Nature is a wondrous thing, and I am privileged to work in an environment where I can observe many of its aspects firsthand within the world of sheep. This is an account of one of those marvels.
I am using only one ram lamb in our breeding groups this year, a beautiful Romeldale named Parker who comes from our own bloodlines but was bred at a now-defunct farm. Because Romeldales are a breed that is quick to mature and reproduce and because Parker was born in late February, I was fairly sure that he would quickly figure out the reason he was in with the girls. There are few Romeldale rams who don’t get to work by the time they are seven months old (Parker’s age when we separated our sheep into breeding groups), so his age was not a major concern. Yet in the back of every shepherd’s mind is the threat of failure in at least one breeding group. We worry that after all the work and materials that we’ve poured into our sheep, we will have no spring lambs to show for our efforts. When we were separating our groups for breeding this fall, it was Parker’s group that gnawed at my confidence.
Unlike us humans who pass along the “birds-and-bees talk” from generation to generation, our young sheep have to figure it out for themselves. There is no sheep sex ed nor any conversation the night before they go into their groups. Their innate drive to breed is actually one reason why I don’t believe in artificial insemination (AI) if high-quality live rams are available. With a live ram and ewe in a field, you know they each have not only the correct physical parts but also the very important drive to procreate — and their lambs will likely inherit that same strong drive from sire and dam. Sheep in the field do eventually figure it out, but no shepherd wants to end up with a bunch of fat ewes who “ate for two or three” all year and produced no lambs!
My concern over Parker was unfounded, as he got to work right away by marking yearling Osage during his first hours as a breeding ram. This, of course, takes the cooperation of both: the ram must scent the pheromones that signal the ewe is in heat, and the ewe must stand and allow him to breed her. This last item brought about my second concern. Even if Parker figured out what to do out there, the ewes might not stand for him — they might not want this little shrimpy guy as their “baby-daddy”!
Adult ewes are programmed to want to procreate, but given a choice, they will choose the biggest, smelliest, most testosterone-laden ram they can find — and when they have a ram lamb in their own group but adult rams in fields on either side, they often refuse to stand for their little guy. Even though Parker had marked Osage early on, I wasn’t sure he’d be marking any of the adults in his group — not for lack of trying, but because they might not be interested in him at his age. In fact, this was one factor in my decision to put Gabby into Parker’s breeding group: I wasn’t sure I really wanted her to breed, and I knew that her best chance of remaining open was if she was paired with a ram lamb. It was a gamble, but I knew that ram lambs can have a tough time.
After Osage was marked, things in Parker’s group got really quiet and there were no markings of any consequence for the rest of that week. We changed to the orange crayons on September 23, and again I saw random markings on ewe lambs but nothing on the adults in his group. When I left for a trip out of state this past weekend, I spent much of the flight debating whether I should pull out the adult ewes in his group and give them to one of the adult rams upon our return, just to make sure that we’d get lambs from them. It turns out I needn’t have worried.
Although Parker weighs in at only about 80 pounds, he has taken his work seriously. On Friday, September 30, he accepted the challenge in front of him and bred January, the third biggest ewe in our flock! Not only had he attempted to breed her, January was heavily marked with orange crayon! There was absolutely no doubt that he had bred her!
But this now raises an interesting question in my mind. Parker is currently a fairly small ram, as rams go, and January is not only quite wide but also fairly tall for a ewe. She is a very big girl! Each day as I go from group to group to check for new markings, I end up standing in the Rock Pasture looking at Parker and his group. My engineer’s brain is trying to figure out the geometry of how this breeding actually occurred. Parker marked January quite high on her back above the dock, a place that wouldn’t surprise me with an adult ram but certainly does with little Parker. How on earth did he get that crayon up there? A step ladder? Standing on the upper end of a slope while January stood downhill? I mean, really, how did he do that?
Neither January nor Parker will share information on how this breeding occurred. I am left with questions and few answers. Yet the most important question — will Parker do his job this year? — has been answered. Most definitely yes! I just keep wondering how.