It is not uncommon for farms that produce high-end wool to coat their sheep. It is less common, however, for them to coat their lambs. Coating lambs is quite an investment, both in time and in the many coat sizes that they will wear from the time they are born through their first year – or until they leave the farm. We have been coating our lambs for many years, now, and I hardly think about it anymore. Like most routines, it has become an integral part of my days each spring, looking over the lambs in the barn and making changes or adjustments to their coats as needed.
Our lambs begin with what we call “newborn coats”: sweatshirt sleeves or sweatpant legs that have been cut and adapted to fit lambs that weigh between about 4-20 pounds. Any of you who want instructions how to make these coats can search past blog entries and find a set of step-by-step instructions, complete with photos. People often ask how long our lambs stay in this size, but it isn’t so much based on age as on size. A lamb born weighing in the neighborhood of fifteen pounds will only stay in this type of coat for a week or so, while a lamb born weighing only six pounds will be in a newborn coat for weeks – perhaps four or five, depending on gains.
Once the newborn coats are getting tight and look more like vests than coats, we switch them to the first true sheep coat in a size 19 (measuring from the neck to the tail, it is 19″ long). I have them from several different manufacturers, even though I think that today, you can only get them from Rocky Sheep in Colorado. I have many from the now-gone Powell Sheep Company, and I like these best, since the leg straps are wider, so stay on better than the Rocky Coats. If I need to, I will use a giant safety pin (made for this purpose) to adjust the fit until the lamb is big enough that they don’t need it – but if I use the Powell coats, I seldom need to pin. You know you need to pin it if the leg straps fall down below the hocks – and this is true of any coat of any size!
The size 19 coats don’t fit for long – and it’s pretty obvious when they need the next size. If their tail sticks out the back, you know it won’t be long – and if their rump is sticking out along with the tail, it is time for a bigger coat! At that point, we move them into the smallest size Matilda Coat (the SSA – 27.5″ sold by Sheepman Supply), again pinning them for fit, if necessary. After laundering, we mark each of our coat with its approximate size in inches (28, 30, 34, 36, 40, 45, or 48), both just above the right rear leg, and in the center of the back with permanent marker. This makes knowing which size a sheep needs next much easier than it used to be!
Although we once kept a variety of coats from different manufacturers, this is now only true for the first coats (the size 19) – after this size, all of our coats are manufactured by Matilda. I find that they fit better for longer, requiring less coat changes because of the elastic at the neck, the dock, and at both sides. Now that I have figured out a no-sew replacement for when the elastic goes bad, they are my coat of choice. Once the lambs outgrow what we call the 28, they move into the 30 (actually the SSB 29.5″). This morning, I changed our first two 28 coats into 30’s – both Quade and Qorianka were ready to move up, although I did end up pinning Qori’s coat.
We’ve been buying Matilda coats for so many years that we have gotten them in about five different fabrics, and some fabrics fit larger or smaller than others. As a result, I find myself having to pin some coats while those of the same size in other fabrics might fit quite well. Overall, though, even a pinned coat only stays pinned for a few days; with our lambs gaining at well over half a pound a day at this stage, it isn’t very long before I can remove the pin and the coat fits well! I’m thinking that by Monday or Tuesday, Qori’s pin will be ready to come out.
By this fall, each of our lambs will have worn the newborn coats, then the 19″, and then moved through Matilda sizes 28, 30, 34, and into a 36, where they will usually stay until shearing – although sometimes our Romney lambs will move into a size 40 around December. That means that each lamb will wear up to six or seven coats in their first year here. With most lambs in the same sizes at the same time, and our usually having up to eighty lambs in any given year, you can see how we would end up keeping a lot of coats on-hand! In my last coat inventory a couple of years ago, I had a total of nearly 500 coats either on the sheep or washed and folded in their containers by size – and it seems like I always need more!
Honestly, the quality of the wool from a coated sheep just can’t be beat – and by coating our lambs from birth, they get to know from a young age that these coat changes are simply a way of life, making adult coat changes easier than if they hadn’t been coated so young. It’s a system that has and continues to work well for us!