Before we get to today’s topic of Grace, I need to provide some background information on breeding. When a flock enters breeding season, the shepherd is counting on two very important steps for every pairing: that the ram senses that a ewe is in heat, and that she will “stand” for the ram to breed her. If either piece is missing, breeding will not take place—the ewe will remain “open” or unbred.
During breeding season, the ram spends his days surrounded by a selected group of ewes who each cycle individually through heat for only 24 to 36 hours every 14 to 21 days (17 days, on average). It isn’t uncommon for ewes who are good friends or family members to cycle at the same time, but the cycle length and the amount of time any one ewe is in heat is very individual. When a ewe comes into heat, she will release pheromones that attract the ram and kick his breeding instincts into gear.
The ram is often only one fenceline away from the ewes in another ram’s group. A good breeding ram can figure out exactly which of his ewes are in heat and receptive, and he doesn’t waste his time with those who are not in the proper hours of their breeding cycle. This is significant because even researchers can’t tell when a ewe is in heat without using a ram; only a ram can tell. Once a ewe is bred and settled (pregnant), she will no longer produce those pheromones, and the ram will essentially ignore her, focusing instead on other ewes still coming into heat. Without a good, perceptive ram, there will be no new lambs.
The ewe, of course, is the other important part of the breeding pair. When in heat, a ewe will be receptive to the “courting” of a ram. If she is not in the appropriate part of the cycle, she will not stand for him if he tries to mount her. When the right time comes, she will often seek him out and then encourage his courting behavior, making breeding more likely. When the ram moves to mount her, she will plant herself in place, standing for him and taking on much of his weight — especially impressive when you realize that many of our lambs weigh only 80 pounds when they’re bred by a 170- to 250-pound ram. Once bred, a ewe produces gestational hormones and will no longer stand for a ram.
Now we get to Grace, our old Romney ewe. On Friday, September 29th, I wrote about my observations of Grace ‘s interactions with Quest, the ram lamb I had hoped would breed the ewes in that group. At the time, I was a bit concerned that he hadn’t been doing much. I knew that it sometimes takes a lamb a while to figure things out, but he had been in his group for about two weeks with no markings. He had been exhibiting the correct mating rituals from what I observed, but none of his ewes were actually being marked. I was very concerned until I noticed him that day with Grace — and the next day, Grace was well marked! I knew then that Quest was on his way to getting his ewes bred.
As I go about my feeding routine every morning, I check for new markings. Quest has been a very busy boy over these past weeks, marking (with the big crayon in his ram harness) every one of his adult ewes as each came into heat. Markings fall into different types. There are those that look like a big blob of color on the coat just above the tail stub — the mark of a good, solid breeding. There are also markings of the right color and in the right place but somewhat pale — these indicate that breeding may or may not have occurred. Random markings on the back half of the body usually indicate that the ram tried to breed the ewe, but she did not stand for him — this usually gets marked in my records with a question mark, since I doubt breeding occurred. Finally, there are the fairly random markings on other body areas. I have no idea how or why these occur, but I write them down, indicating that they are random.
I’ve been watching Grace since her yellow marking by Quest on 9/29. For an average-length cycle, Grace would have been marked again, most likely in green, during the past week. Yet, I was surprised when I saw her marked in orange weeks ago — and then again shortly after in red. When I look at Grace’s coat now, I see literally every color of the rainbow: yellow, orange, red, green, and as of this morning, blue (the crayon I put onto Quest’s harness yesterday!). Most of her markings are just above the tail stub, exactly where they are supposed to be for breeding. Her coat is a multicolored artwork of breeding markings. But why? Why is Quest coming to find her so very often? And why is she standing for him as he breeds her, over and over again? This is one of those questions that only Quest and Grace can answer — and they aren’t telling. Evidently neither is the type to kiss-and-tell!