The countdown to Lambs 2016 has begun. The barn floor is ready, with all soiled bedding removed and replaced by clean. The various pens are set up and waiting, empty until lambing is upon us. Our bulk bin next to the barn is filled with creep feed for the lambs, giving them the very best start along with their mother’s milk. We are ready — and none too soon, since our first lambs are due to arrive this weekend. We have five ewes who should deliver between the 16th and 18th — and somebody always comes early. Always. And we’re prepared!
At this time of year, we call the main area of the Sheep Barn the “general population,” although this name is misleading. In fact, this area holds only the ewes who are pregnant and due to deliver this spring. All of the unbred ewes have been moved up to the Storage Barn and will rejoin their flock-mates after all the new lambs have arrived. The general population at the Sheep Barn has free access to the outdoors; but since shearing, they generally spend time within the barn where they have plenty of food and water — and heat lamps. One of the reasons we shear before lambing is to encourage them to stay in the barn so that if they should happen to go into labor, the lambs will be born within a shelter — thereby increasing their chances for survival in Iowa’s cold and windy winter.
On Friday of this week, we will lock the five ewes (who are due next week) into the “drop pen,” which will assure that their lambs are born in the safety of the barn. The drop pen is a clean area big enough for them to walk around comfortably and, as their due date draws nearer, for each ewe to select her ‘nest’ where she will deliver her lambs. The risk in keeping these imminently due ewes together is that when a lamb is born, one of the other ewes will want to steal it as her own. We’ve found that providing nooks and crannies within the drop pen helps to discourage this, so we generally cover some panels with quilts or sheets to visually separate small “delivery rooms” within the drop pen.
Once a ewe delivers all of her lambs in the drop pen, I allow them just enough time to bond before I get involved. My first tasks are to clamp the navels to prevent infection and to help the ewe dry off the lambs. I then weigh each lamb and use our little sweatshirt baby-lamb coats to cover their wool and help keep them warm. Once I know that the ewe will follow, I pick up her lambs and carry them down the aisle to one of our “lambing jugs” — small pens (about 25 square feet) that allow the ewe to bond with her lambs in private for a few days. We follow a formula for how long each ewe stays in the jug with her lambs. We take the number of lambs, add one, then add one more if she is a new yearling or younger, and one more if there were complications in the delivery or the lambs are particularly small (7 pounds or less). The resulting number is ideally the number of days the ewe will spend in the jug with her lambs. I say ‘ideally’ because if space becomes tight and we can’t build any more jugs (we can easily expand to six), then the most experienced ewe with the least number of lambs will likely find herself exiting the jug a bit early.
Once the new family has bonded, they leave the jug — the only home the lambs have known — and move to the “mixing pen.” This enclosure houses up to eight ewes and their new lambs, and it is where the lambs learn to nurse from only their mother. Whenever we add a new group to the mixing pen, I always stay awhile to ensure that things don’t get too aggressive. Some of the ewes are very hostile in defense of their milk. After all, that milk means life or death to her own lambs! I can usually defuse any serious aggression, so I spend the first twenty minutes or so watching the interactions. A few minutes spent here can prevent a lot of heartache later!
After some time in the mixing pen, the ewes and lambs rejoin the flock. The lambs LOVE this time. Until now, they have been limited to some relatively small pens; when they join the larger flock, they generally run, jump, and cavort with the other lambs to the point of exhaustion! Eventually the flock will again have free access to the outdoors but usually not until all the lambs reach at least 20 pounds — when every ewe has delivered her lambs and they are at least a couple of weeks old. If we allow them outside any sooner, they can be snatched up by an eagle or grabbed by a fox, whereas after only one more week, they are often much too large for either of these predators.
Once the lambs leave the jugs, they have constant access to solid food: our special grain blend and the very best alfalfa. This begins to set up their digestive system to process these foodstuffs, a process that takes about six weeks. The sooner we get them started, the sooner they can digest foods other than their mother’s milk, so access to these foods begins within days.
The clean pens have been set aside, the feed is in, and everything is ready. It won’t be long before our first new flock members arrive! It is an exciting time, and the countdown is well under way!