An Inside Perspective: Ultrasound Pregnancy Scanning of Sheep


We have shared a little in the past about ultrasound pregnancy scanning our sheep. We were doing a group of 280 ewes last month and I wanted to post a little more information about it here. My goal is to share a little of my experience with you in the form of a few practical tips. If you are interested in learning to preg-check your own sheep, hopefully this is helpful to you.


Just a note on the situation here in Alberta to give context. In Alberta, only veterinarians can diagnose pregnancy in sheep professionally. However, because of the relatively small number of sheep in this part of the world, few vets are available to perform this service, and their fees would usually be too expensive. I have also never heard of a vet that can count fetuses. The result is that most sheep farms that are large enough are purchasing their own entry level ultrasound machines and simply checking for open ewes. That’s what I will be talking about in this post.


Though it would be great to be able to count lambs, there is significant enough benefit in preg checking alone to be worth the work and investment. For example, you have the benefit of being able to pull open ewes out of the group before expensive late gestation rations start. If you do multiple lambing groups you may be able to try re-breeding open ewes for a later lambing. It may also allow you to make a culling decision a few months earlier than you may have otherwise. It can be especially valuable in groups of ewe lambs which typically have lower conception rates.


Now for the practical tips.

1- Make sure the ewes are off feed 24 hours before scanning. A full gut makes it more difficult to see.


2- Your arm will be right between their back legs, so you’ll want some protective gear. A vet showed me this trick. OB glove for coverage with a latex glove overtop to make it easier to use your fingers.



3- Put your ultrasound gel into a dish. This way you can dip your probe rather than having to squirt some on the probe every time. This is much quicker and less wasteful. It doesn’t necessarily require much gel, so use it sparingly. Too much just makes a slippery mess.

4- Some kind of working chute is preferable for more than a few ewes. I’ve worked in a chute where I had to climb in behind each ewe and kneel in the chute. It worked, but it was hard on the knees, back and shoulder. Our Racewell sheep handler is ideal. It holds the ewe elevated above floor height, so that, when I’m sitting in a chair alongside, the ewe’s belly is right at a comfortable height. You’ll see in the photos how I catch the sheep far enough back in the squeeze so that her back end is exposed. I’ve seen some chutes were the technician has a space where they can reach through the side of the chute.



5- Place the probe on the ewes belly where you find the bare skin inside the left hind leg and beside the udder. I generally point the probe toward the spine and angled a bit forward. You’ll get the feel for where you need to be with a little practice.


6- Pregnancy is usually very easy to detect. Take a look at some of these screen shots to see what you are looking for. If you’re not getting a clear image try using a little extra gel. Sometimes there is a bit of buildup on the ewe’s skin that needs to be cleaned off first.


There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. If you have any questions just ask.

2014 Highlights

Wow! It’s been just about a year since we have posted anything on here. Not to make excuses, but 2014 was a whirlwind of a year. Here’s a photo diary of some of the hightlights.

Our barn roof and service room got re-done after our little mishap last winter.

Our barn roof and service room got re-done after our little mishap last winter.

The unfortunate end of our old "stock trailer". Thankfully our two new rams were just fine.

The unfortunate end of our old “stock trailer”. Thankfully our two new rams were just fine.

Everybody was excited for a new stock trailer with four walls and a roof!

Everybody was excited for a new stock trailer with four walls and a roof!

Not too unusual, but still a really nice set of quintuplet lambs.

Not too unusual, but still a really nice set of quintuplet lambs.

This is one of the proto-types for our self-weaning creep gate. The final version is working fairly well for us now.

This is one of the proto-types for our self-weaning creep gate. The final version is working fairly well for us now.

80 of our lambs participated in a special research project at Olds College.

80 of our lambs participated in a special research project at Olds College.

It was a very, very wet summer. Found this sink-hole by accident one day.

It was a very, very wet summer. Found this sink-hole by accident one day.

Spent a lot of time this summer cutting up concrete cattle feed bunks to haul home and convert over to sheep. It probably ended up being more work than it was worth but they'll make some really nice sheep feed bunks.

