Breeding season

Breeding season is just around the corner for our farm; we will put the rams in with their individual groups of ewes on Saturday, September 19th — just in time for the arrival of lambs beginning Valentine’s Day 2016! The excitement is building, among sheep and shepherds alike! This is a time full of hope and promise for the future.

The term “breeding season” can mean more than one thing when it comes to sheep. I usually use the term in reference to the period of about six weeks during which our rams are actively working to get all of the ewes bred. In this sense, breeding season is determined by the management system implemented by the shepherdess. It can begin anytime during the ten-and-a-half months between July and late May, and it can run for however long the shepherd decides. In fact, in the ultimate version of this type of “breeding season,” the ram can run with the ewes 24/7 through all twelve months of the year — essentially a never-ending breeding season for that flock.

The term can also be used in a more general sense to describe the season during which the ewes are actively coming into heat every 14-21 days — and that use of the term is much more breed-dependent. My own two breeds are good examples of this. The Romneys are very seasonal breeders, meaning that the window during which the ewes come into heat is very dependent on the sun cycle, weather, and other environmental factors. Here at Peeper Hollow Farm, the Romney ewes don’t begin to cycle until sometime between early and mid September, and they stop coming into heat in about late January. The peak of their fertility comes in early October, and we set our breeding season to aim for that period. Most Romneys won’t cycle between February and September, although a very few bloodlines will go into heat during a short period in May to produce October lambs. The rest will wait until their “normal season” for their next chance to breed.

The Romeldales, however, are much less seasonal. I’ve found that Romeldale ewes will continue to cycle for nearly the entire year, except for about a month out of the year — a short period from late May until sometime in July. The fertility of the rams is also much less weather-dependent. The rams of most breeds can temporarily lose fertility for a period of time (ranging from only days up to as long as six weeks) if their environment becomes very hot (over 90 degrees) for more than a short while. One of our Romeldale rams, sold to another farm, bred a ewe within an iron trailer while the outside temp hovered around 103 degrees in the shade. Exactly 150 days later, the new shepherdess found a sweet pair of twins looking up at her when she entered her barn. Surprise!

So, even though our farm’s breeding season won’t officially begin until September 19th, as far as our sheep are concerned, breeding season has already begun! Most of our ewes are now cycling, and the rams are trying to find ways to get to them in order to complete Mother Nature’s objective: produce the next generation and continue their bloodlines into the future. The ewes in heat prance along the fencelines closest to the rams, and the boys turn their noses to the wind, picking up the scent of the ewes. As I look out across my fields, I see the rams spending most of their days congregating at the corner of their pasture closest to the ewes in heat, staring across the fence at the girls. Boys of all ages call to the girls and sometimes head-butt their flockmates in a show of strength and ramhood. They obviously feel that the most macho ram will win the ewes, and they don’t want to be left out!

Because of this determination to breed, we make sure that we don’t put the ewes into a field that adjoins the rams after about the 4th of July. This way, if one of the sheep begins to make their way through the empty pasture on their way to the other sex, I can (hopefully!) see them before they arrive at their destination and then can get them back where they belong. Our sheep are nothing if not determined to get to that other field. They have willingly been shocked by the electric fence, tried to swim across the pond, and ducked under the fence into the herd of cattle next door — all in the attempt to bring on breeding season earlier than I would like. In 2011, some of our ram lambs actually did make it across to the ewes, producing a number of lambs that arrived weeks early! I am obviously much more careful now.

This is also the time of year when I begin to get calls, texts, and emails from new shepherds, reporting that their very well-behaved sheep, who have never, ever gotten out before, have now gone wandering to find members of the opposite sex. I’ve already received two such contacts this year, telling me of the escapades of various former flock members who may now be bred, weeks before the shepherd intended. The only thing to do is to mark the calendar (ALWAYS mark the calendar!) and wait to see whether the one or more ewes are later marked by the ram’s marking harness. If not, the ewes are likely bred and due on that earlier date. If they are marked again later in the season, it’s fairly safe to assume that they did not settle during the escape and that their lambs will likely arrive as planned by the shepherd.

In any case, the hormones that are such a part of breeding season are now in the air. The sheep are convinced that it is time to get to work, producing 2016’s lambs. Now if only we could move forward far enough on the calendar, the stubborn shepherdess would let the rams in. I keep telling them that it’s just a matter of time.

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4 Comments

  • Erika says:

    I am getting excited for our first breeding season. Other than hoof trimming and CDT boosters can you recommend any other health maintenance tasks to perform before putting the ewes with the ram?

    • Dee says:

      We usually give CD&T boosters 2-5 weeks before the lambs arrive, which passes more immunity to the lambs through the colostrum – so all of our boosters are done in the early spring. Before breeding, however, we run the ewes and rams through a number of checks. We weigh them (for comparison to prior years, to identify those who may have an unidentified illness, parasites, aren’t aging well, etc.), check their eyelids for anemia and deworm if necessary, trim their faces if they have wool there (so they can see better to identify the presence of the ram), and generally check them over. We also check to make sure the ewes have no obstructions under the dock: that their wool is not long and thick to prevent the ram from doing his job (this can happen in long wool breeds, like the Romney – we trim the wool, if necessary), that there isn’t a thick layer of manure tags around the dock, and that the coat isn’t so long as to drop down too far in the back. If the coat is too long, we pin it up (but do not use regular safety pins – they are not strong enough and can be very dangerous in this type of situation) to get it out of the way. All of this is done very quickly as we put each sheep into a breeding group. If you need information on pins to use, let me know!

  • Erika says:

    Thanks for the tips. We will hold the CDT boosters til spring. I have a nice selection of coat sizes so I think we’ll be fine there. How do you weigh your ewes? My hanging scale definitely won’t work on my ladies. We took a course in FAMACHA so we’ll check them all over.

    • Dee says:

      We used to weigh our bigger sheep using a heavy duty hanging scale by allowing them to climb a bale, attaching a sling, and then removing the bale, so they were hanging on the hanging scale. You can also make a frame for a bathroom scale, but make sure that you can read the numbers through a slot in the frame – we missed this at first. Eventually, we bought a hog scale – but if you go this route, check all around within driving distance. We found our best deal in Nebraska! Even when taking the gas costs into consideration, it was still cheaper for us to drive there and pick it up! I drove about six hours there and another six back to get our scale, and I still saved a few hundred dollars. Also, you might want to check with other shepherds in your area and see if perhaps you can borrow their scale for a day (if you have a way to pick it up and drop it off). Even if you have to “rent” it from them, you can pay a lot of years of rental for the price of a new scale. The other option, of course, is to try to find one used – on Craig’s List or perhaps a used equipment auction like the one at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival this weekend. If you can’t weigh them now, just do some condition scoring – it serves the same purpose. You can find more info on how to do this on-line…

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