Looking after the lambs: Community unites to save offspring of injured ewes
Tara Keeble, 4, of Zamora, learns how to care for a newborn lamb, which entails regular bottle feeding four times a day. The lamb is one of the first offspring born from injured ewes that survived a recent Yolo County wildfire.
It was close to their noon feeding. The three newborn lambs circled around Janet and Dewey Berry excitedly, nibbling at their clothing-and anything else they could get their mouths on.
The lambs were born from three different ewes, but they are now sisters. They quickly became attached to one another after only a couple of days in the same pen. Now they play and sleep together as a family unit.
They are the first of a new generation of lambs born from badly injured ewes that survived a Yolo County wildfire, which scorched more than 11,000 acres and destroyed most of the sheep caught in its path.
The Slaven family, which owned some 1,200 sheep on 2,000 acres in Zamora, sustained the worst damage. Rancher Bruce Rodegerdts, who had about 300 sheep, also lost most of his herd.
When Janet Berry, who has known the two families for many years, saw the devastation on her neighbors' ranches, she knew she had to do something. She is coordinating a community volunteer effort to care for any newborn lambs from the surviving ewes while the two families rebuild their ranches and get back on their feet.
"People have no idea the devastation this is," Berry said. "I thought if a fire ever went through, what you'd have is a bunch of dead bodies. And that isn't what it is at all. You have your share of dead bodies. But it's the walking dead that are the hardest to cope with. It's watching all those animals that you can tell are not going to survive, but they're still alive." .000
Of the 1,450 sheep that were in the fire, only about 200 pregnant ewes survived. About 30 to 50 of them may be giving birth in the coming weeks. The rest will likely lamb through December. Because the ewes' injuries range in severity, it is unclear how many will carry their pregnancies to term, Berry said.
"We have no idea how many live births there will be," said Berry, who raises sheep and goats with her husband on their Zamora ranch. "Even the vets can't tell me how many lambs they think will be born or will survive if they are born. We have no idea how many of these ewes can raise their own lambs."
Berry said she plans to raise 50 of the lambs herself. She's now compiling a list of volunteers who are willing to help her raise any additional lambs, an eight-to 12-week commitment, or until the lambs reach their weaning weight of 30 pounds. She's hoping to hear from ranchers and other individuals with experience raising bottle-fed lambs.
"Survival rate is the highest priority to me," she said. "I know everyone would love to raise a lamb, but I can't send some kid home with a lamb unless I'm desperate. My goal is survival of the livestock and returning them to the original owner."
Newborn lambs are usually bottle-fed four times a day on a regular schedule until they are weaned, so lamb raisers have to make the commitment to be available for the feedings. Bottle-fed lambs are often fragile and more susceptible to illness and other health issues such as pneumonia, bloat and diarrhea, and those caring for them need to know the signs when these problems arise, Berry said.
"A layperson is not going to recognize that a lamb is coming down with pneumonia, and if you don't recognize it and start treatment, they're dead the next day," she added.
So far, the three lambs that Berry is caring for are doing well. Two of them were delivered by Caesarean section, and the ewes were euthanized after the births. The third lamb was a regular birth whose twin did not survive. The mother is still being treated for injuries and is unable to care for her young.
The lambs are already beloved by Berry's young neighbors, Tara Keeble, 4, and her sister Maya, 3. The two girls have been learning to feed the babies with help from the Berrys. As a 4-H leader, Janet Berry is careful to let all children who get involved know that not all the lambs will survive "no matter how good you are at raising them." Still, she touts the experience as a "wonderful opportunity" for children who raise market lambs and want to know what the sheep business is like.
But finding volunteers to help raise the lambs is only half the battle. The other half is financial. Berry estimates the cost for raising a lamb to weaning age is about $60 per animal. That cost is basically for the milk supply. She's made arrangements with a Raley's grocery store to get all their outdated milk. A few goat producers in Placerville have also agreed to donate some of their goat milk. She's hoping manufacturers of lamb milk replacer will heed the call and donate to the cause as well.
Volunteers are also needed to help in other ways, such as cleaning the pens, picking up milk and supplies and delivering lambs to other volunteers. Faculty veterinarians and students from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine have been donating their services and medical supplies needed for treating the sheep. The school also held a fund-raiser to help the families recover from the loss.
The Slavens family, which has owned their ranch for about 100 years, says they will continue in the sheep business. They plan to buy replacement ewes, but that will take some time. First they have to rebuild and wait for their pasture to grow back. They're going to take it one step at a time, said Joan Slaven, whose husband, Bill, and son, Mike, help run the ranch.
"It's our way of life," she said. "It's what my husband knows and what my son knows. It's our livelihood. It's what we've always done."
She added that the outpouring of support that her family has received from the community has helped to lift their spirits after enduring such tremendous loss. "We feel very blessed and thankful for all the help and consideration from our friends and neighbors and the vets at UCD because we couldn't have made it on our own," Slaven said.
Individuals who are interested in volunteering or donating supplies may contact Janet Berry at (530) 666-0448 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.