Lambing is a crucial time on our farm. Really, our entire year depends on a successful lambing season. But it is decisions made up to a year ago that determine what this busy period of time looks (and feels) like.
Last year at this time, we decided which ewes to keep. Some, either because they didn’t lamb or were poor mothers, were culled (removed) from the breeding flock. Then we had to decide which of the ewe lambs to keep for breeding stock - a decision based on how their mother performed, whether they were a twin or triplet (we select against single lambs), their conformation, their growth pattern and rate, etc. We also actively select for appropriate temperament; we appreciate calm, gentle ewes that are easy to handle and keep in fences (especially important in our rotational grazing system) but still with enough backbone to be protective mothers.
Last June and July, I spent an inordinate amount of time researching and finding a ram. By the third generation, a ram has contributed over 87% of the genetics of the flock, so it is a critically important decision. However, to avoid inbreeding, rams can only be used two to three years, so it was time for new genetics. I considered the ewes we had, including the fact that we would be lambing a large percentage of inexperienced ewe lambs, and looked for a ram that would sire easy-to-birth, vigorous lambs that would perform on all grass. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find good ram genetics for grass-based systems, as most breeders with websites are into the show world and do not produce the right type of animal for grass-based farms. I finally found a commercial breeder close to Corvallis, so we loaded up the kids, went to look and came home with a new ram.
There are also decisions about when to “join” the ram and ewes. Too early, and the lambs are born before the grass gets growing, which means a lot more feed, mud and also higher chances of pneumonia in the young lambs. Too late, and the lambs won’t mature before winter, again meaning high feed bills. Of course, in the summer when we make these decisions, we don’t know what the next spring will look like!
When we turned the ram in, he wore a marking harness. This little harness has a crayon that marks the ewe when she is bred. From that, we calculate due dates for each animal…and they are about as accurate as due dates are with humans! In reality, it narrows down the expected birth date to about a 3 week window. While helpful, sheep have their own mind and we’ve had plenty of lambs well outside this projected window.
Which is why I get no sleep during lambing! The ram is typically left with the ewe for 42 days, or 2 ewe cycles. Since lambs can come early or late, it can easily be a 2 month period of checking ewes. I watch the sheep carefully and frequently during the day, watching especially for pre-labor signs. Using that information, I determine whether I need to check every 2 hours throughout the night or whether I can go up to 4 hours between checks. I’ve been very fortunate this year that all the ewes but 2 have lambed during daylight hours….but I’m still up to check!
We prefer to let nature run the show, so we only intervene if there is a problem. The ewes lamb on clean pasture, choosing for themselves whether to lamb with the flock or separate themselves. Our lambs have been exceptionally vigorous, getting up to nurse right away and even trying to play within and hour or two, so I’ve mostly observed the lambings through binoculars, only approaching the ewe and lambs if there is a problem or after she has had time to bond and the lambs nurse.
Much of my work during this time is to simply watch. The trick is knowing when to intervene and what to do, but thankfully, we’ve had very few problems this year and all of them have been minor and easily corrected. The lambs are healthy and all the ewes are good mothers. We’re only 11 days into the season and only have six more ewes to go…I just might get sleep in April!