In a typical year, once the cold weather comes to Iowa with its snow and sub-zero temperatures, we can stop worrying about internal parasites. I’ve written often this year about the problems that last summer’s hot and wet weather created in producing the “perfect storm” for these icky critters. Although we have been selecting for years for sheep that can survive and yes, even thrive, under heavily parasitized conditions, what we saw this summer blew the top off of even my greatest parasite nightmares. We saw sheep coming into the barns in the fall carrying ten to twenty times the heaviest worm loads we had ever seen! Most were still doing well physically, but with levels like this, I knew that the fact that they were not anemic didn’t mean that they were fine.
We decided on a protocol this fall/winter for our sheep. Because of the very high parasite levels, we decided to do something we haven’t done in very many years: deworm all of our flock. I hesitate to do this because it increases parasite resistance to the dewormers we must use – but I considered this year an emergency. We needed to reduce the levels of parasites they carried so that they could gain weight and strength to fight again next year. It was part of a two step process: clean up the parasites in the sheep, and then clean up the parasites in the fields next spring and summer.
Honestly, the parasite issue had been my focus for most of last year’s growing season; hardly a day went by that I wasn’t working on trying to figure out the best way to eliminate this threat to the flock. As I mentioned above, in a normal year, the coming of cold eliminates the whole topic from consideration. The fields get cold and the parasites in those fields begin to die off. If the levels inside the sheep are too high, we deworm them, and that problem, too, is no longer an issue. That is true in a normal year – but not this year.
This past Tuesday, we ultrasounded our ewes to determine not only which girls are bred and which are open, but also to find out how many fetuses each ewe carries so that we can provide optimal nutrition for each girl. Ultrasound day is very much like Christmas for shepherds; we often feel like the kids who get to see the gifts under the tree but don’t know what is inside. We don’t need to lift or shake our gifts to get a hint as to lies within; we simply line them up next to the ultrasound tech and stare at the small black-and-white screen, hoping to hear, “triplets!” It honestly doesn’t get any more exciting than ultrasound day for the flock!
Yet, the high of anticipation can – like this year – lead to the reality of flock life. A flock of sheep is a living organism. It has a strong instinct to procreate, but that instinct is not unwavering. Like many of Mother Nature’s organisms, it pushes to procreate when conditions are right – when the chances are greatest that the new life of the flock will survive and thrive. In reality, I work with this in mind, setting up our sheep for the ideal situation in which to procreate, making the most of the peak of fertility, the best of our available feed, and the seasonal timing of sheep to get the most lambs we can from our flock. Unfortunately, what I cannot change is the weather – nor the perfect storm of parasites.
I knew going into breeding this year that there was a good likelihood that our ewes would shed less eggs than normal because of the high levels of parasites. After all, if I was Mother Nature, I would likely look at the situation this year and whisper to the ewes, “This is not a good year to procreate – your newborn baby lambs will be turned out in the spring onto fields that dragged you down this year, and they could die. Save your precious eggs for a year when the grass will be thick and green – and safe, with fewer parasites to kill your lambs. Just wait….” Yet the shepherdess that I am hoped for a normal year. After all, we had done what we could to ameliorate the problem.
Yet, immediately after the scans were completed, the results were worse than disappointing. Of our thirty-nine adult ewes in breeding groups this year, fourteen came through open (not bred). Where we usually have a high nutrition group of nine to twelve sheep, this year, we would have had four: January and Ivy each bred with 3-4 lambs, and new flock additions Poison and Phoebe are each carrying a single lamb. In order to better balance our groups, I added Pegeen and Sweet Pea to this group, since they can use the higher level of nutrition now that we have begun the deworming process.
Overall, we expect to see only 43 lambs in 2017 (or less, if we lose any) of the usual 60-80 lambs we see in a given lambing season. Unsurprisingly, the Romneys were the hardest hit – we will see only 14 Romney lambs this spring, even though we bred 22 ewes. We have found over the years that the Romneys are much more sensitive to fluctuations in feed, weather, etc., and this list now obviously also includes parasites. Eleven of the fourteen open adult ewes are Romneys. The numbers are crushing.
We went from here to two other farms, scanning ewes at each. Both farms are relatively new, and both have been running many fewer sheep on more acres, making the parasite issue much milder – and both had much better levels, confirming my assessment as to the cause of our issue. Yet, when I compared my numbers with another friend here in Iowa with similar breeds and numbers of ewes on similar land, their results were also very similar to mine – many open sheep, and many ewes shedding a single egg rather than two or three.
Yes, this is a blow for us – I love to see the barn straining at the seams with bouncing, racing lambs. Yet I trust that Mother Nature knows what she is doing. I would much rather have less lambs in spring than dead lambs in summer when the parasites are at their peak. We will work with whatever might come, and cherish each and every lamb our flock produces. After all, it’s what we do.