Big ewes and related risks

It is this time of year — just around the holidays — that I begin to see some big changes in the flock. Some ewes begin to look pregnant very early in their gestation, but by this time, they are all beginning to look big. Honestly, I know it is a combination of their stage of pregnancy plus the fact that they carry nearly a full year’s fleece, but it still fascinates me that even the smallest ewes begin to look pretty big.

Despite their collective increase in size, there are still differences. Some of the ewes who are carrying multiples and those who have entered their last trimesters all sway a bit when they walk — and have been doing so for a while. Not only are they big and round, but their movements are generally slow and give the impression of a heavy, wide load — one that is getting wider and heavier all the time. Their lambs are growing quickly in size, while their rumens have expanded to meet this growing demand for nutrition. It is rare for a ewe in this situation to break into a run — but when they do, it is a sight to behold! January has been known to let loose and run for a particularly delightful treat (like Christmas trees!), and all of the swaying, wobbling, and jiggling that ensues is enough to tickle anyone’s sense of decorum!

The majority of our ewes are carrying twins, and they are beginning to show in a big way. As a result, they are walking a bit more slowly through the mud in our fields, which is a good thing. I am noticing a lot more limping this year than in any other. Every time I get a close look at one of our limping sheep, I find nothing but a twisted or sprained leg – nothing that time won’t heal. My thinking is that these issues are related to the vast amounts of mud this year: warm temperatures have prevented the ground from freezing, allowing moles and other creatures to burrow with abandon. With our ewes still grazing in the fields and off-balance due to their shifting gestational weights, their legs are paying the price. Thank goodness, our temperatures are now getting colder and the ground is finally beginning to freeze!

Although all of our ewes are coated, some of those coats aren’t fitting like they used to. The ewes’ expanding girth can pull up the sides of the coat so that their very nice wool is exposed to the elements (including the mud!). Yet changing the coat to a larger size doesn’t work well either — although the length fits just fine, it ends up hanging much too low in the back. Besides that, changing coats with this much mud on their legs also risks contaminating the fleece as the new coat is pulled on. As a result, I have a handful of ewes who have coats that are riding high on the sides, and I’m not willing to change that just yet!

Even the unbred ewe lambs are beginning to look big, almost swallowed up by their heavy wool coats. Although we have been trimming wool that threatens to cover their faces, particularly around the eyes, the rest of the wool has been left to grow to produce lovely, long staples. Over the past several years, we have been breeding and selecting for longer-stapled fleeces, meaning that our younger ewes are carrying more and more wool with each generation. Although our Romeldales used to average about a 3″ annual staple when we first began with the breed, many of our youngest girls now carry 5″ of wool growth after a year! Our youngest Romneys will be carrying 6″ of wool or more in one year, and the smallest flock members of either breed can look almost swallowed up by their fleeces!

Although these big, ungainly girls are a good thing — they are carrying our many lambs inside and our long-stapled fleeces outside — we must also be wary and keep a close eye on them. Because of the shift in their weight and balance, it is much easier for them to become cast on one of our many hillsides. (When sheep cast themselves, they roll into a position on their side or back from which they may not be able to get up without assistance. According to Sheep 101: This happens most commonly with short, stocky sheep with full fleeces…. Heavily pregnant ewes are most prone. Cast sheep can become distressed and die within a short period of time if they are not rolled back into a normal position. When back on their feet, they may need support for a few minutes to ensure they are steady.) In fact, at this stage they don’t require a hillside to cast themselves — they can easily do so in a divot in the barn straw or in a depression in the ground. I am constantly on the lookout for a ewe who cannot get up by herself!

Yes, their large size is a good thing, but the increased risks with their bulk mean that we need to be vigilant. We are entering (or for some, have already entered) the last trimester — new fleeces and baby lambs are just around the corner! The ultimate goal is to get every one of our ewes through shearing and then lambing, happy and healthy. As a result, I check over the girls at least a couple of times each day and also watch them from the windows of our house and via the monitor in the barn. At this point, I can’t be too careful — those wide loads are all good friends, and they carry the future of our flock!

 

 

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