Looking at my life from the outside, one would think that knowing a ewe’s due date would be a fairly simple thing. After all, throughout the breeding season our rams wear a marking harness, complete with a huge crayon, so that after they breed, the ewes walk away with a big glob of color on their docks. I go around twice each day throughout the season, looking for new markings and recording them on a chart made especially for this purpose.
Besides that, we also ultrasound our ewes in early December. For a nominal fee, the ultrasound technician gives me the age of gestation and the number of lambs for each ewe. Since we know that Romeldale gestation is 150 days and Romney is 148, we can easily subtract the age of gestation from the total and come up with the number of days left in each ewe’s pregnancy, thereby finding a due date for that ewe.
It all seems very scientific and straightforward, but honestly, it’s anything but! Knowing when a ewe is due is part science (all of the above information) and part art; it is knowing your ewes and recognizing the signs of impending labor, regardless of what all the numbers say. Sometimes the numbers are wrong; and sometimes I am. And it is often hard to tell the difference!
Take Millie, for example. This past fall was the first year she bred. She was marked once on September 29th, resulting in a due date of February 26th. She was then marked again on October 10th, eleven days later, giving me a new due date of March 9th. Most ewes cycle every 17 days (on average), so what was I supposed to do with this second date? Was this a second marking because she did not breed on the first date? Was this a random marking that had nothing to do with her cycle? Or was the first marking random? I had no idea. I decided to let the ultrasound straighten things out. I wrote down both dates and waited for December.
At the ultrasound on December 14th, the technician ran the probe over Millie’s belly near the flank and said, “A single at – well, sixty-nine days!” When I sat down to the paperwork later, I noticed that 69 days’ gestation on December 14th meant that Millie was due on March 5th. Ultrasound dates are not nearly as reliable as marking harness dates, so I had to choose between the two harness dates of February 26th and March 9th. I decided that the ultrasound was closer to the later date, so listed that as Millie’s due date on my calendar.
On Monday night of this week, I let the dogs out for their usual potty break at about 8:00 p.m. when I heard a disturbance in the sheep barn. The ewes were definitely having a party, and the racket could be heard within the confines of the house. At first I thought one of the dogs might have gone out to visit the sheep, but no – the dogs came right back after doing their business. I ran to the monitor to check the ewes in the drop pen – perhaps we had a new arrival in the barn?
I stared intently at the black-and-white screen, looking for little newborn lambs in the drop pen, but there was nothing. The ewes all stood around, looking at the ewes in the general population with access to the outside. I quickly glanced at those ewes, too, but saw nothing amiss. I quickly forgot about the disturbance and went to finish my tasks for the evening and prepare a bottle for one of our lambs, wanting to get out there before it got too much later.
Around 9:30 p.m., I made my way out to the barn with the freshly made bottle, ready to turn in for the evening after the feeding. I stepped into the barn and all was quiet – nothing amiss that I could see. I gave Oath his supplemental bottle for the night and quickly scanned the barn one more time. And then I saw her. There stood Millie in the general population pen, gently licking her newborn daughter, who was snuggled up against their guardian llama, Howie, for warmth. How could this be? Why was there a lamb in that general population group? And then I did the math. Millie had obviously been bred the first marking – and here was her little girl, Ossidy, to show for it!
I moved both Millie and Ossidy from the general population through the drop pen and then into a jug with a heat lamp. It was obvious to me that Ossidy had indeed been born during the barn disturbance earlier. The tips of her ears and the tip of her tail were all frozen by the cold, as was her trailing umbilical cord. But Millie had done her job well, cleaning off her baby and making sure she was fed to ward off the cold. Instinct obviously had kicked in for both mother and lamb, since the baby had snuggled in to share Howie’s body heat and thick llama coat. They were both fine, albeit colder than I would have liked.
When I entered the house, I couldn’t help but look through our coming due dates yet again. Was there another ewe I might have gotten wrong? I’ve shifted a couple of the dates around, just in case – but figuring due dates is a tricky business. In the end, the only way to keep tragedy at bay is to keep checking the barn and to make no assumptions. Millie has once again reminded me that I’m not that good. I have to keep watch, regardless of what the calendar says. You never know when you might have a surprise special delivery. Welcome, Ossidy!