A shepherd friend in Minnesota asked whether I’ve made a list of when we do what during the shepherding year. Over the years I have researched and studied all kinds of sheep-related things — the optimum time for breeding in our region, the best way to set up breeding for multiple lambs, the best time to shear before lambing, and the optimum age for weaning, among others. I took my Minnesota friend’s idea and am setting out our shepherding year in this blog so that more people can see how we do things. I’m happy to discuss the reasoning behind any item on this list — just ask in the comments and I’ll elaborate in a future blog as to why we’ve decided to do it when we do and the way we do.
Although the shepherding year is a never-ending cycle, I must start the process somewhere. Since most new shepherds start with a ram and a few ewes, I will begin the shepherding year with dreams of future lambs as the breeding groups come together.
September 17–November 1: Weigh all ewes as they go into breeding groups. Trim dock, check for anemia, deworm as needed, and fit coats so that they don’t need to be handled more than necessary during breeding.
November 1: When rams have been pulled, call ultrasound technician to schedule ultrasound scanning.
December 7–21: Prepare clipboard with ewes listed by tag number to be used to record ultrasound results, and get crayon to mark ewes once scanned. Ultrasound ewes somewhere in this date range, generally on a weeknight, covering about 50 ewes in 45 minutes
December 8–22: The day after ultrasounding, break ewes into high- and low-nutrition groups based on ultrasound results — triplets and bred ewe lambs into high group, singles and twins into low group.
Late December into early January: Send email to anyone who might be interested in helping with shearing, looking for 14 extra people, first come, first served. Send general information in this initial contact, including date and time.
Mid January: Assign jobs to volunteers for Shearing Day and send out detailed email to all helpers so that they know when to arrive, where to park, what to wear, what to do, and what food is available. Get all shearing supplies lined up (sharpened combs and cutters, name tags, clean bed sheets, cards for bundles, paperwork for immunizations, cards for skirting, paperwork for fleece weights, etc.). Begin food prep for Shearing Day meals, and freeze.
Last full week of January: Bring ewes into barn to dry off for shearing. Provide alfalfa to all for the day or two before shearing, increasing level of nutrition for all ewes (high-nutrition group begins grain).
Last weekend in January: Shearing Day on Saturday, with snow day on Sunday if needed. Bring all supplies to barn, greet volunteers, shear ewes — and then have a party! The day after shearing, bring bundles of fleece in from garage (where volunteers dropped them after shearing) and organize by breed and color (Romeldale white, Romeldale colored, Romney white, and Romney colored) in skirting room — one breed/color per wall.
From late January to mid February: Skirt fleeces, photograph, and prepare for sale, collecting fiber data for each fleece as it is skirted. Begin to make a list of possible cull ewes based on fleece quality.
Mid February: Sell ewe fleeces online, invoice, box and ship — prior to first lamb arrivals, if possible. Lock first-due ewes into drop pen and begin monitoring.
February 14–April 1: Lambing. Set up creep feed area for new lambs by February 17 or when the first lambs go into the mixing pen with their dams.
Mid March weekend and every two weeks throughout spring: Begin evaluations for month-old lambs (plus or minus 7 days) and continue to evaluate every two weeks — all lambs that are 30, 60, or 90 days old (plus or minus 7 days). Begin to choose replacement lambs for our flock based on flock needs, and begin to contact lamb waiting list to confirm what they are looking for. Start to match possible lambs with top of waiting list, but hold on specific information until lambs are at least 45 days old.
Sometime in April (sometimes as early as March): Open first pasture to ewes with lambs at their sides — lambs must graze for at least 3 weeks before weaning, so delay weaning if necessary. Creep feed should continue to be available until at least a week after weaning for all lambs.
Beginning of May: Wean first group of lambs (over about 52 days old and weighing at least 45 pounds), and begin to send out specific information on those that may be of interest to top of lamb waiting list.
Early May: Call shearer to schedule ram shearing in early June. Prepare clipboard to record ram weights and fleece weights, prepare cards to identify bundles and to be used for skirting.
Mid to late May: Wean remaining lambs (same criteria as above) and continue matching breeding lambs with waiting list. All lambs should be successfully grazing and finding water and salt by this time. Monitor lambs for one to two weeks after weaning and then they can go to new homes (if that is the plan).
Early June: Weigh and shear rams, trim hooves, and recoat. Skirt fleeces, document and sell ram fleeces. Determine which rams will stay and which will be sold based on flock goals and lambs born in spring.
June: Combine lambing data with fleece data to create final cull list for the year. Begin to set goals for fall breeding groups and consider ram possibilities to meet those goals with existing ewes.
Entire grazing season: Rotate sheep through grazing pastures with lambs in the lead (the first into a fresh field); ewes go into the field the lambs just left, and rams go into the field the ewes just left. Fields are rotated so that they are never eaten down below 3″ or so and have enough time to regrow to at least 6–8″ before sheep return. Weigh and evaluate remaining lambs about every 30 days.
Late July to early August: Separate ewe lambs and combine with ewes; separate ram lambs and combine with rams. Ewes get the run of a field first, then rams follow. Make sure to leave enough grazing for rams; if field growth is slow, rams and ram lambs go onto hay while ewes graze the fields.
Late July through August: Trim hooves of adult ewes before breeding. Record any ewes whose hooves need exceptional trimming (more than once per year) for possible culling.
August: Measure scrotal circumference of breeding rams and make list of rams (and ram lambs) to consider for fall breeding. For every ram and ewe that will not be culled, make a relationship coefficient chart with every ram of the breed across the top and every ewe of the breed down the first column. Designate those breedings that are too close genetically. Determine which rams will be used to meet goals and minimize the number of groups. Set up breeding groups on paper.
Early September: Count stock of marking crayons and order the number and color needed. Check harnesses for weaknesses/tears and repair. Finalize breeding groups and set up paperwork for collecting ewe weights and monitoring breeding groups. Set up clipboards — with pen tied to clipboard — for checking crayon markings in breeding groups.
September 17: Return to the top of this list and repeat indefinitely!