So if I am honest, the title perhaps overstates the current marking situation of our breeding season since we have only gone through two different crayon colors at this point: yellow and orange. Yet things are looking up, with more markings in our groups every day. Regular readers might recall that we got a very slow start this year in all of our eight breeding groups. That fact got me thinking about why our ewes might not be cycling already in mid-September, and when I put that together with the thin condition of many of our girls, I realized that the issue was likely due to the protein content of our fields this past summer.
As a result, I decided to begin daily grain feedings within each group in hopes that not only would the ewes regain the weight they had lost, but also provide what sheep people call flushing (feeding ewes an increased level of feed for about two weeks before breeding to cause higher ovulation rates that would otherwise occur). Basically, I was hoping the the added nutrition would not only put my ewes in better condition for the coming winter, but also increase the number of markings we are seeing and eventually the number of lambs that we would expect.
As of today, our flock has been getting grain for two weeks – the recommended flushing period to see improved fertility (once started, flushing should continue throughout breeding season). Because our markings began to increase after about ten days of grain feeding, I’m fairly certain that the uptick in obvious breedings is related to their diet as we expected. Ninety percent of the Romeldale adults are now marked (with several ewe lambs also marked), and that leaves only a few ewes scattered among the groups that are yet awaiting their first breeding. For those already bred, the question shifts to see whether they actually did get pregnant. If the ram marks them again in the next few weeks, we will know that they did not settle and the new marking becomes the one we will use to predict their due date. If they remain unmarked for three weeks past their initial marking date, we can assume that they are pregnant and we will look forward to ultrasounding in December to determine how many lambs to expect from them.
The Romneys are much more seasonal in their cycles and therefore usually a bit slower to exhibit those all-important crayon markings. Although we had a very slow start, things have picked up there, too: sixty percent of the adult Romneys are marked as of today, with new markings appearing almost every day. Even better news is the fact that Romney ram lamb Quest – the only lamb working in our groups this year – is definitely working in his group, having now marked seven of his sixteen ewes. Using a ram lamb in a breeding group can be a bit of a risk when it comes to Romneys. First, this breed is slower maturing than many others, so it isn’t uncommon for ram lambs to lack the necessary maturity to breed a group of ewes. Second, even if the ram lamb is willing and able, that doesn’t mean that the ewes are willing to stand for him.
Like many animals both wild and domesticated, the females of most species are looking for the biggest, strongest, most virile males to sire their offspring. A ram lamb falls short in so many ways: he is small in size and much weaker than an adult ram who may be breeding other ewes in the next field over. The ram lamb has less testosterone because of his youth – and that results in less pheromones released to entice the ewes. This last point translates to the fact that a ram lamb is nearly never as “smelly” as an adult ram – and the stronger the smell, the better the ewes like their man! A ram lamb is generally at quite the disadvantage when it comes to breeding season, yet Quest has impressed me enough to give him a try – and it seems as if he is coming through for us. In fact, since last Friday, he has marked seven of his ewes, so he has been one busy boy!
Our breeding season will continue until at least October 28th, and possibly as late as November 4th, depending on how things go. If we see a lot of re-markings, we will likely give them the extra week. On the other hand, if things get really quiet and there is a longer stretch of no new markings, we will likely pull the rams out on the earlier date. At this point, I just sit back and let our rams do what they are here to do, and I will figure out the rest when the time comes!