Gearing up for Lambing 2019

Gearing up for Lambing 2019

What made me decide to take on lambing again?  After the tumultuous experience of my first lambing, I wasn't sure I wanted to go through that ever again.  But...when I look back, my memory of the heartbreak and hard work is a little fuzzy (probably due to being sleep-deprived and high on a cocktail of panic, adrenaline, and desperation).  On the other hand, I'm surrounded every day by pictures of the happy, healthy lambs--my neighbor took the wonderful pictures that are on my Thank You notes and cards, and recently, on the wood print that she gave me for my birthday.  I remember that the lambs were sound, with beautiful fleece, and they had terrific personalities.  I'm proud of the lambs that I brought into the world.  The twin boys went to a nearby fiber farm, and all three girls went to another local fiber farm to be loved and cared for. 

Shetland sheepRoobie's twin ewe lambs, living their best lives at Cedar Gate Farm in Denville, NJ. Photo, Larysa Breem

Looking ahead at my 2019 calendar, it felt strange to not have lambs to plan around.  And when I thought about the coming spring/summer, I felt an emptiness when I imagined a year without that tingling excitement of anticipating lambs.

But even if I thought I was up to the challenge of lambing again, I wondered if breeding would have any negative effects on the ewes' health.  The girls had been getting grain throughout the summer, because I felt like Roobie and Moon, who had twins and nursed the longest, were slow to gain their weight back.  A sheep's nutritional well-being is evaluated on a scoring scale of 1 - 5, with 1 being dangerously thin, and 5 being dangerously fat.  The amount of fat and muscle cover can be felt by palpating the vertical and horizontal processes in the vertebrae in their hip area; i.e., I should be able to clearly feel their bones under a reasonable amount of fat cover.  The optimal condition score for ewes going into breeding is considered to be 2.5, but what I've read about Shetland sheep is that they are naturally on the lower end of the condition grade, and carry their fat around their organs, rather than along their backs like meat breed sheep.  Moon and Roobie had scores of 2, while Beatrice, who hadn't been bred last year, was on the roly-poly end at 4.  Poppy, Quin, and Phoebe were a solid 2.5.

Their fleeces from the fall shearing had been sound, without any breaks or weak spots, and the girls were lively and their usual opinionated selves.  But as the weather got colder, they seemed to be acting antsier--challenging one another more, and asking for more attention.  Shetland sheep are seasonal breeders and it's not unreasonable to think that the short days and cold nights triggered their estrus cycles, and they were, stirrings. 

And speaking of stirrings, having gorgeous rams so readily available at my friend's farm nearby was just too tempting.  Back in 2017, Linda Doane, who was the first person to bring Shetland sheep into the US in 1986, dispersed her flock.  You can read about her (and everything else related Shetland sheep) on her website: Maple Ridge Farm.  Any unsold sheep were to be sent to the butcher, and Shetland breeders from across the country made the pilgrimage to Vermont to buy her sheep in order to continue the historic bloodlines.  She had three breeding rams that she wanted to be kept together because they were so bonded; they were such good buddies that she called them The Three Musketeers.  As much as I wanted them, I knew I didn't have the infrastructure to safely keep rams.  Rams need to be in a separate field that's upwind of the ewes, with unquestionably sturdy fencing.  My friend Darcy, who had a flock of Dorset sheep and had been looking at switching to fiber sheep, had the requisite pasture and fencing, and she was smitten with them.  

The "Three Musketeers" of Maple Ridge Farm from l to r: Seamus, Jonas, and Orrin

Darcy didn't have a trailer at the time, but another local Shetland breeder contacted me and offered to drive us with his trailer.  I'd never met him, but the Garden State Sheep Breeders Association is a small group, and I was assured that he was "a nice guy."  He turned out to be one of the most delightful people I've ever met.  He was entertaining, kind, immensely knowledgeable on a variety of subjects ranging from structural engineering, geology, to azaleas (and rhododendrons).  Oh, and he was literally an expert trailer driver; among his many other accomplishments, he happened to have a commercial truck driving license.  Those little mountain roads of northern Vermont are no joke, and to this day, I still can't believe how lucky we were that Michael offered to drive us.  The total drive took about 15 hours, and Darcy and I couldn't have asked for better company.  Darcy bought the three boys, Michael bought a darling ram lamb, and I, well, I bought three blankets.  I was happy to do anything to help rehome those handsome boys, and I was particularly thrilled that their new home was going to be only 15 minutes from me.

Darcy, me, and Michael setting out for the Great Shetland Rescue Adventure.

