With Grace’s delivery of Romney twins yesterday (Omega, a white ewe lamb, and Ovid, a colored ram lamb), our 2015 lambing season has come to an end – and I can’t say I’m sad to see it go. As much as I love seeing the new lambs and how last fall’s breeding groups are now reflected in the new flock members, it truly is a lot of work. I don’t think non-farm people can truly understand how much time and energy goes into these six weeks. In fact, I know most don’t; even my own family doesn’t quite get it!
Lambing is extra work in many ways. There is obviously the helping-ewes-deliver aspect, which means getting up at all hours of the night. Most of our ewes can easily deliver on their own and get the lambs cleaned off and fed in short order, but every once in a while one of them needs help. A lamb may be especially large or be trying to arrive in the wrong position. For whatever reason, if the ewe can’t deliver that lamb in a reasonable amount of time, the lamb(s) can die — and so can she. Although I expect our ewes to deliver without assistance, I am still there to help in case they need it. To me, it is a matter of life and death – and in such a situation, I always choose life.
When it is bitterly cold (as it was this year and last), a newborn lamb can only survive for a very short time without nursing. If I am there at the birth, I can ensure that every lamb has found the teat before I leave. With a full tummy, the lamb has a much better chance at surviving as it dries and adjusts to life outside the womb in the next few hours. In the worst of the cold, this meant checking the monitor every two hours through the night — and even then, we lost a couple of lambs to the bitter cold. The weeks of lambing come with a lot of work and very little sleep.
Besides the additional barn checks, even the usual chores take longer. The ewes are divided into separate areas: the general population not yet near their due dates, the drop pen where those imminently due can drop their lambs, the lambing jugs where individual ewes spend time immediately following delivery getting to know their new lambs, and the mixing pen where the new families begin the process of coming back together into a flock. With sheep in so many different areas, even feeding becomes a lengthy process. During the busiest time, it took me almost two and a half hours to get grain and hay to every ewe. Now that most have merged back into a single flock, feeding the same group of ewes takes me only half an hour or so — a huge time savings!
Finally, lambing also means more work as we record each birth and get the lambs ready for life in the flock. About 24 hours after birth, each lamb is ear tagged, photographed for our records, and sampled for DNA testing. Just before the lamb is returned to the lambing jug and its mother, we dock its tail with a strong rubber band (the tail will fall off in about two weeks) to prevent issues later in life. Although this processing doesn’t generally take very long for each lamb, in a day that is already busy with sorting ewes, helping with new births, feeding the flock, etc., it is one more thing in a very full day.
Now that lambing is over for the year, we will shift into evaluating the lambs that were born and making decisions for flock replacements. I’ve been taking notes on the ewes over the past two months: their wool when we sheared, their success in delivering live lambs, and their mothering ability, among other traits. Based on those notes, the bottom ten to fifteen percent of the girls will be culled from the flock – to be replaced by some of the newborn lambs who I expect will work better for us. We evaluate our lambs every thirty days to monitor their growth, conformation, and fleece traits. I also watch the lambs closely when in the barn, noting down which ones catch my eye — either positively or negatively — and adding those assessments to the evaluations. In only a few weeks, we will decide which will join our own flock and which will be sold for breeding to other flocks — and which don’t reflect the breed well enough to produce future generations.
For the next few days, however, I will be taking advantage of my newfound freedom, catching up on sleep and spending some time off the farm. After six weeks of lambing, I can use a bit of a break before diving in to the next phase — and that’s just what I plan to do!