This is the time of year when the ewe flock’s nutrition is critical — not only does what they ingest provide for the growth of their lambs, but it also helps keep them warm on cold winter days! For new shepherds, this is the time of year when nutritional issues in their management are most likely to make themselves known — and the better you can anticipate the nutritional needs of your flock from day to day, the more successful you’ll be in preventing losses.
I know it seems impossible, but right now — even with temperatures swinging a few degrees below zero here and there — our ewes are hot. If you watch them reclining to cud or nap in the paddock, you’ll notice that most of them are panting, trying to release the body heat that is trapped within their very heavy fleeces. Different breeds have different fleeces (and therefore, different levels of insulation), but when I look across our flock, they are all hot, even the fine-wooled Romeldales that carry less wool. In fact, some of our ewes are so hot that they are beginning to shed some small areas of their wool to cool themselves off. We commonly see this happening in the throat area of both Romeldales and Romneys at this time of year: the wool begins to peel back in that area, exposing the many blood vessels in the neck and cooling both the blood and, by extension, the sheep. Although many people “feel sorry” for our sheep when we shear in late January (thinking that they will be too cold in our Iowa winter temps), our sheep are actually thrilled to be free of their heavy wool coats, even in late January! Once they have all been sheared, they typically frolic and jump with joy at their new, sleek — albeit pregnant — bodies!
There are many advantages to shearing the flock in the final weeks before lambing: (1) the fleeces usually end up less contaminated than if sheared after the lambs are born, (2) any break in the wool due to the stress of a difficult delivery will be at the tip of the next fleece, making for a still usable product, (3) the lamb can much more easily find the teats they need to suckle to survive, (4) gestation is extended by an average of about two days, producing bigger, stronger, and more viable lambs, (5) the ewes suddenly feel the cold and come into the barn to deliver their lambs under the heat lamps where survival is greatest, and (6) with little fleece, a ewe can more easily feel and respond if she accidentally lies on a sleeping lamb in the lumpy straw. Shearing before lambing makes a lot of sense, but if this becomes your schedule, you must also be aware of the risks. The shearer must be gentle, and all handling must take into consideration the stage of gestation, minimizing stress to the ewe and, thereby, her unborn lambs. If the ewes are handled carelessly, abortion can be the unwanted result.
Once we shear, however, several nutritional factors come into play. First, the metabolism of the flock shifts from cooling their overheated bodies to warming them up — especially with our often very cold Iowa winters. If the temperatures are too cold immediately following shearing, the ewes can develop cold stress, which can result in death if not dealt with properly. This is the reason our freshly sheared ewes have access to the barn and heat lamps if temperatures dip below freezing.
Their post-shearing shift in metabolism requires the burning of additional calories, and that means that every one of our ewes will require more feed — specifically hay — to keep warm, even if they have access to the barn and heat lamps. The fermentation of hay in the rumen creates heat as a by-product, so fermentation of additional hay means more heat, warming the sheep from the inside. How much additional hay they need will depend on the temperatures in which they live, but their hay allotment should increase by at least 20% post-shearing. In addition to that 20%, we usually figure on an additional 1% of hay for every degree F below freezing. I believe that it’s this shift in feed level and metabolism that creates the bigger, more viable lambs if the ewes are sheared before lambing — but only if the ewes get what they need.
And speaking of getting what they need, don’t forget that there are pushy and timid sheep in every flock. Care must be taken that every flock member gets the nutrition they need, and this is most easily done by ensuring that there is abundant feeder space for all. The shyer members of the flock (who often produce some of the sweetest lambs) are not likely to push their way into a crowded feeder. It is important to make sure the entire flock has access to the hay and grain that is offered, and that they take advantage of it.
Our shearing is just around the corner — on Saturday, January 30th, this year. Like other years, it’s likely to be cold in Iowa in January, but our ewes typically do very well – and should again this year. We make sure they have shelter from wind and wet, warmth from heat lamps if needed, and plenty of hay to warm them from within. I pay close attention to the ewes as they eat, to ensure that they each get what they need and that no one goes hungry at this very important time. You just can’t be too careful.