Another question — this one about breeding

Qandy’s new orange marking is a bit of a mystery in light of the fact that she scanned with a single at 55 days gestation last Sunday!

The other day I answered a question from a young shepherd about shearing in cold weather, and afterwards he had an additional question on an uncommon but not unheard-of situation regarding ultrasounding. Three of his ewes came up open in the scan, so he decided to put them back in with one of his rams for late-season lambs, long after the rest of his ewes will deliver theirs. The ewes who scanned as pregnant went in with his other rams who had already done their jobs. After all, once a ewe is pregnant, it’s not as if a ram is going to make her any more pregnant! His favorite ewe, Qandy, was in this latter group. She had scanned with a single at a gestational age of about 55 days. He noticed that the rams seemed way too interested in Qandy, so — thinking it was just those rams in particular — he quickly pulled her from this group and put her with the unbred ewes, where the ram wore a harness with a marking crayon. The next morning, Qandy was marked in orange by the working ram’s crayon. The questions are numerous: What happened? Did the ultrasound technician get it wrong? How did Qandy get marked again? What was going on?

There are several things that could be going on here. First, although it’s possible that Qandy was not bred, it’s much more likely that the technician would misread the number of lambs rather than mistake whether the ewe is open or bred. If the technician is worth anything, he would get this part right — and he was trained by the technician I use, who is very good. Based on my assumption that the technician paid attention during training, I’ll assume that Qandy was accurately assessed as bred.

Second, it could be that Qandy lost her pregnancy and then rebred when she was marked again. The problem with this is that the shepherd mentions “when they were scanned on Sunday” he moved them into these groups. If they were indeed scanned this past Sunday, then there hasn’t been enough time for her to lose one lamb and then cycle again. If it was two or more weeks ago, then this is likely what happened — it actually occurs more often than you would think.

Third, it’s possible that Qandy is one of those rare ewes who seem to attract a ram even after they’re bred and who accommodate the ram if he is in the mood. Most ewes will not allow a ram to mount them unless they are in the conception phase of their cycle — and the ram, in turn, will usually not find a bred ewe’s pheromones attractive. But there are the occasional exceptions, and I have two of these in my flock. Princess and Grace end up marked in every color of the marking-crayon rainbow; they were each with different rams, but both were marked multiple times every week. Both are bred and were marked even weeks after they were no longer cycling through heat; so not only were the rams attracted, but the ewes obviously stood for the breeding. I can’t begin to tell you why — it’s a mystery known only to Grace, Princess, ObiWan, and Quest.

There is one final option that is rare but not impossible — although it seems impossible when you first hear it. I have known three different situations in which ewes who were bred and carrying live fetuses of a particular gestational age released eggs and became pregnant with one or more additional lambs. Unlike twins or triplets in humans, where they can be either identical or fraternal, genetically identical twins almost never happen in sheep. When we see ovine twins or triplets, they come from separate eggs. I sold one of my ewes to a friend many years ago, and the ewe delivered healthy twins 148 days later, the norm for Romneys. The new owner put the dam and her two lambs into a lambing jug to bond. Several days later, my friend came out into the barn to find the original lambs — now about 3-4 pounds heavier — at their mother’s side, plus there were two newborn lambs also in the pen, having been born overnight. This ewe had delivered all four lambs, two at each birthing. All of the lambs were healthy, and all survived.

I thought it was a one-time thing — but it wasn’t. A few years ago, another friend called to tell me about a similar incident on their farm: several weeks before, they had had a single lamb born to one of their ewes. As is their norm, they had moved the ewe and her lamb several days after the birth into a mixing pen with the other new mothers. The ewe had been caring for her lamb and living with other ewes and their lambs for two to three weeks when, one day, my friend went out to check on the sheep. This particular ewe was calling, so the shepherdess went to see whether the lamb was in trouble. Instead, she found the ewe with her weeks-old lamb and two wet newborns that had delivered overnight. They were obviously hers, as she had all of the evidence of a recent delivery under her tail — and she was very diligent in cleaning them off and mothering the new twins. So conception can happen with some space of time between. Sometimes labor will expel the younger of the lambs not yet ready for birth, and when this happens, they are stillborn. At other times — as in the above two examples — labor delivers only those lambs that are mature enough, and a second labor delivers the younger lamb(s) when they reach maturity. Because this is an unusual situation, I don’t have a lot more to say about it; of the thousands of sheep that I know through friends and acquaintances, I’ve heard of this happening three times.

So, unfortunately, I’m not quite sure what is going on with Qandy. Maybe the tech made a mistake, maybe Qandy lost the lambs and then rebred, maybe the rams really liked her and kept coming back — or maybe she has shed ovulated in two different cycles. There is no way to know right now — but I would watch that girl. You might just end up with something really interesting come spring!

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