Spent a lot of time this summer cutting up concrete cattle feed bunks to haul home and convert over to sheep. It probably ended up being more work than it was worth but they’ll make some really nice sheep feed bunks.

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It was an excellent summer for pasture this year. We were able to keep the ewes out at pasture much longer than most years before we brought them back to our farm.

It was an excellent summer for pasture this year. We were able to keep the ewes out at pasture much longer than most years before we brought them back to our farm.

We are now the proud owners of a cute little miniature horse. We decided to sell our full size horse, Kenya,  this year because she just wasn't getting the attention she needed and then we were thrilled to find out that our neighbor was selling a miniature horse. For this stage in our lives, with so many young children, we figured this would be a much better fit for our family.

We are now the proud owners of a cute little miniature horse. We decided to sell our full size horse, Kenya, this year because she just wasn’t getting the attention she needed and then we were thrilled to find out that our neighbor was selling a miniature horse. For this stage in our lives, with so many young children, we figured this would be a much better fit for our family.

Our youngest, Henry, and Miles enjoying the new horse.

Our youngest, Henry, and Miles enjoying the new horse.

Bringing the ewes back from pasture before the snow came.

Bringing the ewes back from pasture before the snow came.

We found a good used feed wagon so now we can mix TMR feed for the sheep. This allowed us to make the switch to silage feeding this year.

We found a good used feed wagon so now we can mix TMR feed for the sheep. This allowed us to make the switch to silage feeding this year.

We're excited to announce that we will be launching our very own line of ALYSHEEP wool products. The last couple of months last year were filled with planning out this new aspect of our farm.

We’re excited to announce that we will be launching our very own line of ALYSHEEP wool products. The last couple of months last year were filled with planning out this new aspect of our farm.

All four of our kids grew so much this year and we are so thankful and blessed for the many hours we had to enjoy playing with, working alongside and teaching these four little munchkins. Our oldest, Timothy, started kindergarten this year so we've enjoyed our time teaching him to read, write and do some basic math at home. Home schooling has some challenges but it also has many many benefits! We look forward to another great year this year!

All four of our kids grew so much this year and we are so thankful and blessed for the many hours we had to enjoy playing with, working alongside and teaching these four little munchkins. Our oldest, Timothy, started kindergarten this year so we’ve enjoyed our time teaching him to read, write and do some basic math at home. Home schooling has some challenges but it also has many many benefits! We look forward to another great year this year!

Lamb Coffee!?!

Lamb coffee and my coffee... don't want to confuse these at 2am!

Lamb coffee and my coffee… don’t want to confuse these at 2am!

Yeah I know it sounds crazy. But we were looking for something this year to help our lambs really get up and go. We wanted to make sure that they had the best possible start and got up to eat well right away. At first, we researched into some of the available lamb formulas (Nutri-Drench, Kick Start, Survive!, etc). They all make some pretty incredible claims, which I think have to be seen partly as marketing. But at the same time, they’re not a complete hoax. The ingredients in them would certainly provide some good energy and vitamins for the lambs. Most of them are made up of either molasses or vegetable oil and they all have a certain level of vitamins. So we started looking at the cost of giving each of our lambs a dose at birth to ensure adequate energy to get up and feed well (since mama’s colostrum is the real ‘magic formula’). As our research progressed, we realized that we could easily make most of those concoctions ourselves. So, after talking to our vet we decided to do a little bit of an experiment this year. At first, we were leaning towards a vegetable oil mixture, but our vet didn’t think the lambs would be able to metabolize the fat very well. So we opted for a molasses based mixture. Molasses is about 50% sugar and lambs seem to like the taste, so it makes a good energy supplement.

What I wasn’t expecting our vet to suggest was to try coffee! She told us that she had tried instant coffee mixed into milk for calves, and that it really perked them up. So, we added instant coffee to our grocery list.

