Like many other subjects in the sheep world, weaning is one of those topics that the more you think about it, the more you realize that there is a lot of nuance to how it is performed well. Of course, there are many shepherds that merely pull the lambs away from their mothers and call it good – but if you are reading this, you likely already know that I’ve given it a bit more thought than that. If I am going to go through the trouble of weaning our lambs, then I want to do it in such a way that it works well for each and every one of our sheep.
So the first questions I often get asked is why we wean at all – won’t the ewes eventually wean their lambs on their own? The answer to this question is a bit complex – sure the ewes will wean them, but you never know when that might be, and ewes in lactation begin to produce poorer and poorer quality milk after about six weeks. Since lambs are producing secondary fiber follicles through this time period, poor nutrition can mean less secondary follicles for every primary follicle, which means coarser and less wool overall from that lamb when it grows up – for the rest of its life! Since we sell wool, this is not among our goals, and weaning our lambs makes sense: when the milk quality goes down, it makes sense to wean the lambs so that they take full advantage of the high quality creep feed that we provide instead of filling up on low quality milk.
Yet, there is also another reason that is best explained by example. Many years ago, we had a white adult ewe named Rosie who gave birth to two big ram lambs. She produced copious amounts of milk and her boys grew rapidly through the spring. One day in late May, I was sitting in our parlor looking out at our few sheep when these two big boys – already nearly as big as their mother – decided they wanted some milk. They both slid under Rosie, one on each side, and gave her udder a good thumping to start the milk flow. The problem was that they both “thumped” her at the same time, and so hard that her rump went up into the air and over her head, landing her flat on her back! Not to be disappointed, the ram lambs adjusted their stance and stood over her prone-but-struggling body, sucking and sucking as I watched. It was at that point that I decided that any lamb that could flip its mother onto her back was likely old enough to wean – and now we make sure we do so for the health of both dams and their lambs.
Weaning can be stressful, however, and we try to keep that stress to a minimum. Over the years, we’ve tried a number of things to minimize the trauma for dams or lambs and have found that the following are ideals that, if incorporated into a weaning plan, make those first days run much more smoothly.
- When separating the ewes from their lambs, it helps to pull the ewes out and move them to a new space, keeping the lambs in their already familiar environment.
- Rather than try to dry our ewes coming in directly off of pasture, it helps to lock them into the barn for a few days to a week before you wean and feed them a measured amount (about 3.5 pounds per ewe) of low-quality hay. We put a creep gate across the doorway to the pasture so that the lambs can come and go out onto pasture, into the creep area, or to their mothers, but the ewes are locked in. The reduced feed among the ewes begins drying them up already before they are separated from the lambs, preventing possible mastitis issues due to overly full udders later.
- After a few days of this feeding arrangement, we move the ewes to a separate barn where they are locked in. The lambs are not nearly as upset as the ewes unless they can hear their mothers calling. By locking the ewes into the barn some distance away, the ewes can call, but the lambs don’t respond, cutting the noise and stress way down. In a couple of days when they stop calling, you can open things up for the ewes – but we still leave them inside on the same rations until we see that their bags are no longer filled with milk. This can take a week or more, depending on many factors.
- Weaning in two groups helps reduce stress among the lambs. If you pull the mothers of the oldest lambs from the group in the first weaning, their lambs will be less stressed because they still have half of the mothers there in the flock with them through weaning. Once you pull the rest of the dams out a few weeks later, the youngest lambs end up less stressed because they see that the older lambs are doing just fine and going about their business unfazed. We usually keep a “Granny” with our lambs after the last weaning, simply to give them some adult supervision. This year, it is Gabby.
- The lambs will often end up with coccidia (tiny single-cell parasites that are all around, but can bloom in sheep due to stress) from the stress of weaning. We used to treat only those lambs that obviously were dealing with coccidia, but found over the years that it is much more efficient to treat the entire group of lambs. As soon as we see scouring due to coccidia, we medicate the water and five days later, it is over and gone. In the past when we treated individuals, we were fighting coccidia for weeks.
- Make sure that you have the very best feed and clean, fresh water available for the lambs at all times. It is hard enough for them to imagine a world without their mothers’ supervision and milk, so providing great feed in a familiar place makes the whole world seem better to them.
We pulled the ewes from their lambs on Friday morning, and the calling and crying stopped by mid-day on Sunday. The lambs are all locked into the Sheep Barn enjoying unlimited creep feed and the company of their friends. Once they are all successfully weaned and dewormed (testing for remaining internal parasites will begin on Friday of this week), they will move with Gabby and a couple of guardian llamas onto clean pasture that has never been grazed by sheep, providing them with healthy grazing with little risk of parasites – and those that have been sold will begin to go to their new homes!