Breeding Gabby

Gabby is now one of our oldest ewes at the ripe old age of nine. She has been one of our most productive ewes, giving us twenty lambs over the years. Those numbers don’t really give you the full picture, however. In her first years here, she gave us singles and twins for a total of six lambs over that initial four-year period. They were nice, good-sized lambs, averaging 11.6 pounds over the first three years. The single in the fourth year (ram lamb Kaleb) was quite large, weighing 15.2 pounds.

After these initial four years, Gabby went into overdrive, carrying over thirty pounds of lambs each year, usually in the form of triplets weighing over 11 pounds each. Over the years, I have watched her age and sag, and I wondered how long my good friend could manage this production schedule. When she went into premature labor this past spring and lost all three lambs (see blog dated March 2, 2016), it broke my heart. Gabby also took the loss hard, and I made the decision to move her into our “Granny” position — the one charity spot that I keep for just such ewes who are done producing and have earned a retirement.

When we moved our breeding groups together on Sunday, September 18th, Gabby knew what was going on — she had seen this same separation into groups many times during her life. When she realized that she was destined to remain in the barn with the nonbreeding ewes (lambs destined for the auction), she took the news hard. In the days that followed, she did everything she could think of to get herself into a breeding group. Anytime I came outside, I heard her calling to Noa, the Romeldale ram outside the barn where she now lived. If she heard my voice as I did chores, she would call to point out the error of my ways. Whenever I left the barn after feeding, she would try to slip out with me, hoping against hope that she would find a way to one of the breeding groups. Gabby was nothing if not determined!

Over that first week, I was also determined. My friend needed a break, and I was providing it! I couldn’t fathom a repeat of this spring’s heartbreak. But with time, Gabby wore me down. As I looked at my friend in the barn, I noticed that the year had been good to her. After she lost her three lambs, she put on some weight over the summer. She looked younger — less saggy, old and used up. As I fed the group in the barn each day and listened to Gabby complain, I took good long looks at her, and she looked much better  than she had last fall. Maybe she could carry one more gestation to term.

Unwilling to risk the lives of her 2017 lambs, I held firm — but I think Gabby knew that she was wearing me down. By the end of last week, I was beginning to have serious second thoughts. After all, I had gone through something similar with our old girl Zoe before her death in 2014. I had decided not to breed her in 2013, but her depression at not being in a breeding group in the fall of 2012 won out. I moved her into a group, and that decision gave us Maisie — Zoe’s last lamb — and I had never seen Zoe so happy as when Maisie was at her side.

Sheep are meant to be productive, and the older ewes know the seasons. They know that they move into breeding groups in the fall and then deliver lambs in the early spring. It is a routine that they begin as lambs, so by the time they are Gabby’s age, the cycle is well entrenched. She continued to work on me, and I was softening.

On Friday morning I decided that if this might be Gabby’s last group of lambs, I wanted a ram that would produce lambs intended to stay in our flock. I’d put her into a group where the genetics would be desirable regardless of whether she had rams or ewes. I decided to put her with Parker.

This had a couple of advantages. First, Parker is a lamb, so it’s possible that he might not be able to breed her due to the size difference, which would be fine with me. Second, Parker is a dark moorit, so any lambs Gabby would give us would carry moorit coloring — a welcome benefit. Third, Parker carries a very dark pattern that we have just identified in our flock and that we would like to see more of. If Gabby does get pregnant, there is every reason to believe that we’d want to keep at least one of her lambs, and very possibly more.

But the problem was that Parker was in the Rock Pasture, sandwiched between Noa in the West Pasture and Nahe in the Timber. Getting Gabby to Parker would require her walking through three gates and another group of sheep. I couldn’t entice her with a bucket of grain, since the other sheep would be eager to follow if I carried a bucket through their group. If Gabby wanted to join this breeding group, she would have to trust me when I called her out of the barn — she would have to follow me simply because I was calling her.

Gabby (second from right) and the welcoming committee immediately after joining Parker's breeding group

Gabby (second from right) and the welcoming committee, immediately after joining Parker’s breeding group.

Long story short, Gabby followed. She came to me at the gate of her pen when I called, and she walked through when I opened it up. She followed me though the second gate, even though she was leaving a group of sheep behind and walking through a mowed and empty field all by herself, not knowing where she was going. Finally, she followed me though the third gate that put her into the Rock Pasture with Parker and his group. She was obviously determined to join a group, and was willing to follow me to the ends of the earth if it meant finding that group.

Will Gabby breed this year? I have no idea — that’s between Gabby and Parker. Yet I feel as though I’ve done something good. Gabby is no longer crestfallen at her surroundings in the nonbreeding group. I no longer hear her plaintive cry every time I go outside. She now has the opportunity to produce another set of lambs next spring — and those lambs, if she breeds, will be lambs I would love to keep in our flock. When her time comes to deliver, we will do what we can to save these lambs. So I wait and watch for crayon markings — and hope that we can both emotionally survive whatever comes.

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