 

We mixed up our recipe and put it in a bottle with a squirt cap like a soap dispenser. The first batch was a little thin and runny, so the next batch had a little more molasses to thicken it up. So far we have given the mixture to every lamb born as soon as we put them in the jug. I can’t say that I have noticed the lambs perk up when the caffeine hits their system the way I do, but it is seeming like we have less weak lambs who run out of energy before they get a good feeding in. Maybe some day we can do a more objective analysis of how well the stuff actually works. But for now it is a really inexpensive way to make sure our lambs get up and suck on their own. It sure beat milking and bottle feeding.

Lamb Drinking Lamb Coffee

 

I don’t know if anyone else out there has tried feeding coffee to livestock, but if you have I’d really like to know what your recipe is and how it works for you. I’ll share ours below and you can give your critique. Remember it’s always a good idea to talk to a vet before feeding something like this to your livestock, but the nice thing is, that it is completely made out of edible ingredients that you have in your own kitchen. So you know it’s a safe feed. As a ‘foodie’ would say, “I like it, cause I know what’s in it!”

 

We also included Selenium and vitamins E, A, and D. However I’m not going to include those in the recipe as Selenium can be potentially toxic to sheep if incorrectly dosed (though sheep also die without it). These ingredients you would definitely want to talk to your vet about and make sure they are properly dosed and administered.

Let us know what you think, crazy good idea or just plain crazy.

– Miles

Lamb Coffee Recipe

Eighty-Five Down… Three Hundred to Go

Yikes, where did January go?  I had intended on making a few more posts before lambing. I wanted to write a little bit about some of the unique things we’re trying out this year. Instead, what we’ll have to do is make a few posts as lambing goes along.

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January started off with a bang… literally. Our barn was one of the many in this area that had it’s roof collapse. Thankfully the main part of the barn was unaffected. Only the service room on the south end was damaged. Still, it set us back quite a bit in our preparations for lambing. We were extremely blessed to have lots of help getting things cleaned up and keeping the farm running at the same time. A huge thank you to all of our family, as well as the Pearson boys, who came to help out. All the wreckage is cleaned up and utilities are connected so that the barn functions as normally as possible.  photo

In the end, we were able to get everything set up in the barn, and lambing started pretty much right on schedule.


As of right now, we have about 85 ewes done lambing and things are going quite well. This is one of the first times that I have managed this many ewes lambing at once. We have nearly 400 ewes in this group. We have done groups this size in the past, but we always had at least one person hired to help out. So far, this year we are keeping up, and I have to attribute it to how much Alyssa has been able to help out. She has been coming out about twice a day with the kids and helping with getting jugs watered and grain fed. Timmy is really keen on learning the ropes and really enjoys using the garden hose to water jugs. All the kids enjoy coming to the barn, even Henry who likes to sleep in his car seat.


We have a few new things that we’re trying out this lambing season and we’re going to try to share those with you as things progress.

Take care
-Miles

Away in a Feed Bunk

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feed bunkI was blessed to spend a little time in the barn this morning doing the feedings.  Come Christmas time, I am always reminded of the manner in which our Savior entered the world.   So often, we forget to even consider the birth of Jesus this time of year.  In our best moments, we think about the baby wrapped up in swaddling clothes lying in a manger, but as I look at the nativity sets all around, I think that we have missed something of the reality of what Christ came into.

As I hurried my way through the barn this morning, hundreds of noisy ewes bellowed at me in their greedy quest to fill their stomachs.  They jostled and pushed their way through the straw and manure to find a place at the feed bunk.  I’ve always been quite happy with our feed bunks as far as feeding sheep goes, but Christmas morning the feed bunks take on a new appearance.  They look dirtier and dustier, the bottoms are caked with old bits of feed and manure and dozens of drooly sheep mouths plunge into the barley that I’m busy pouring.

I stopped to think about the feed bunk.  You see, when I ask my kids about the Christmas story I always ask them where the baby Jesus was laid.  They usually answer, “The manger.”  To which I quickly respond, “But, what is a manger?”  Now, even a lot of farm kids might have a hard time answering this.  Manger is a bit of an out of date word.  My kids have learned the right answer though, “A manger is a feed bunk!”

