Subzero temperatures pose a dire threat to newborn lambs

Sunday, March 3, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

Jon Decker photos

Dawson County producer Ric Holden feeds his flock Thursday afternoon. The temperatures Thursday and Friday were the warmest Holden had seen during this year’s lambing season, but he was bracing for the challenges the weather forecast for the weekend would bring.

Article Image Alt Text

Jon Decker photo

A barn cat cuddles with two young lambs in the Holdens’ barn Thursday afternoon.

In the midst of some of the most severe weather conditions for this time of year, no one is more keenly aware of the dangers of the cold than Eastern Montana ranchers who are lambing and calving.

One such livestock producer is Ric Holden who owns a livestock operation southwest of Glendive.

“It’s horrible,” Ric Holden said during an interview Thursday afternoon. “It’s been below zero every night for the last at least 30 days.”

Ric and his wife Jan have been raising sheep since 1990, and he claims this has been one of the roughest winters for lambing since 2010.

“If they’re outside and they start to lamb at this point, you’re gonna lose ‘em. They’re gonna freeze to the ground,” Holden said as he brought a laboring ewe into his barn. “So far we’ve lost about 25 lambs to freeze.”

In an effort to reduce the number of losses, the Holdens try to bring laboring ewes into a barn where it’s much warmer before they give birth. Inside of the Holdens’ barn are a variety of miniature pens called jugs. Each jug has a warming light and a bed of straw for mothers and their newborns. The newborn lambs are kept in these jugs with their mother for about three days.

“It takes about three days for their internal thermostat to set,” Holden explained. “We make sure they’re well grafted and then we move them to the back pen and mix them with about 10. We mix ‘em with a bit of a bigger herd before we turn em out into the bigger corral.”

The cold can even cause birth complications, including birthing position issues. This was the case of the ewe Holden brought into his barn on Thursday. Only one foot was visible, when normally there should be two feet and nose. Holden carefully took the ewe and laid her on her side. After putting on a pair of white rubber gloves, he reached into the birth canal and corrected the feet. With a little help from mom and some gentle pulling on Holden’s part, a brand new lamb flopped out onto the barn floor, covered in yellowish steaming liquid.

As soon as the new buck hit the ground, Holden took to clearing his nostrils of fluid and squeezing excess mucus off the legs.

“I’m gonna clean all this stuff off the nose so it doesn’t drown,” Holden explained. “I like to take the excess slime off. They dry faster. This stuff will freeze immediately outside.”

After being partially dried off, the lamb coughed its first breath and lifted its head. It turned out he wasn’t alone.

“She’s pretty big. We gotta make sure she doesn’t have another one tangled up,” Holden said as he reached back into the canal. And sure enough, a second lamb came out, this time a female.

After cleaning her off, Holden picked the pair of them up like ragdolls and walked them back to a jug. The mother quickly followed.

Holden plopped the two newborns beneath a heat lamp.

Even though they made it through the birth, the two lambs were far from out of the woods. Sometimes when a ewe has twins, she’ll favor one over the other by neglecting one of her babies, according to Holden.

After situating the new family, Holden headed to a small room in his barn that looked like it may have been a kitchen long ago. After washing his hands he pulled out a small clipboard where he promptly recorded the births. He also keeps track of how many die and how they passed.

“Every lamb that’s born is recorded with their mother,” Holden said, “I list all the ear tags, how many they had, their sex, and what their color was.”

Holden said this lambing season has been a lot tougher than last year, noting that the cold temperatures force him and his wife to be on constant alert. The subzero temperatures impose severe time constraints on births.

“You have about 20 minutes to find those lambs and get them into the barn under a heat light, otherwise you’re gonna lose ‘em,” Holden said, “So we’ve been on duty here for the last 30 days, 24 hours a day. Either my wife or myself is down here keeping an eye on things so if something’s born it gets put into the barn right away.”

The next month is looking to be just as difficult. The Holdens still have 175 ewes to go through, and they also own over 100 cows, which also face the same dangers when giving birth in the cold. One of his cows had already calved a day before. As a result, the Holdens have been keeping all of their animals in close proximity to the barns.

Even with all of the extra precautions in place and if the lambs make it through their difficult birth, they still have challenges ahead of them in the icy Eastern Montana winter. Once they start living outside, they need lots of feed and corn to get enough energy to stay warm, Holden explained as he poured a bucket of corn for his herd.

Even with the extra food, some simply don’t make it. As the flock feasted on the newly poured corn, a dead lamb was spotted in the grass right beside them.

Holden picked it up and took note of its number before returning it to the ground. Even yearlings hadn’t survived. A small pile of frozen yearlings sat stacked in between the cattle and lamb pastures.

As for the future, Holden said he hopes to expand the space in their barns so that next winter they’ll be able to save more.

For now, they’ll just have to do their best with what they have.

“Saturday is supposed to be less than minus 27 degrees,” Holden said. “We’re gonna put down more straw and make sure everything is in.”

Reach Jon Decker at .