No markings plus unusual weight loss equals what?

Breeding season began for us this past Saturday. By 5 p.m. each of our ewes had been matched up with the appropriate ram, and each group was given a space where they will stay for the next six to seven weeks. This year we had six people (two teens and four adults) working to get the groups in place, and when we finally called it quits, even the teens were exhausted! The only thing keeping the adults going was the thought that we would soon be seeing crayon markings on the ewes, a sure sign that the next generation would be on its way in early 2018. Each of our rams wears a crayon between his front legs, and every time he mounts one of his ewes, he marks her just above the tail with the crayon. A marked ewe means that not only did the ram realize that she was in heat, but that she was also receptive to his attention and stood for him to mount her. In other words, a crayon marking usually means that everything went right and, hopefully, the ewe has been bred.

It is a rare year when at least one of our ewes isn’t marked in the first moments after the ram goes into her group. With 52 ewes currently in groups scattered around our farm and with an average cycle length of 17 days, we should be seeing about 3 markings per day through this early part of the season. And with the rams raring to go, it isn’t unusual for at least one of our guys to find one of his girls in or very near the fertile part of her cycle. Surprisingly, this year we had no markings on the first day. Or on the second. Or on the third. And now I’m a bit concerned.

I keep telling myself that we’ve had other years when we didn’t see markings on the first day. Since all but one of our rams are experienced breeders this year, we don’t have to worry that they won’t figure out what to do. Our sole ram lamb — Quest, a colored Romney — is already checking his girls and making all of the right moves. We are fairly certain that when the time comes, he will breed his ewes. And of course, the experienced boys already know what to do. However, there have been no markings over the past three days, which means that the ewes are not cycling. That is very odd. I can understand the Romneys not cycling yet. They are very seasonal breeders and may not yet have begun to cycle through heat. The Romeldales, however, should have been cycling for weeks already. I kid people that they breed like bunnies. Yet there are no markings among the Romeldales. I’m not quite sure what to make of that! We’ve never in seventeen years had no markings to report after the first three days.

Another interesting anomaly has popped up in this unusual start to breeding. We weigh our ewes every year on the day we put them into their breeding group. Since we put our groups together within the same week each year, all weights are maintenance/open (a ewe who is not pregnant or lactating), so once they reach adult size, a ewe’s weight should be fairly stable from year to year. Eventually they will have trouble maintaining their weight in old age, but between about three and eight years of age, the ewes are very stable when it comes to weight. I’ve been looking forward to weighing our sheep this year, because for some reason, they’ve looked smaller to me. I hoped that weighing would prove once and for all that this decrease in size is only in my imagination. Unfortunately, that isn’t what we found.

Our adult sheep have all lost weight since last year — some a bit more and some a bit less — and the weight loss is significant . The adult Romeldales have lost, on average, over nineteen pounds, and the Romneys over seventeen. Heavenly, one of our largest Romney ewes who typically weighs in at over 220 pounds, came in at 170. That is shocking! There are several other ewes who have also lost a significant amount of weight — and I’m not sure why.

So am I not seeing markings because the girls are not cycling due to nutritional issues? I don’t know. They are all out on our fields — and the fields are lovely and lush! We checked all of the ewes for parasite issues this past weekend and found nothing; all were fine. I’m having trouble putting all of this together to understand what I’m seeing. As a result, I’ve put in a call to my vet. I’m hoping he can shed some light on what the issue might be. Meanwhile, I’m also considering ordering some grain. I hate the added expense, but adding a bit of energy to the flock’s diet might help them bulk up a bit. Breeding season is no time to be losing weight.

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  • Elaine Chicago says:

    Wow!! I hope your vet can shed some light on this. Something major must be causing the weight loss, especially poor Heavenly!

  • Del says:

    Do you think that your pastures may be like early spring pastures (lush and green, but with little feed value) due to rains after drought?

    What is the primary grass species in your pastures?


    • Dee says:

      Hi, Del! Actually, you are on the right track. After my conversation with my vet, we think we may have figured out what is going on. More in tomorrow’s blog.

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