Sunday, October 30, 2022


Lambs that died of Starvation-Exposure-Mismothering complex

A long time ago I used to keep sheep. One of the watersheds in raising sheep is that it was recognized that lamb losses due to the top-three causes were not isolated causes but were joined at the hip.

Before that "Ah-ha!" moment, it was believed that some lambs died of mis-mothering, others died of exposure and still others died of starvation. Each of these were considered very major causes of lamb losses with a 20% loss being fairly common. If your ewes threw twins, then you had 40 dead lambs for every 100 ewes.

Some ewes are super-mothers

Some ewes are horrible mothers. They drop their lamb(s) in random places and walk away from them without bonding. Sometimes it seems like they go out of their way to drop them in the last snowbank to melt in the pasture.

Other ewes are super-mothers. They pick sunny, clement slopes to drop their lambs in good weather and the leeward side of dense brush in inclement weather. They talk to their lambs and bond with them. They seem to be able to count. If they dropped three lambs they do not move away with two of them but wait for the third. They dry each lamb off of birthing fluids. They make sure each lamb "tanks up" on milk soon after birthing and then on a frequent basis afterward.

Most ewes are somewhere between these two extremes. And even super-mothers will lose lambs if it rains for 48 hours after they give birth.

The size of a new-born lamb is very similar to the size of a newly born human. 3.0kg is about 6lb-10oz


Whether super-mothers are due to genetics or imprinting is almost a moot point. The trait seems to run in maternal lines and be more common in large flocks that are less intensively shepherded and less common in hobby-flocks with helicopter shepherds.

Starvation-exposure linkages

A lamb that is cold cannot stand and suckle. A lamb that is running out of calories gets cold. If the cycle of eat-rest-eat-rest is interrupted then the lamb misses a meal, gets cold and gets into trouble.

The proximal cause of what interrupted the cycle is not particularly important.

Does this apply to humans?

If you squint real hard and look at the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy you might see similar intersections-of-needs.

The lack of food or water impact the human differently but from a practical standpoint they only differ in transportation and storage methods.

Shelter and food can be traded off. More food can at least partially off-set exposure to cold. Better clothing can also off-set colder ambient temperatures.

Social connections can extend the network for finding resources.

Three families in a house will be warmer than a single person living in a house even when there is no fuel for the furnace.

Stonefly larvae
Another parallel, one that is blindingly obvious, is that sometimes events will be so extreme that you can do "everything right" and still have bad outcomes. There are 23 million souls (and 66,666 politicians) living in the NYC metro area. They could harvest every migrating fish, minnow, crawdad, hellgrammite and stonefly larvae out of the Hudson and it would not feed the city for a day.

Before the dawn of the fossil-fuel era, the three largest cities were London, Paris and Bejing and they were barely 1,000,000 people. They were also well endowed with water-based transportation (canals).

The dynamics of population suggest that when a population over-shoots, it does not fall back to its carrying capacity but it oscillates to a population less than its organic carrying capacity. The more the population over-shoots, the farther below the organic carrying capacity the die-off carries the remaining population.

One can make a credible case that NYC and the oil-exporting nations in the middle-East overshot their organic carrying capacity by a factor of twenty.

If the bonds that hold civil society together unravels, it will be very ugly in many places.

On a more positive note: If you have done anything to prepare for tough times than you are likely to have thought about all of the physiological needs and have "connections" that can help you fill in  (or find ways to substitute around) shortfalls that come up.


  1. The physiological needs and 19th Century ag skills are what we are focused on incorporating in our community now. The hard part is including the new people that have come here this year. When you don't know each other it's hard to trust and include them. Probably on both sides. ---ken

  2. Ken makes an excellent point... And sheep will get into the damnest situations... sigh

  3. I count on 1,000,000 calories per person per year as my food storage goal.

    Then, gardening, foraging, hunting and barter exchange will add more time.

    I imagine my family on a sailboat crossing the Pacific Ocean like Captain Cook. How did they do it in the 1700's?. How can I mimic them?

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  5. It's especially bad due to the lost knowledge and lost tech - crop yields on fertile soil would likely drop by 80% or more.

  6. Cheap abundant energy is the reason the world has some 8 billion or so people. Take away cheap abundant energy and the population drops to perhaps 10% of that. And the journey from 8 billion to less than one billion will be ugly beyond description.

  7. You mentioned that the "super mother" trait seemed to be more prevalent in flocks receiving less intensive care and management. Nature can be cruel, but it can also be a great shaper of genotypes and phenotypes. We can use that tool to help create more resilient livestock. I'm in the camp of less intensive management (within reason), and I don't adhere to the "helicopter herdsman" philosophy where you prop up your animals with every newfangled thing from Big Ag. Landraces that developed largely on their own or with minimal human care have often turned out to be hardy, fecund, good mothers, good foragers, predator savvy, parasite-resistant, or otherwise well-adapted to a specific set of conditions. While they might not lay the most eggs, grow the largest carcass, or be at the top of other production metrics, I'd trade all that productivity in a heartbeat for a tough animal that needs little care, even if they aren't show champions. That also makes you and your animals more resilient if supply chains falter and you can't get the outside inputs that make a lot of modern agriculture possible (manufactured feeds, medications, etc.). It's interesting to consider the spectrum of animal husbandry and the level of associated care involved. There's a lot to be said for using landraces, culling undesirable traits, and decentralizing and downsizing agricultural operations. Think what we could do if everyone raised at least SOEMTHING!


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