This is a stark truth when you are nose to nose with a two hundred pound panting drooling old ewe looking into her feed trough.  THIS is it! This is where the newborn baby Jesus was laid those many years ago.  This was his bassinet.

A fresh understanding of what it means that the Creator of the Universe stepped down into the form of a helpless baby to be born like any one of us.  The perfect God surrounded by the filth of a creation so utterly ruined by the sin of each one of us.  One has to ask the question why?  Why would he do that? It’s simple really.  It’s because he loves you!  It was all part of his masterful plan to redeem a world lost and without hope.  His plan to take our sin upon himself that each of us might have the opportunity to trust him and be saved from the consequences of our own sin!  What amazing love, what amazing grace!  And it started here, in a feed bunk.

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Counting Lambs Before They’re… Hatched?

Well, it’s now confirmed that about 400 ewes will be lambing here through February and March.  Yesterday was a full day of running our first breeding group through for ultrasound preg-checking.  We’ve been ultrasounding our own ewes now for a number of years and, though it is a big job, we find that it really pays off pretty quickly.  It allows us to identify our open ewes and, either give them another chance to breed, or identify cull ewes sooner than otherwise.  It also means that we aren’t feeding several open ewes all the way through late gestation and lambing rations, which is costly enough for pregnant ewes.

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We have been using a small portable ultrasound unit from Intriquip.  It’s about the perfect balance between cost and performance for our operation.  We use it simply to identify open and pregnant ewes.  As much as I would like to be able to count the number of lambs per ewe, it would require much more experience and training on my part and probably a more expensive ultrasound unit. IMG_8288[1]

 

IMG_8289[1]We were thankful to have Connor and Brayden Pearson join us for the day.  Once again they blew me away with their industriousness, and we managed to get through the whole group of a little over 400 ewes. IMG_8293[1]

 

Overall everything went very smoothly.  Brayden got to put our new alley system to the test while he ran the ewes up to us.  The night before last, I finished building and installing two guillotine gates in our curved lead up alley.  The idea was to be able to keep small groups of ewes moving up the alley in a way that they could always see sheep ahead of them.  To accomplish that, I used some pieces of overhead door panel for the bottom portion of the gates.  They are nice and light weight and don’t have spaces where sheep can stick a leg through and get injured.  The top portion of the gates is a panel made of galvanized steel rods.  The sheep can see through this part of the panel to the next pen ahead of them.  Sheep love to follow other sheep and it helps them move up the alley when they feel they are following rather than leading.  I ran cables up through a pulley and across the handling pen then through another pulley and across over top of the squeeze.  The plan was that the gates could be raised from either position.  It seems like the design worked, because Brayden didn’t seem to have much trouble keeping us supplied with ewes nonstop all day!  I’m thinking that the only change I will make is to add a counterweight to the lift cable so that the gates can be lifted a little bit more easily and quickly, but so far so good!IMG_8292[1]

 

IMG_8295[1]Meanwhile on the front end I was doing the ultrasound scanning while Connor recorded tag numbers and pregnancy status in the handheld.  We also decided to give these ewes their dewormer while we were handling them, and Connor took care of that while I was busy scanning.IMG_8290[1]

 

This is one job where I am extremely thankful for our Racewell Superhandler squeeze.  It works perfectly for ultrasounding.  What I do, is set the ‘eyes’ to catch the ewes early so their back end is hanging out of the squeeze nicely.  This gives me good access for scanning while keeping them restrained.  It is also very nice to have the ewes up off the ground so I can sit in a chair rather than squatting all day. IMG_8296[1]

 

