I know that many readers are watching this blog and the Our New Lambs! page for news of January’s lambs — but we are all still waiting. As often happens with low-pressure weather systems, the storm that passed through our area on Wednesday and Thursday of this week brought a lot of lambs — seven just yesterday — but none from January or O’Chloe, both of whom we’ve been watching carefully since their anticipated due date of March 9th. They are still holding on to their lambs and patiently waiting to deliver.
As a result of this situation, I’ve gotten a lot of questions about due dates, lambing, and January specifically. Usually if one person asks a question, there are many others who are wondering the same thing, so I’ll answer some of the many questions I know are out there.
First of all, there is no reason to believe that either January or O’Chloe were actually due on March 9th. We base our due dates on the markings of a marking crayon worn by the ram during breeding. Although this is a very accurate system when it works, there are many things that can go wrong. The crayon on the ram can end up full of gravel so that it doesn’t mark the coat of the ewe; or he might mark her again with the same color crayon, and I might not be able to see the second marking. Because of these potential problems with the marking crayon, we also ultrasound our ewes to confirm due dates. The ultrasound has given us due dates more reliable than those of the crayon for these two ewes: 3/22 for O’Chloe and 3/24 for January.
We originally designated Easter as “end of lambing,” since we had no further markings after Kabernet’s on October 30th (which would have given a due date of March 26th). Yet January was in with her ram until November 3rd, yielding a last possible due date of March 30th. Although we are all — including January! — ready for lambing to be done for the year, we still have approximately another week of possible lambs, when you take into consideration that they can come a couple of days late. It isn’t over yet!
I’ve been asked whether it’s possible to induce January to bring the lambs. There is a drug that can be used to induce labor in sheep, but even in the best of circumstances, it’s a risk. First of all, lambs born even three days early struggle to survive — or die trying. Inducing when you aren’t absolutely certain of the due date is a risky business that can end up in the death of the lambs. Even when a due date is well known, inducing labor can be fraught with risk. We’ve had to induce several times in past years for various reasons — usually having to do with the health of the ewe — and in every case, the situation ended in the death of the ewe or the death of one or more lambs. Induction also increases the likelihood that the lambs will come with improper presentations, which means I will need to turn them and help with the delivery. If the ewe goes into labor and I’m not present, the outlook for her lambs is not good. I induce labor only as a last resort; if there is no other option, I will induce. Otherwise I would prefer that Mother Nature let her plan unfold, and we will follow her lead.
I’ve also been asked how I know that January’s lambs are still alive — perhaps they’ve all died and we need to induce to get them out. I know they are still alive because January is still healthy — uncomfortable and ungainly, but healthy. If the unborn lambs die, the ewe becomes very ill in a short amount of time and there is vaginal discharge with a terrible odor. This odor permeates not only the sheep but, very shortly, also the pen and then the entire barn. When you open the door to the barn, you know something terrible has happened, that something has died. This is not currently the case. In fact, if you watch closely as January lies in the straw, you can sometimes see the creases in her coat move as the lambs roll within her.
I will admit that this always brings a smile to my face; there is something incredibly intimate about seeing unborn lambs moving about in their amniotic world — something that January and I can share as she continues to grow larger and we patiently wait. In addition to the rolling motion, I sometimes see a hoof poke here or a head push against the skin of her belly there. It confirms that her lambs are fine and that we must simply wait. The time will come. I’ve learned over the years that shepherding can bring out the best in us. In this case, it’s a lesson in patience.