At some point, nearly all shepherds find themselves in a situation where — due to planning or an “oops” — one or more of the ewe lambs end up bred and due to deliver around or before their first birthday. If the situation arises because of an accident, the shepherd may feel a bit of panic, and if by plan, more likely joy. Yet bred ewe lambs can bring some complications to gestation that aren’t as critical for older ewes.
First and foremost, bred ewe lambs must be fed well. These girls are still growing themselves, and so they need a higher level of nutrition than their adult counterparts. And since they are the only source of nutrition for their growing fetus(es), they require an even higher level of nutrition. Studies have shown that if bred ewe lambs don’t get adequate nutrition during gestation, they will age rapidly as adults, often losing teeth by the age of six or seven. Keep in mind that even our 10- to 14-year-old ewes have most, if not all, of their teeth. Good nutrition is critically important, and more so with bred lambs!
In past years, I panicked slightly when our ultrasounds showed that one or more small lambs were carrying a lamb of her own — or even worse, were carrying twins! With time, I’ve come to realize that those lambs who do breed their first fall generally do just fine if their nutrition is adequate. Even the smallest lambs have delivered some really nice babies of their own — and also took very good care of them! In general, if a lamb is marked during breeding, I will often start her right then on a higher level of nutrition, essentially all that she can eat. Since fetal requirements are less demanding in the first trimester, this extra nutrition can lead to two very important things: additional growth of the young ewe, and as a result, additional growth of the pelvic girdle, which will enable an easier delivery. Exceptional nutrition in the first trimester also creates better placental growth, greatly increasing the odds for a successful pregnancy.
I generally cut back their nutrition somewhat in the second trimester. This cutting back will help establish the amount of food they need to maintain their body weight while providing what is needed by the unborn lambs. Because we need to increase nutrition during the last trimester, I need these girls to set a baseline during the second trimester; I no longer feed them all they can eat but instead set out a ration. This allows me to assess how much they are taking in and then figure out how much more I need to feed during the last trimester.
A ewe lamb carrying twins can raise concerns because she is small (since she’s still a lamb) and can only eat so much each day. A time will come when she just cannot take in enough nutrition to adequately provide for three growing sheep (herself and her twins). This situation usually occurs very late in gestation, and grain is a good concentrated source of nutrients. We generally add or increase grain levels for these girls in their last trimester to try to avoid a nutritional deficit. The one advantage of her carrying twins, which most shepherds forget to consider, is that each of the unborn lambs is likely to be smaller than if the young ewe were carrying only one. And smaller lambs make the birthing process much easier for a first-timer.
Many shepherds will tell you than ewe lambs make terrible mothers, but we have not found this to be the case. More often, any poor mothering is tied to the fact that the shepherd becomes impatient during labor and pulls the lambs from the birth canal too soon. This speeds up the process, but in doing so, the shepherd does not give the young ewe’s body time to transition from carrying fetuses to actually mothering lambs. We’ve found that if we monitor the labor carefully and allow the ewe lamb all the time she needs to deliver the lambs on her own, she will almost always mother them well — and often more insistently than the older ewes, due to the difficult labor that brought her to motherhood. After all of that work, she isn’t about to let anything happen to her prize!
This year we have only one of our ewe lambs bred with twins, and that is sweet Qorro, Poison’s daughter. Generally, it is maturity rather than size that determines which ewe lambs will breed, and that was true this year too. Two of our oldest ewe lambs are bred; both Qorro and Qash will be delivering lambs in 2018 if all goes well. The best part of it is that both bred at the same time, so they should end up making this new journey of motherhood together. From the drop pen to the lambing jugs, and then on to the mixing pens, if things continue as they are, they will have each other — and that is likely to set up a friendship that can last for years.