Ultrasounding ewes is done externally between the left hind leg and the udder.  With a bit of practice most pregnant ewes are fairly quickly identified and the process moves along nicely.  Some ewes seem to require a little more probing around to determine.  The ones that I find most difficult are the open ewes.  Probably because it’s a difficult search when you’re looking for something that’s not there.  I usually spend a fair bit longer on ewes where nothing is immediately visible.  Sometimes it turns out that she is pregnant, sometimes my searching yields no results.  In that case she gets a pink mark and goes into a separate pen.  In our flock, I will wait a few days and re-scan the ‘open’ group of ewes just to make sure that they are all actually open.  At that point I can make a culling decision.  If a ewe is one of our lower producers and is now open, then it’s a good opportunity to ship her.  If she’s normally a good ewe and just didn’t take for some reason, then she will go in with the next breeding group and get another chance in a month or so. IMG_8297[1]

 

Ultrasounding sheep isn’t all that common in Alberta yet.  Likely because the vet association won’t allow technicians to offer the service, as it is technically a veterinary diagnosis.  If you are a mid to large sized flock owner it might be something that you want to look in to.  The cost of the equipment probably doesn’t make sense for anyone with a smaller flock, though several small producers might want to have joint ownership in a unit or some such arrangement.  If you are interested in learning more about ultrasound scanning sheep let me know and I can try to answer any other questions that you might have.

 

Next on the road to lambing will be shearing.  Stay tuned.

 

-Miles

 

Babies to Blizzards and Everything In-Between

I’ve been puzzling over how I can recap the last two and a half months in a single blog post? How about one word?… BUSY!
The busyness started August 29… well, late on August 28th actually. It started with hurriedly packing three sleepy older siblings into a minivan to spend the night at Oma and Opa’s while we headed off in the farm truck to the hospital.

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We’re thankful for the safe arrival of our fourth child Henry John Driedger! Born 1:45am August 29.

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Needless to say that kick started a very busy stretch for our family. It took a little while to adjust to four aged 3 and under. Of course we didn’t have to worry about that for long because as of September 25 we now have four aged 4 and under. And as much as that may make us sound busy, not more than two days ago I sold a few rams to a family expecting their sixth in 6 years! That made me thankful for our relatively quiet little family.

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Well, as expected, harvest with Alyssa’s family got underway when Henry was about 1 week old. A little young to break him in to the combine, but he seemed to enjoy the endless bouncing and rumbling when he’d come along for rides.

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Everybody got their turns riding along with the different family members. I spent most of my time running the grain cart back and forth between combines and the truck. It was a new experience and I sure enjoyed it!

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We wrapped up our stint in the field with a little bit of straw baling which is always enjoyable with a couple little riders. However, it sure was nice to have that wrapped up and get on to fall work as fast as possible before the snow hit.

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Fall work has been a bit of a blur as we tried to get as many outside jobs off the list as we could. Thanks to Alyssa’s dad for a big cleanup blitz around the yard as well as ‘clean-out’ inside the barn. We got the last few hay bales stacked into the hay shed and hauled the straw bales home thanks to our old neighbor’s home-made-self-unloading-bale-wagon.

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All this along with a number of other jobs and we were almost ready for the snow to fall. The last thing we needed to do was tear out a section of page wire and build some fenceline feeding for the extra 200 ewe lambs we’re feeding this winter. We were almost ready to get started when we heard the forecast for 20cm of snow over the weekend.

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I finished pulling out the old fence just as the snow began to fall, so after a quick lunch we bundled everyone up to join me outside. We hooked up the post pounder to the farm truck and buckled the youngest three in. Alyssa drove the truck along for me while Timmy watched from the truck box.

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It was slow going and the truck kept wanting to slide down the slope in all that fresh wet snow. The snow kept piling up around us and we had made it almost half way when it didn’t seem like the truck would make it much farther (it’s time for new tires). So everyone headed inside while I switched the post pounder over to the tractor. Alyssa’s brother, Andrew, was able to come drive the tractor for me and we just managed to get the last post in before sundown. The next day and a half were spent fastening up boards in the snow, which the whole family lent a hand with. While we didn’t quite beat the snow on that last job, we are thankful to have the extra feeding space for the winter months and are glad to have the project completed.

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With everything outside freezing up and buried in snow, our attentions have turned inside the barn where we have a number of jobs to get accomplished before ultrasounding and shearing. Both of which will be happening over the next month and a bit. Check back soon to keep up with the countdown to our first lambing of 2014.