Last year, it was the easiest thing in the world to go pick up Orrin in the minivan, bring him over, and then cart him off again 35 days later.  Wham, bam, thank you, ram. This year, it would be even easier, since Darcy had bought a trailer and would be offering delivery and pickup service.  Orrin was a perfect guest last year, but I was excited about using Seamus this year.  He's a bit bigger than Orrin, but my girls are a year older, and his coloring is spectacular.  Orrin also had a prominent forehead that I distinctly remember, because one of Roobie's ewe lambs inherited it and working to ease her big noggin out of Roobie was an experience I won't forget. Seamus' aerodynamic forehead is definitely a point in his favor. 

Seamus, our 2019 stud. Photo, Darcy Draeger

Seamus arrived for his booty call on January 6.  It was later in the season than I wanted, but one good thing about the late date is that my fields had been horribly muddy all winter, causing hoof problems for Poppy in December.  The mud had gotten compacted in her hoof and irritated the tissue between the toes.  The vet came, packed her toes with salt, and wrapped her hoof in a sparkly bandage.  She (the vet) recommended that I keep Poppy locked inside the barn for a few nights, since she wouldn't be able to run from predators.  I put her and her twin Moon in the barn, and locked them in for the night.  Just before I went to bed, I checked the barn camera and saw an empty barn and the doors swinging in the wind.  Yes, they really had ripped the latch from the barn door.  My sheep don't appreciate being confined...I think they're convinced that they're missing out on some wild bacchanalia of sweet feed and warm molasses water.  Poppy and Quin (who also developed a mildly sore hoof) ended up spending a few days locked in the small pen by the shed, which was snug and dry, but open. By the time that Seamus came, Poppy and Quin had healthy feet, and the mucky fields finally started to freeze.

The average gestation period for sheep is 147 days.  I use this lambing date calendar to determine when I want to have a ram in with my ewes.  Most fiber farmers lamb in April (meat producer tend to lamb in February, in order to have lambs ready for Easter, and people who show lambs like to lamb in March, since judges tend to prefer big lambs).  April really is the ideal time for my area, because the temperatures are no longer dangerously cold for the newborn lamb (or miserably chilly for the old farmer), and the lambs have time to develop some immunity against parasites by the time they hit the pastures for the first time.  I choose to lamb in mid-May, after MDSW, because I can't juggle preparing for MDSW and lambing at the same time--and I don't want to have to leave for the weekend with lambs about to drop or even with newborn lambs in the barn.  

A ewe's estrus cycle is about 17 days, so the recommendation is to keep the ram with the ewes for 35 days to guarantee that the ewe is exposed to the ram during at least one cycle. But there is a fascinating phenomenon called the "ram effect," when a ram's pheromones jump-start the estrus cycle in a ewe.  It only happens if the ewes haven't been in contact (smell range, really) with a ram for at least 28 days prior to exposure.  Farmers take advantage of the ram effect to induce estrus if they want to breed out of season.  But now, in the thick of breeding season, I appreciate the potent effect because it condenses my lambing period.  My girls haven't smelled a ram since last January, so when Seamus walked into their field, they all took notice.  If they hadn't happened to be in estrus when he arrived, they would be within 36 hours, or after 6 days. Out of season, the first two cycles are considered "silent heats," because they're undetectable by the ram.  In season, however, the ram definitely gets the message.  Last year, Quin, Roobie, and Poppy all lambed within 30 hours of one another, starting on the 146th day after their first day with Orrin. 

Seamus, dazzling the girls with his irresistible ram pheromones 

It's obvious when my ewes are in estrus: they approach the ram, flip their tails in a way that can only be described as provocatively, and they stand for him to mount. When they're not interested, they just run away from him and keep their distance. It's also clear that a ram feels a certain connection to a ewe when she's in estrus, because he'll separate her from the other girls and keep her close to him. It's an intense but short-lived relationship, since estrus only lasts between 24-36 hours. 

Since I don't want to be lambing in late June, and since hosting someone else's sheep is a big responsibility, I plan to return him by January 20.  I'm reasonably confident that all the girls will be bred by then, like they were last year.  Judging by what I've seen so far, Beatrice, Moon, and Phoebe were probably bred on January 6, and Poppy on January 7. Quin and Roobie tend to be more private about their personal business, so we'll just have to wait and see.  That puts us at May 25 for early lamb watch, and my money is on June 1 for the real excitement to begin. Mark your calendars. It'll probably be around midnight. During a rainstorm.  



Comments on post  (2)

Cusenry says:

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Pat says:

What a delightful and informative post this is. I look forward to seeing the new lambs in a few months.

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