There is no perfect time to wean the lambs. Some people don’t wean them at all, hoping that the dams will do it at some point. Others, for various reasons, wean their lambs early — as early as 42 days. Most shepherds, however, fall somewhere between those two extremes. We typically wean our lambs around 60 days — some a bit earlier and others later, but the average is about two months of age.
The ewes’ milk changes in both quantity and quality throughout the lives of their lambs. By the time the lambs are six weeks old, they are able to digest grass, hay, and grain to meet their nutrient needs, and the milk their mothers produce begins to taper off in both quantity and quality. If lambs continue to nurse much beyond this point, they actually ingest inferior nutrition compared to what they could be eating on their own from other food sources. Beyond about seven or eight weeks, the milk is doing little good; it actually begins to be a negative factor in their lives.
After about eight weeks of age, the lambs are developing their secondary wool follicles — those that produce the finer wool. Lambs are born with the primary follicles already producing wool, but the secondaries develop after birth and throughout the first year. If the lamb’s nutrition is not up to par, many of those secondary follicles will not develop, regardless of what genetics might have dictated. Fewer secondary follicles result in a coarser fleece (made mostly of fiber from the primary follicles) that will weigh less at shearing for the rest of the lamb’s life. As a result, we wean at about sixty days or around eight weeks, making sure our lambs are filling their bellies with the more nutritious feed rather than the less nutritious milk.
Many factors go into the exact weaning date, however. I try to wean the majority of the early-born lambs at the same time, so some will be a bit older than 60 days and some might be a bit younger. I watch the group of lambs I’m looking to wean for a week or so beforehand to ensure that they are all eating and drinking well on their own. You can often tell by just looking whether a particular lamb is a candidate for weaning. When they are ready, they no longer really look like a baby; instead, they are big and strong and confident. Those that still have the baby demeanor are usually not ready, and I leave them for the second group a few weeks later.
This year, our first weaning group included a total of forty-one lambs, ranging in age from one month and twenty-five days to two months and fourteen days. The youngest lamb is a single weighing 64 pounds — no longer a “baby” and so an obvious candidate for weaning. The smallest lamb in the weaned group weighs 42 pounds, and the largest weighs about 90 — most weigh about 60. Scheduled for the next weaning in about three weeks are Natasha’s lambs, Odessa and Oleg, who have been growing well but still only weigh 24 and 31 pounds, respectively. They still look like babies and just seem too small to wean yet.
When we wean, we remove the selected ewes to the Storage Barn. All the lambs — plus the few ewes still nursing their lambs — are locked in the Sheep Barn for at least three days. After that, we take them out to the far pasture, out of earshot of the mothers who are still locked in the Storage Barn. Those ewes will spend at least a week there while we feed them low-quality hay to dry up their milk quicker. This makes them more comfortable and prevents mastitis.
It is interesting that when we separate the ewes from their lambs, the lambs are typically quite happy in their motherless environment. They are in a place where they’ve spent the majority of their lives, so they can easily find food, water, and salt/minerals. They run and play and hardly notice that their mothers are gone. There is very little calling or crying.
The separated ewes, on the other hand, are creating a ruckus. They cry and call for their lambs, who are happily playing out of earshot. We watch the ewes closely for signs of mastitis; but generally, if we limit their intake to only three pounds of poor-quality hay per day, they dry up relatively quickly with no issues.
For Rick and me, the hardest part of this whole process is listening to the ewes cry for their lambs. It helps to know that the lambs are not at all distressed; but just hearing the ewes tugs at my heart. It won’t be long, though, before silence returns and our lambs are successfully weaned. Until then, we keep the windows closed and the radio volume up.