successful in their studies.
Whitney has taught me more than the details behind lambing, hay bales, cleaning water buckets, and record keeping, she has also showed me the value of being raised on a farm and the chores she calls a “part of my life as a showman.”
From the moment she began educating me on what it means to care for sheep, she communicated a devotion and passion for showmanship and her livestock.
As just one example of her fortitude, she learned to complete punnet squares – a genetic formula – to figure out what parents have the best chance to sire an exemplary lamb.
How many young adults do you know that embrace science as a means for success?
Rand and Anita Whitney’s daughter also has personality to go with all that knowledge and drive.
Her background in agriculture has given her a confidence that few young adults have.
After all, how many people her age would have the patience to educate a city boy on what it means to be a showman?
Contact Doug Clough at email@example.com.
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