Its getting close to Easter which for some vet students means that its time to venture into the wonderful world that is lambing. The young farmers among us are laughing and there’s always someone who seems to know everything but for the rest of us (who did a bit for pre-vet work experience but don’t remember that much) it can be a bit daunting as a first year. It is for this reason that I’ve compiled a handy list of helpful hints to make even the most apprehensive city-dwellers kind of seem like they know what they’re doing. Ish.
I know that we all definitely went to the lectures on lambing and absolutely remember every clinical scenario by heart but just incase maybe have a quick look at your notes (no one wants to be the person who thought ring womb was a fungal infection!). Go on YouTube and watch some lambing videos so you have a good idea of the normal progression of events and research the type of lambing system you’re about work with (I.e. indoor vs outdoor). Basically if you don’t know something, google it.
Cut your nails
You CAN (I repeat CAN) tear the reproductive tracts of ewes with your fingernails and the prognosis for the ewe usually isn’t great. Cutting your nails is an easy way of removing the stress of accidentally killing a ewe this way should you need to intervene in labour so just do it. If that wasn’t a good enough reason, you come into contact with a fair amount of nondescript gunk while you’re on the farm which will sit under your nails if you don’t cut them short. This point brings me nicely on to ……
WASH YOUR HANDS
Please. At some point you’ll do parasitology and find out what you’re putting in your mouth and it isn’t pretty. You might have done a lambing practical at uni where they let you wear gloves (and some farmers have them for the particularly gross mummified lambs) but 9/10 times you’re going in there without anything covering your hands. If you want to steer clear of any gastrointestinal complications that could arise from a pesky bit of E. coli (for example) then use hot water and soap or hand sanitiser.
Your colon will thank you.
Accept that your standards of hygiene are going to be compromised
If you look good while you’re on a lambing placement, there’s a 90% chance you’re doing it wrong. Don’t go crazy and start eating your sandwiches with bits of afterbirth on your hands (see point 3) but being covered in sweat, blood and poop from a particularly busy shift is a very real possibility. Make your peace with the smells and just crack on. No one you’re working with is going to appreciate you taking twice as long to do jobs because you’re afraid of a bit of poo.
Clip, dip and strip
Whenever a lamb has popped out there are a few things you have to do. 1)Clip – check the length of the umbilical cord- if its too long it could get caught on something so it might need to be trimmed a bit. 2) Dip – dip (or spray) the cord with iodine to prevent infection, and 3)Strip – a plug forms in the ewe’s teat when she’s pregnant so it’s important to clear this out and get a clear stream of milk from each teat. As this first milk (i.e. colostrum) is packed full of antibodies you need to be careful not to waste too much.
An extra step which could be thrown in is the use of Scour Halt (or a similar product) to help protect against bacterial neonatal diseases like watery mouth but it varies from farm to farm. The important thing is to keep in your mind that these steps need to take place after every lamb has been born. Every. Single. Time. After your first hundred lambs it becomes muscle memory but early on its easy to forget. Not that I’ve ever forgotten. Promise.
Be prepared for the first time lambers to get a bit Jeremy Kyle
The young ewes are just a bit of a law unto themselves. They’re first time mums and are usually in complete denial about the fact that a baby just fell out of them. Getting them into a pen requires a healthy amount of brute strength and luck. If all else fails pen up the lamb (before another ewe nicks it and decides that it’s her baby now), use a bit of stock marking spray to keep track of the ewe that’s not playing ball, and go fetch another stockman for backup. There’s no shame in admitting these wonderful ladies can be a bit much sometimes especially if you’ve picked a heftier breed to work with like Texels or Suffolks.
Don’t get too attached to the tame lambs
They’re cute. They’re really cute. Just don’t name them. Nature can be a bit of a B-word sometimes and you’ll wake up to find Albert the lamb scouring in the middle of the tame lamb pen looking up at you weakly with his cute little face. You feel the inside of his mouth and its cold. Within a day half the pen is down with watery mouth. There’s a place for feeling sad but you don’t have the time or the emotional capacity to grieve for every lamb that dies as, unfortunately, it just happens. For every lamb that dies there many more that live but the best way to approach this is pragmatically (which is much easier said than done). Just don’t name them.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
If you don’t know if you need to assist a ewe with labour, ask. If you don’t know whether to give a drug subcutaneously or intramuscularly, ask. If you don’t know how to tube feed a lamb, ask. You get the picture. Sometimes it feels like farmers expect us to know more than we do because of the course we’re on but the only way to learn is to be honest. Obviously, brush up on what you can (watery mouth, naval ill – all that kind of thing) but the practical side of things requires practice and guidance. As long as you haven’t oversold yourself on the phone most farmers will be happy to show you what to do and if they’ve had vet students work for them before then they’ll definitely know what to expect! No one is expecting you to be the sheep whisperer so chill out.
Don’t be a prat
Unless you’re a farmer or have had a 30 year long career as a shepherd before starting vet school (in which case why are you reading this in the first place?) remember that a couple of lectures don’t make you an expert. There are times when you will be right about something (and will know all the current legislation about tail docking and castrating because you literally just read it) but be polite. Farmers love their animals and often you have been invited into their homes while you’re working there. I’m not saying there aren’t some dodgy practices about and there are channels through which you can report any genuine welfare issues that you might have. All I’m asking is for you to respect their experience because if you act like an arse then you make the rest of us look bad.
Lambing is actually pretty great in an emotionally and physically draining kind of way and the best way to look like you know what you’re doing, as in most situations, is to look happy (even if you’re screaming on the inside). It’s incredibly rewarding to help deliver little lambs especially when you’ve had to manoeuvre them around a bit because they were facing the wrong way so just appreciate the little wins. Obviously lambing isn’t for everyone but if you’ve got to stick it out for two weeks you might as well try to like it and the lambs are pretty darn cute so what more do you want?