This weekend marks the beginning of breeding season at Peeper Hollow Farm, and as such, the start of the 2017 lambing year. This past year’s lambs are mostly sexually mature and no longer small and helpless. Many will, in fact, be in breeding groups next week and deliver lambs of their own in the spring of 2017. The calendar may now say 2016, but when we put the rams in among the ewes, our focus immediately shifts to next spring’s lambs – and most of what we do from here on out is in anticipation of those births. Another new year will have begun.
First, I obviously have to decide which ram will breed which ewe. I usually finish this preparation many weeks before breeding. This year, however, I have an added complication since a 4H friend of mine is coming on Saturday to buy a ram and possibly a number of ewes. I have made nearly any of our rams available to her, and if she decides to pull one of the adult rams currently destined for a breeding group, I will have only hours to remix our groups, finding a replacement for that adult from among our ram lambs. I do keep a back-up ram for every boy intended for breeding. The back-up is obviously not identical, but every boy is here for a reason and I always have another boy with similar traits waiting in the wings in case the first-up can’t perform. I will just need to go through the ewes in his group again to make sure I don’t need to shift any ewes who are too related to the back-up ram lamb.
When I am putting groups together on paper, I first set out an Excel spreadsheet with all of the rams (and their data points – like fiber diameter, genetic resistance to scrapie, staple length and body size/growth) across the top, and the ewes (with the same parameters) down the side. I fill in the entire column or row of the moorit sheep in tan so that I can more easily pair the moorits with the correct sheep to produce more moorit. I mark all of the ewes not staying in our flock in pink. I then fill the chart with relationship coefficients (an indicator of how closely they are related), marking every pairing that is too close in red, and any that need careful consideration in yellow. I fill in any pairings that I like in green. Eventually, I look over the pairings, trying to find two or three boys whose green squares cover the entire flock, reducing the green boxes to only two to four columns/rams. This year, Nels, Noa, and Nahe covered the Romeldales well, while O’Connor, ObiWan, and Oak Creek Farm’s Luthor covered the Romneys across the board.
Once I know which sheep are in which group, the next project is to lay out the groups on a single sheet, determine where each group will reside over the weeks of breeding, and then make a check-sheet for the monitoring of markings for that group. Each group is listed separately from the other groups, showing the ram and each of his ewes. I then lay out columns for each of the marking crayon colors in order: yellow, orange, red, green, blue, and purple (or black), with a blank at the top of each of these colors for me to fill in the dates that the color was in use. I have found over the years that there is much less confusion on my part and the dates tend to go into the correct columns more often when those columns are the same color as the crayon in use. This is the chart I use when I walk the fields every day during breeding, writing down which ewes were marked by the ram in the previous 24 hours – the date is filled into the appropriate column next to the ewe’s name and number.
I use this same check-sheet on the day we set up breeding groups to record weights, since we separate and weigh the ewes by group, taking care of any other issues while we handle them. There is much to be done to make sure breeding goes smoothly. We’ve just recently trimmed the hooves of all of our ewes – with sound feet, they are more likely to stand well for the ram when he determines that the time is right for conception. If they have too much wool blocking access under their tails, we will trim it away as we move the girl to her group. If she needs a coat change, we will find one that fits better – and if her coat is too big, covering the dock, we will pin it out of the way. If the ewes have any burrs, we will trim them out by hand – the ram is less likely to breed a ewe if he has to set his belly against a bunch of burrs in her wool – and she is more likely to stand for him with his weight on her rear legs if she doesn’t have burrs pushing into her back. We have been checking for anemia to ensure that every sheep goes into breeding healthy and ready to do their part in producing the next generation, but we will look again on Sunday, deworming any ewes or rams who need it. When we finish with each ewe, we release her into a smaller holding pen where that particular breeding group will come together, apart from the rest of the flock.
Once the entire group has been checked over and gathered, we release them into the West Pasture, since the rams are all waiting in the Upper Paddock, adjoining the same field. We then go and fit the appropriate ram with a marking harness (beginning with the yellow crayon the first week), and release him into the West Pasture with his ewes. The only thing left is to walk the group out to their field, noting any girls who are marked on the way.
We repeat this process for all of the planned groups – this year, a total of six: three of each breed. The entire process, from bringing the ewes into the barn to having each group out in its own field, takes about three to four hours. After that, it’s a matter of checking daily to see who has been marked by the ram in each group. The ram won’t mark a ewe who isn’t cycling and ready to conceive – he won’t usually try to mount her, and she won’t stand in place for him to do so. It takes both ram and ewe to conceive next year’s lambs – and it won’t be long now!