Saving 254 from Death by Bloat

            It had been one of those busy days–even a rough day—so Connie and I felt sufficiently sorry for ourselves that we got carry out Chinese food for dinner. We got up from our meal and I saw that telltale sign of trouble: a Ewe was grazing near the lane back to the barn—on the wrong side of the fence.

            Normally it would be a very minor nuisance, but I knew immediately that this could be big trouble since it meant hungry sheep had access to the hay field with its alfalfa.

            I hurried to get my boots and hat on and grab my shepherd’s whistle and went out to find that, yes indeed, the entire flock of 100 ewes and lambs were munching away on their favorite forage.

            It has been a summer of punishing heat and lack of rain and we were at a point where there was almost nothing of value for the sheep to find in either of our two pastures. The solution has been to feed some of the alfalfa hay we have put up for the winter, but also to let the sheep out on the hay field a couple times a day. But when it is vegetating alfalfa puts out a chemical that causes the sheep to produce foam their rumens. Too much foam and the gas causes the rumen to expand so much that the heart can’t beat and the animal will die in alarmingly short order.

            I used our three best dogs—Cap, Abbie and Nell to bring the sheep back into the pasture. Scanning them as they passed I couldn’t help notice that several were blown up like balloons on each side, so I put Cap and Abbie up and used Nell to drive the sheep up and down the pasture. The worst thing a shepherd can do is let sheep that may be bloating lie down. Movement helps break up the gas bubbles and a sheep that lies down at this point might well never get up again.

            As Nell did her work, there was one pair that struggled to keep up with the others. Lamb 254 was walking with stiff legs because it’s body was so distended and tight with bloat, and its mother was lingering to protect it from the threat of the dog.

            I whistled Nell to join me and ran into the house to get a bottle of bloat treatment and a dosing syringe, worrying all the time that I would find a dead lamb when I returned. Number 254 was still alive when I made it back, but so distressed that she was easy to grab. As quickly as I could I got half bottle down her—about the right dose for a small lamb like this. Holding the lamb between my legs I could tell her sides were as tight as a drum.

            The lamb belched several times—a welcome sign that the bloat treatment was working. But knowing that she was still in danger I put my hands on her sides and massaged her. I didn’t know if this was proper treatment, but I thought it surely couldn’t hurt, and sure enough, she belched even more rudely and loudly.

            Good. But I still wasn’t convinced I did all I could do. I remembered that I had an even more potent bloat treatment sitting in our little refrigerator—the one we reserve for veterinary medicines, and I ran to find it and administer it. The lamb was thankfully a little harder to catch this time and I got a solution of this stuff down her as well.

            By this time the sun had long since set and it was quite dark. Nell and I moved the sheep around a bit more. I could smell the sweet smell that told me many of them were still passing a lot of gas, but none of them were struggling. None of them were stiff. None of them were standing with their noses in the air straining against the pain of bloat.

          It was a bit of a restless night. This year saw the biggest lamb crop born at Heatherhope Farm, but also the most troubles and the most sheep deaths. I didn’t want yet another dead lamb on my hands. Number 254’s mother wasn’t producing much milk and so she was one of our bottle lambs. So we were quite used to her personality—a bit shy and usually the last of the three bottle lambs to come up to the fence for her feedings. We love her in our own way and we are especially loathe to have anything bad happen to her. Yet I knew that when I looked out on the pasture in the morning she could be lying there, dead.

          There are times I’m not that happy with this shepherding life—times when I weary of the pangs of wondering if I have done all I can do. These are lives here. Most would philosophize that they are surely not souls; but oh, those beautiful eyes and their fierce protection of their young and the way they bellow when comes weaning time!

          And most of all they look to me for food, for protection and for life itself. So I think, “no more—I can take no more of this. Give me a retirement far from a flock, in an easy chair somewhere where I am not responsible for any single thing. Maybe I should have someone take care of me instead of me taking care of 110 sheep and eight dogs.”

          In the morning I pulled on my dirty jeans, shirt and boots and am out to the pasture first thing. All the sheep are up and crowding to the gate, bleating out to me their fervent desire for their morning taste of alfalfa. I look all around. No lambs, no ewes are horizontal—none on their backs with legs pointing skyward. It’s a good thing worthy of an alleluia. A decent  way to start another day of shepherding.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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