Every breeding season is unique from all those that preceded it. Even if you use the same ram two years in a row, there are so many other factors that switch things up, including the weather and the composition of the breeding group. This is our sixteenth breeding season, and no two have been interchangeable in my memory!
Although a shepherdess might have a plan for which rams to use for breeding, circumstances can arise that require some last-minute creative thinking. In 2008 we bought a recessive Romney ram in Michigan, bringing him here to Iowa only weeks before the start of breeding season. I had his group all figured out and was excited to begin our recessive color program in earnest. Unfortunately, he died in the barn less than 24 hours after his arrival — hanging himself in a situation that still seems impossible to this day. Stuff happens, and it seems that it happens more often to those sheep we need the most — and during breeding, this means the rams. We have learned to keep not only the rams we plan to use, but also a son or other ram lamb who is very similar in type for each ram slated to breed. That way, if something happens to the main guy just prior to breeding, I have a similar back-up. The substitute may be young, but we’ve used lambs here with great success. Better young than unable to work!
Even when your rams are ready to perform, the weather may not be cooperative. A ram’s fertility is very weather-dependent; too much heat, and the ram becomes infertile — for up to six weeks! Thankfully this is seldom an issue during an Iowa September, but we have had to house our rams indoors for the week or two before breeding in past years when the temperatures hovered over 90 degrees. Keeping them in our earth-banked barn with a fan on kept them ready to go when the time came, but it might not have been that way if we hadn’t been thinking ahead!
The ewes, too, can be affected by the weather. Although the Romeldale ewes are usually cycling through fertility every two to three weeks during eleven months of the year, the Romneys are much more seasonal. Their fertility cycle is dependent on a combination of the sun cycle and weather, and they usually begin cycling around Sept. 20th, just before our breeding season starts. Even if we began our breeding season on August 1 (for December 27th lambs), we still wouldn’t see lambs before early February, because the Romneys aren’t yet cycling in August! The start of their mid-September cycles can vary in either direction by a few weeks. This year, for example, we’ve had eleven Romeldale ewes marked as of this writing but only one Romney. Obviously, it must be a late year for the Romneys!
Then, of course, there are the breeding groups. Since these are based on observations by the shepherd, they too can change from year to year. This year, about half of the rams we have working have done so before, and about half are new to us. That means that the ewes who produced incredible lambs with one of the “repeat” rams are back in with the same ram again this year. As an example, I absolutely loved the structure, size, temperament, and fleece of Gabby’s twins (Olive and Oleander) by Nahe last spring. So this year Gabby is once again in Nahe’s group, in hopes of getting two or three lambs who are similar to her O lambs. But in some cases I’ve switched it up and put ewes with other rams, hoping to capture particular combinations of traits that I didn’t get with the previous pairing. January was with Nahe last year, but we’ve put her in with Noa this year, hoping for lambs who are a bit finer-fleeced and who carry one of his dark patterns.
A few things don’t change too much from year to year. The first week of breeding always means a yellow marking crayon, and I’ll admit that I hate the yellow week — the color is very light and hard to see on a faded silver coat. This means that I must walk up fairly close to the ewe to see whether she has been marked, and even then it’s sometimes very hard to tell! The only thing that gets me through yellow week is that it’s the beginning of breeding — and that is exciting enough to get me past the problems! Thankfully, by the time I am really getting frustrated with trying to decipher the yellow markings, the weekend arrives and we can switch to orange crayons. Ah, the relief of a darker and more obvious color!
Although all of our rams are polite and pretty laid-back, breeding season can bring out their protective natures. They just don’t like anyone messing with their ewe(s)-of-the-day: the one (or more) girls in heat! I have found that many of our rams don’t mind me walking out there among their girls, but I am usually not allowed to walk towards their ewe(s)-of-the-day. She can come to me, but I can’t walk to her in the field. To lure her to me, I usually carry graham crackers in my pockets to entice the entire group to my side. As they nibble crackers from my fingers, I check to see who has been marked — and I make sure that the ram gets his fair share of the crackers!
Yes, breeding season is upon us — in some ways similar to past years, but also quite different. And that’s what keeps it interesting and exciting… every single year!