Having finished our lambing season the day before Easter, the focus has now shifted to growing our lambs. I no longer need to run out to the barn during the night to assist labor, nor do I have to constantly worry whether there’s enough space in the barn for the ewes and lambs. The barn door is now wide open, the sheep can come and go at their leisure, and the ewes are generally watching over their lambs so that I don’t need to keep a vigil. I check on the flock once or twice a day when I feed, and I focus more on weighing lambs, changing their coats when they become too tight, and watching for signs of illness.
Yet this is the perfect time of year to look forward to next year’s lambing. The event is fresh in our minds, and it’s a good time to take stock as to what worked well and what didn’t. For many shepherds, this is a good time to research the installation of one or more barn cameras to monitor the flock. We have a system of four cameras here, and they are a godsend! I can no longer imagine lambing season without them. For those of you who might be considering the purchase of a system, I have some insights based on our experience.
First, and I believe most importantly, it is critical that any barn cameras work in cold temperatures. We didn’t know this with our first system, but most cameras are designed for use in horse barns, which — according to the camera companies — are heated. Therefore most cameras do not function below freezing. Now, if you are shepherding in a location with cold winters, you need a camera system most when it is bitterly cold. None of us want to get out of a warm bed, don layer upon layer of clothes, and traipse around in sub-zero temperatures to do a barn check. But even more importantly, if we don’t go, those terribly cold temps also risk the life of any newborn lambs who happen to arrive during the coldest part of the night! A camera that operates reliably down to at least 20F is mandatory, I believe. Between sheep body heat and heat lamps in the jugs, we can usually keep the temps in the barn above 20F, but any camera that only functions to freezing (32F) is less than useful.
We’ve also had experience with wireless systems, and for us, they just didn’t work well. The idea of running a line between the barn and the house was intimidating, but when our first two wireless systems provided very poor pictures on the house monitor, we decided to try a wired system for the third try. The third system was a charm! We ran two cables through a buried PVC pipe, thinking that as long as we were going to run one wire, we might as well run a backup at the same time. Our only problem was that we buried the pipe in the summer but didn’t run the wires until November. By that late in the year, rainwater had found its way into the pipe and had frozen, creating a serious blockage for the lines we tried to push through. We had to thaw the ice to run the cables — a workable solution, but it required more effort than we would have liked. In hindsight, we should have pushed the cable through when we buried the pipe and then hooked it all up when we found time later in the year.
We used four cameras to give our barn good coverage. We do not have a camera over the mixing pens, but we have two different views of any given position in both the drop pen and the jugs. If you place the cameras high in the rafters, you can get a wide view that takes in a large area — and this is an advantage. They’re also out of the way, so they won’t get banged by machinery or moved by roaming cats or raccoons. Our cameras have both a daytime color display and night vision; the latter is actually better than being out in the barn yourself! With night vision, I can see the sheep on a black-and-white display as if it were daylight — but if I were in the barn, I’d have to look them over by headlamp, one by one. The display that we have is so detailed that, in most cases, I can tell you which sheep is which — day or night.
We purchased an inexpensive large (37″) television for the display and hung it on the wall in the bedroom. We mounted it on an articulating wall mount so I can angle it to be seen from my spot in bed or turn it to view from a seated position during the day. Because the screen is so large, I can keep all four camera views on the display and still see what I need to see. If I need more detail, I can select a particular camera to fill the display.
Any barn camera system is an investment, but once you have it, you’ll wonder how you got along without it. Our current (and, we assume, final) system was designed by Rick as he researched what went wrong with the first two. If any of you want the details of what we have, just ask in the comments and I will private e-mail you the diagram and parts list. Good luck! I hope the system you end up with works as well for you as ours does for us.