Saturday was a big day for our lamb flock. Sometime before mid August every year, when the lambs are about five months old, we divide them. The ewe lambs join the adult ewe flock and the ram lambs join the adult rams. Exactly when we do this depends on several factors, but the lamb flock must be divided or we risk “unauthorized breeding” as the ewe lambs begin to come into sexual maturity.
Some of the ram lambs have been ready to breed for a while now, so the gender separation has little to do with their maturity. In fact, it is because of their development that we leave the lambs together for as long as we do. Studies have shown that ram lambs who are separated into single-sex groups too early in life have a higher predisposition to preferring other rams to ewes when it comes to breeding. There is nothing worse than paying good money for a terrific ram and then finding out that he doesn’t like ewes! We had this happen once (which was the cause for my research on the topic) and ever since have tried to avoid causing the situation to happen again.
As a result, we remove the adult ewes from the ram lambs at weaning but leave the lamb flock together until sometime in August. I usually pay close attention to our ewe lambs as August nears, especially the largest and oldest Romeldale ewe lambs, since those are the girls most likely to reach sexual maturity first and begin cycling. Although some of the Romneys may cycle and breed this year, they are very seasonal in their breeding and are unlikely to cycle until mid-September when the days become a bit shorter. As soon as I see the Romeldale ewes showing signs of flirting with the ram lambs, we prepare to divide the flock.
Last week it was Lolita’s daughter Paisley who began to seek out the ram lambs. It was obvious to me that she was looking for more than a friendly playmate, so on Saturday we separated out the ewe lambs and sent them to new pasture where the adult ewes joined them. The ram lambs were held in a pen in the barn where we brought the adult rams too. All of the boys spent some time getting to know each other there in close quarters — this allows them to work out their differences and establish a hierarchy, but in surroundings that don’t allow for ramming or head-butting. We give them hay and water and just enough space to stand, lie down, and turn around. Because it was so hot, they settled quickly, and by the end of the day, I was able to move them out into the Timber, where they will graze for the next week.
Not only do we separate the sexes at this time of year; we also make sure to keep at least one full pasture or two electrified fences between the two groups. The instinct to breed is a very strong one, and our rams are selected for their aggressive breeding behaviors. We want rams who want to breed — but honestly, not yet. I would much prefer if they wait until I’m ready to put them into their groups for this year. With empty space between the two groups, I can easily see if any of them are on their way to the others — and can make sure it doesn’t happen by returning any wandering sheep to their original pasture!
A shepherd who wants to keep control over which ewes are bred by which rams must separate the sexes and continually monitor each group for “stowaways” who are looking to make their own breeding plans! I only hope we separated the groups in time and that all of our ewes are still open — and will remain so until September 17th, when our official breeding season begins!