We ultrasound our ewes each December in order to learn the number of fetuses and their approximate gestational age. The cost of the procedure is far outweighed by the savings in feed costs (since we feed each ewe according to her gestational needs), so ultrasounding provides information regarding the lambing season to come as well as a financial benefit. As the ewes are scanned, we mark them with crayon on their faces or coats and then return them to the same group (if they are open or carrying up to two fetuses) or into a small pen for the high-nutrition group (those carrying triplets or quads, as well as those who are too thin and young lambs who are behind on their growth curve).
Immediately after scanning, the ewes are often in new groups based on their required nutrition. The high-nutrition group has been together for many weeks now, but only based on my own instincts. Just after breeding, I pulled together all of the ewes who seemed thin, those who usually give us triplets or quads, and all of the still-small lambs. We used the ultrasound information to update the group, pulling out January and Ivy (who usually carry 3 or more lambs, but this year are each carrying only one) and adding in Hope, who is actually carrying triplets this year! Gabby was in the group because she was thin, and she remains in the group because she unexpectedly scanned with twins (and is still a bit thin).
Our ultrasound results are always interesting to me — not only because of the sneak peek they give me into lambing but also due to the many surprises that await me. Because of how thin our ewes were going into breeding this year, we had a scattering of open ewes, but not nearly what we had last year. I expect fertility levels to return to normal next year. For the most part, the ewes who produced normally last year (the heavy parasite year) are open or carrying only a single this year, and those who were carrying fewer lambs last year (or were not bred) are producing normally this year.
One particular surprise stands out. Romeldale Phoebe, the daughter of Hattie, is a yearling now and gave us a single lamb (Quenby) this past spring. Most sheep don’t deliver until they are nearly two years old, and lambing as a lamb is a bit unusual. We select for this early fertility for several reasons: early fertility can be an indicator of early maturity; early lambing leads to the mammary glands developing in such a way as to produce faster-growing lambs in future years; and early lambing has been linked to higher fertility overall. Coming from Hattie’s line, I knew Phoebe would have exceptional fleece (which she does!), so keeping her was pretty much a given. In a normal year, I would have expected her to scan with twins. Hattie’s line has never given me triplets, so my mind didn’t even go there. With the information above (about productivity in the parasite year), I expected to see her open this year — or if not, then with a single. Surprisingly, Phoebe is carrying triplets, and I am over the moon!
Overall, we are expecting a total of between 55 and 60 lambs, with about 20 to 25 Romney lambs and 30 to 35 Romeldale lambs. Our first lambs should arrive right on schedule around Valentine’s Day 2018, and our last lambs will likely be Pierson’s, due around the last week of March. Unlike most years, this year’s lambs are fairly well spaced across that entire lambing period, without the typical week-long break sometime in March. As is usual, our busiest period will fall between March 1 and March 8, when we expect a total of 22 to 24 lambs.
Ultrasounding gives us our first peek at the coming lambing season, and it strengthens and clarifies the shepherd’s imaginings — started even before breeding — of the new generation to come. As we put together our breeding groups on paper in the summer and early fall, we made each pairing with an image in our minds of the lambs we hope to see from that dam and sire. Ultrasounding tells us which pairs did or did not result in lambs — and for those that did result in lambs, the imaginings become stronger and much more real. It is an exciting time, with shearing and then lambing just around the corner!