Breeding season has finally arrived at Peeper Hollow Farm! The rams no longer stand in the lower corner of their pasture — the corner closest to the grazing ewes — noses to the sky, hoping to catch even a bit of scent in the wisps of breeze that pass their way. Nor do the handful of ewes who are in heat strut and prance around their corner closest to the rams, twitching their tail docks and seeming to call out, “Hey, guys — over here!” No, all of that is now in the past because we put together our breeding groups on Saturday. It seems that most of our sheep are now perfectly happy in their new environments, with the mates we have chosen for them.
This year, we’ve settled the flock into seven — yes, SEVEN! — breeding groups. Our own acreage holds six groups — three of each breed, Romney and Romeldale — with a seventh group at a neighboring farm. Last year one of our teen helpers, Jacob, bought a couple of ewes (Norma, a Romney, and Nyssa, a Romeldale) to raise for 4-H. One year later, he now has four: the original two, plus Zora, daughter of Norma, and Olay, a moorit Romeldale/CVM lamb. We decided to trade sheep for breeding this year; I put Norma and Zora into Goliath’s breeding group, and Jacob took our Naya and Millie and ram lamb Oliver for breeding at his place. This allows me to run an extra ram, gives Jacob some experience with the whole breeding routine, and allows both his and my ewes access to a ram that I hadn’t expected to use this year. It’s a win-win all the way around! Even better, young Oliver had already marked our Millie before we ever loaded the group up for transport to Jacob’s farm! What a great start!
The three Romeldale rams working on our farm this year are all adults. The oldest is Muldoon, a two-year-old ram who we’ve used twice in the past. He has given us lovely lambs with a good growth rate and beautiful darker fleece. This will likely be his last year breeding here since we have at least a couple of his sons who appear to carry traits that would improve upon their sire. Yet until they are adults, we cannot know for sure how they will turn out, so Muldoon has eight ewes with him this fall — and he has already bred two! Even more surprising is the fact that one of the two is a lamb — Ossidy is now bred!
Nahe, a yearling, is also a repeat breeder from last year. I loved the lambs he gave us in spring 2015, so he has a group again this fall with ten ewes in the Timber pasture. The goals for his group are quite simple: fold in more moorit coloring and produce fast-growing lambs with darker long-stapled fleeces. He, too, has already bred two ewes in the past two days and is obviously monitoring his girls. He worries me a little because he drops weight all through breeding season,. He seems to do little grazing, instead spending nearly all of his time following the ewes, checking who might be in heat and whether they are yet receptive to his attention. He is a determined breeder!
Noa has the last Romeldale breeding group. He was used as a ram last year at a friend’s farm and is now back here in a group of eight ewes. He is very dark in color and will hopefully not only darken the fleeces of next spring’s lambs, but will also improve their fiber length and crimp, since he comes from a very lovely fleece line. Like the other two Romeldale rams, he is very correct in structure and was fast-growing as a lamb — traits we insist upon in our breeding rams. Noa is a bit of an overachiever, having already bred three of his eight ewes in the past two days!
The Romney groups are a bit more complicated this year and, predictably, have gotten off to a slower start. (Romneys are very seasonal breeders, so many of the ewes may not yet be cycling through heat this early in the season.) Goliath has a group of eight girls in the East Pasture and we hope that he’ll produce a son to take his place. At his current age (eight years old), I cannot be sure how long he will last; and although I have kept previous sons, we have sold or lost every one due to a streak of bad luck. We’ve used Goliath often enough that when I entered the ram paddock with the marking harness, he stood stock-still and allowed me to strap it on. He knew exactly what that harness meant and was happy to oblige. As soon as the harness was in place, all we had to do was open the gate to his pasture and off he went!
The last two Romney breeding groups are relying on ram lambs: O’Connor, our new ram lamb from California, has one group with seven ewes, and the last group has both ObiWan and Outlaw working to breed eight ewes. None of the ram lambs have yet figured out exactly what they are supposed to do — but they sure are trying! Because using ram lambs in Romney groups can be a hit-or-miss proposal, I doubled up on the two colored ram lambs (ObiWan and Outlaw), hoping that at least one of them would figure it out this year. Each is wearing a different color crayon, so I should be able to see which begins marking first. If they both begin to mark ewes, I will split the group; but if only one starts to work, I will pull the other lamb and let the more mature boy take the entire group. I really want all of the girls bred, so at the end of the season, I will put all of the girls who were in with lambs into Goliath’s group to make sure they are covered. I am watching these ram lambs closely to see what happens!
This is a very exciting time of year, filled with hopes and dreams of future lambs. Every marking not only gives us an idea of when we will be busy during lambing, but also spurs on images of the coming lamb possibilities: colors, patterns, fleece types, body structures, etc. Every marking is an indicator of one to four lambs who will be bouncing around come Spring 2016, and that is nothing if not exciting!