God bless,
– Miles

How to Weather a Storm

I can be a bit of a hermit sometimes. My brother from Manitoba called me last night to ask about the flooding in Calgary. I told him, “Oh, it’s probably nothing. Calgary can flood pretty easily in some areas.” Was I ever wrong. I hadn’t heard the news, other than a little bit of radio as I drove the two minutes to my in-laws and back. I really don’t spend much time watching the news I guess. Today we did though.

It’s absolutely astounding what a little water is capable of, and the havoc that it wreaks on peoples lives. I can’t imagine what it must be like for those who have lost their homes and possessions. I can’t say that I have ever had to cope with that specific kind of disaster in my own life, but today has given me ample opportunity to think about it.

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The rain is falling all over Alberta threatening flooding everywhere from Medicine Hat to Edmonton from what I’ve heard on the radio. Here on our farm, the yard may be wet and the dugout may be spilling over, but we have relatively little to fear. Tonight, we were caught out of nowhere by a sudden hailstorm. Nothing too damaging, but furious for a few minutes. I watched our sheep shake their heads bewildered as they were pelted with the driving ice pellets. Scrambling across the yard, a few found shelter under one of the grain bins and waited out the worst of it, while most took shelter under the trees or inside the barn.

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I headed out to take a picture of them, and by the time I got there, the storm was already subsiding. The poor wet ewes trotted away happy to find the next patch of green grass.

By the time I got back to the house, the sun was beginning to shine, and I could see blue sky again. It was the perfect condition for a rainbow, and I was disappointed that I didn’t see one, but we did get a few minutes of glorious sunshine illuminating the saturated landscape. I wondered though, with all the rain falling in Alberta if somewhere there wasn’t a rainbow shining. I imagined what a contrast that would be to see a bright rainbow right above the flooded streets of Calgary: apparent chaos overshadowed by complete sovereignty.

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In Genesis 8 and 9, after God graciously saved 8 people and all animal life from the global flood, he placed the first rainbow in the sky as the signature of His promise to never flood the entire world again, and He spoke these words, “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”

It is tempting to see the predictions of the anthropogenic climate change alarmists as being fulfilled by the recent natural disasters around North America, to feel that maybe, just maybe the environment is spiralling out of control. However, time will show that the Creator of this world is in complete control. That not a molecule of matter is outside of His sovereignty. How do I know this? Because, if there were forces beyond His control, He could never have made the promises that He did when he put the rainbow in the sky. And, in case you’re wondering, His track record on those promises so far is 100% perfect.

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So, other than sheep being pelted with hail, why does a story about natural disasters and God’s sovereignty belong on a blog about our sheep farm? Well, it all came together in my mind as I considered the crisis situation that most sheep farms are in right now thanks to the brutally low lamb market. Really, it doesn’t matter what you are doing in life, from time to time all of us will be hit with hard times and crisis. These situations can be almost anything, from having your house swept away in a flood, to having a child die, to loosing your farm because of factors beyond your control, but they all have this in common: they have the ability to shake us at the very root of our being and cause us to ask questions that we never thought we’d face. I don’t have time to get into all of it here, but I firmly believe that these moments are divinely appointed to accomplish something of God’s will. We may not see it now, we may not even see it in this lifetime, but rest assured that all things serve a purpose, a very good purpose… Even bad lamb prices.

-Miles

If you want to talk more about these things, drop me a line. I’d love to talk with you.

Our prayers are with each of the people affected by the ongoing flooding.

A Shepherdess in Training

Our kids love every chance they can get to be out in the barn with Daddy! Now that the ground between our house and the barn is getting less muddy, it makes it easier for me to take the kids out for visits.

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This afternoon our two year old daughter got to have a ride on the lambing cart. Miles put some wheels on an old set of drawers to make this little lambing cart. When he checks for new lambs or tags lambs in the jugs, Miles will push this cart down the alley. This keeps all the things he needs for these jobs close by and reduces the number of trips made to the service room to grab supplies.

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