Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Virus Among Us

It seemed like a good idea to bring a young ram lamb onto our farm. I mean, who wants inbred sheep? And the thought of a cross-bred hair sheep had this shepherdess all in a dither - with the potential for spotted sheep, no less. Ever working on my naivite when it comes to all things ag, it never crossed my mind we might be introducing something onto our farm that we didn't want, like a virus.

I have now learned a new term. When you speak of a virus-free or disease-free flock or herd, you call it a 'closed' flock. Nothing comes in and nothing goes out. Rather like a science fiction movie. Rather like a shepherd who knows what questions to ask.

But let's back up. Before ever thinking we might be contaminating our stable herd, it seemed reasonable to look for some way to increase the physical size of our lambs. Bringing in Katahdin hair sheep took care of the shearing problem and they even had nice personalities, but we soon discovered their offspring take forever to put on weight, and some never do. Crossing Romney and Suffolk (we call them 'woolies') and Katahdins brings some size, but then there is the wool problem.

Annie decided to put her genetics training to work and find us a solution. I had heard that OSU ran Dorpers. A little research later and we discovered this alternative hair sheep was bigger than the Katahdin and many lamb breeders were beginning to cross the two.

It's amazing what Craig's List has opened up in the way of shopping for anything, even Dorper ram lambs. We found just what Annie was looking for about an hour away with the requisite RR genetics, although at the moment I can't remember why this is so important. On a sunny spring day we drove my little Toyota truck over to the farm and picked out not my first choice, because he was already sold, but the second choice based on head and chest size...and feet.

Dorpers are known for their interesting coloring, often with black heads and white bodies. We managed to select a white Dorper because of the above-mentioned features, not because I thought he was the prettiest. We were assured his coloring was an anomaly and he would throw spotted lambs.

Annie had obviously thought through the introduction process for this young ram because we wanted him to feel comfortable around us - not overly friendly, but willing to come close. We would put the three bottle fed babies (Dusty, Eli, and Piper) into the chicken yard with our new purchase. This would make feeding easier and give the ram lamb time to get to know his competition and, soon to be field friends, Red and Piglet on the other side of the fence. We hadn't supposed the goose would mind.

Boy, were we wrong. First thing out, the goose grabbed our new ram by the lip and wouldn't let go. Then he grabbed him by the butt. We noticed his lip was bloody (all the goose got with the butt was a lot of wool). The goose then took it upon himself to start herding the lambs all around the yard. The lambs learned to give him a wide berth.

The bloody lip should have gotten better, but as the days went on, Annie and I noticed that our ram lamb had more and more sores around his mouth. I happened to mention this to a new sheep friend. She would ask her husband. He came back with something called Sore Mouth.

I called Oregon State's vet school and Annie started to look online. The reality hit. We had just introduced a highly infectious disease onto our farm with no real cure. Not only were we likely to infect all our sheep, the soil where the sheep were housed would carry the virus for up to 10 years unless there was a hard frost. Great, and we had really started to like this little boy - calm and cool...just what we wanted.

Two weeks later we returned the ram to his former owner for a full refund. That night at feeding we determined that all three of our bottle-fed lambs had the virus!

POST SCRIPT The ram is back on our farm because: 1) either most of our flock is infected (difficult to believe because our sheep were fields away from the ram lamb) or 2)our sheep, including the lambs, are allergic to buttercup, making their nostrils break out in sores. We think this is more likely since it happened to one of our horses several years ago in spring. The breeder agrees. He showed the lamb to shepherd friends and no one thought the outbreak looked like Sore Mouth. Phew! Now we just need to wait for the buttercup to stop blooming!

Photos: (top) Dusty, Eli, and Piper, (bottom) no-name ram lamb

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2009 Scottie Jones

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