Ultrasound nerves

As each day brings us closer to the day we ultrasound our flock, the tension and curiosity build. The scans will be our first glimpse into the coming year, giving us an idea of how many lambs we’ll welcome into the flock during our seven weeks of lambing, from February through the first week of April. In a scant hour tomorrow, we will find out which ewes are bred, how many fetuses each carries, and when those lambs might arrive. When I combine this information with the marking dates we collected (the dates we noticed a crayon marking on the ewes from the ram’s breeding harness), I’ll get a good idea of what next year will look like, both as preparation for lambing and what we’ll have available for our customers.

This recent breeding season was an unusual one for us and also for many other shepherds with whom I’ve recently been in contact. In most years, the vast majority of our adult ewes — usually 2/3 to 3/4 (or more) — are marked during the first three weeks of breeding. When this happens, the rams have little to do in the second three weeks of the breeding season. They often become frustrated by the fact that there are so few ewes to breed, and because of that, there is little chance that they’ll miss a cycling ewe — resulting in a flock where very near 100% of the ewes are bred within the approximately six weeks we consider breeding season.

I honestly don’t know the cause of this year’s variance. I saw a lot of markings in the first weeks, as is typical. What was not typical was that most of our ewes were marked again during the next three weeks. And because so many of the ewes were marked during the second cycle, the rams were obviously busy and could easily have missed a ewe here or there. In addition, whatever caused the ewes to not settle in the first cycle could still have been a factor — they may or may not have settled during that second round. I therefore expect that we might see more open ewes this year than is usual for us.

In a normal year — with many markings in the first three weeks, tapering off to only one or two ewes marked in the last week or two of breeding — I can expect that, unless one of the rams was infertile, we will have a good number of lambs the next spring. This year, however, when we had a total of  twenty-one ewes (about half the flock) bred in what should have been the last week of breeding, I made the decision to extend breeding season by one week. During that one-week extension, we had another six ewes bred — about eleven lambs (if they all settle) that wouldn’t be coming if we hadn’t pushed back our last day of breeding for the season.

How long to run breeding is a difficult decision. Anyone who has experienced a typical lambing season knows that after weeks of barn checks, the shepherdess runs out of energy for the task. Sleepless nights and long, cold days in the barn add up over those weeks to produce a shepherd who is less able to perform under pressure — and particularly if that person also has a career in town. For most of us, once the breeding season is about six weeks long, we know that we will be close to our limit of endurance come spring. For most shepherds, six weeks is about it.

Yet this year I ran our season for seven weeks. I did so based on the rate of breeding I was seeing within the flock, and tomorrow I’ll see whether this gamble paid off. The ideal discovery would be that all of our adult ewes and many of our lambs are bred; but my guess is that, based on the pattern of markings, this will not be the case. Some breeding years are better and some are worse, and it seems to be regional. In fact, one of the first questions I typically ask our ultrasound technician (whose range stretches from Wisconsin to Idaho, and from Montana to Missouri) is what she’s been finding across the Midwest. Most of the time, she sees a pattern that foretells what we will experience with our flock.

Some years she reports that many scanned ewes are carrying multiples, and other years, singles — or worse yet, years when many ewes are open. Whatever her answer to the question, it prepares me for what I may see when she begins to scan. The information we gain in that short hour will let me know whether we’ll have enough lambs to fulfill the requests on our waiting list and whether there will be enough for us to keep a few for our own flock. We have a lot riding on the results of these ultrasounds, and I can feel the pressure as I stand there, clipboard in hand, ready to find out what the coming year will bring.

It won’t be long before all of this speculation meets the reality of the results. I’ll admit that I’m both excited and nervous. The success of the flock in the coming year will rely heavily on what we find tomorrow. Once again, these unborn lambs hold the promise of genetics long-planned. Now we can only hope that there will be enough lambs to go around!

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