Weaning lambs

This past weekend was a big day for our flock. At mid-day on Saturday, we began the process of weaning 42 of our 60 remaining lambs. Weaning day is always a stressful one, not only for the lambs and their mothers, but also for us. For the three days that the lambs are locked in the barn, I worry. Is the air quality good? Are they getting enough water? Enough hay and grain? Are the younger members of the group handling the experience okay? Are they stressed by the sound of the mothers crying in the other barn? Can the dams hear their babies? So much goes into a successful weaning — and so many things can go wrong.

When we wean the first group, we bring the entire lamb flock and their mothers into the familiar lambing barn for a once-over. We put our hands on every one of them, checking for any conditions that might require our intervention. We keep in mind the importance of maintaining a very low level of stress, so we take our time and avoid any chasing or loud voices. By the end of the day, there will be plenty of stress among the group, but we don’t want it to begin any earlier than necessary!

When we catch one of the ewes or lambs, we first check for evidence of scouring (diarrhea) or anemia (by pulling down their lower eyelids and checking the color), both of which are indicators of a heavy internal parasite load. The sheep have been grazing for a good six weeks — some even longer. If they have been scouring, I glove up and trim the stained and soggy wool from their backsides to avoid a nasty condition called fly strike, which is most common in Iowa during May and June, our primary fly months. Fly strike occurs when flies lay eggs in the damp, soiled wool around the sheep’s dock. When the larvae later hatch out, they begin to feed on the sheep, including burrowing beneath the skin. A lamb can be eaten alive — beginning at the back — in a very short time, and removing the hundreds or thousands of maggots that threaten the sheep is the only way to save its life. I’ve had to do this several times now, and it is probably the worst job I’ve ever undertaken. Worse, I was only partially successful — we saved only two of the three that were stricken, and those two lost the ability to produce wool over the affected areas. This is one problem best avoided, so if the back end is messy, I trim, wash, and spray with fly spray. As undignified as that may seem, it is a hundred times better than dealing with the alternative.

Yet, the messy back end is an indicator of a bigger issue, the internal parasites. If we find evidence of anemia or scouring, the lamb or ewe gets a dose of dewormer calibrated to their weight. When deworming, it is always better to overdose than underdose, since giving too little creates resistant parasites that will not die when exposed to the dewormer. We base our dosage on weight and then round up to make sure they get enough to do the job. We also record every sheep that got dewormer, since not the entire flock is dewormed at the same time. Over the years I can then see which ewe or lambs require more dewormer and which require less, helping us select for a flock that requires less deworming for the same exposure to parasites.

We also check each sheep for coat sizing. Our lambs cover a wide range of sizes right now, from a 19″ coat (Sweet Pea, the youngest) to a 36″ coat (Peabody, the oldest, wearing what we consider to be the smallest adult-sized coat). Although the majority of coat changes at this time of year are for our lambs, we also check the ewes. Even though they may not be growing, their wool certainly is. Any sheep who is exposing too much wool above their tail stub gets a fresh coat in the next size.

As we finish with each ewe, we pull out those whose lambs are being weaned. The ewes happily leave their older lambs for the green grass of the West Pasture, and the lambs remain in the familiar surroundings of the barn where they have friends, high-quality alfalfa, and our grain blend. When we finish with the entire group, we close the rear door of the barn (so that the ewes can no longer see their lambs, and vice-versa) and move the ewes up to the Storage Barn.

The ewes can have no water until the evening of the first weaning day and no hay until the day after. When they do get their hay, it’s poor quality first-cutting grass. Such a low level of nutrition dries up their milk more quickly, which keeps them more comfortable and gets them out of confinement sooner. It usually takes a couple of days for the ewes to stop crying for their lambs, and about 24-48 hours after that happens, we usually let the lambs back out onto the pasture — although far away from their locked-in mothers. Their dams won’t go back onto pasture until after they start to dry up, which occurs at least 10-14 days after weaning. For now, we just keep watch and hope all goes well.

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