Life on a Sheep Farm: Lambing Time

Sally Bowen

Spring lambs. Photo by Don Tubb.
[This article ran in the June/July 2013 issue of The SCOOP.]

Every year we do pregnancy tests on our “ewe lambs” - those who were born the previous May. Among the approximately 1400 lambs born last spring, we choose the best three hundred females to be put to the rams in December.

However, we know that not all of them have been successfully bred. We want to keep only those females who are gravid, and sell the others in time for Greek Orthodox Easter – this year it fell on May 5th. It just costs us too much to keep non-productive animals. On the farm, it doesn't pay to be coy when the rams arrive.

Also, it is important for us to cull any lambs that are not bred at one year of age, as we wish to select for heritability factors. Having just the right genetics in the flock is always the goal that we strive for. After 38 years of selective culling, we are much closer to achieving the ideal Topsy ewe.

The pregnancy testing process is pretty interesting. We use an ultrasound machine that emits a different sound when sound waves bounce off the amniotic fluid in the uterus. We have to make sure the lambs have empty bladders so as not to confuse the machine readings. Our shepherd Christopher needs a good wand contact on the lamb's belly in order to hear a regular beep, so he squirts the area with cooking oil. The machine emits a continuous note if the amniotic fluid is detected.

Ideally, the testing is done before the fetus is too large. The rams are in with the ewe lambs for twenty-five days, so the first testing occurs at about ninety days from the 1st day of breeding. Of course, there are no guarantees, and because we want to make sure that we keep all those who are carrying a fetus, all the lambs which did not show pregnant with the first testing are retested after two weeks. The first test showed that 225 out of 300 ewes had been bred. It took three people six hours to complete the first process. The second test, two weeks later, found an additional twenty-two.

Just before the lambs are shipped off, the remaining seventy-five lambs, that apparently were not pregnant, were tipped up on their bottoms and their udders checked. This third test may indicate a few more are carrying fetuses that the machine did not detect. We found three pretty definites and a couple of other maybes. They will stay as well and hopefully they will add more frolicking lambs to our flock.

This year we hope to have over 1500 lambs, born in May and early June to over 1100 ewes. Despite very regular checking of the six groupings of birthing ewes, perfect parenting does not always occur.

We often have triplets, and some mamas just can't raise all three, especially if they are of very different sizes. Sometimes a ewe “loses count”, nurturing the first lamb born and neglecting the second, who becomes weak and hungry. For those and other reasons, the occasional lamb is brought to the house for bottle rearing.

During this year’s lambing, we had just two for the first couple of days - but one evening six suddenly appeared - the result of a bad mama muddle and some ewes moving to new pastures and losing one.

The foster lambs are bottle-fed four times a day, with a powdered sheep's milk formula that approximates ewes' milk. It takes surprisingly little time for the lambs to learn to come running, blatting and eager, when our grandsons appear with their bottles. Some lambs learn quickly to follow at heel, seeking food and play.

A few foster lambs may be adopted back into the field - our shepherd is good at persuading a ewe that to dote on one of the foster lambs. The rest stay with us for a few days until strong enough to go to a new home.

We have adoptive families lined up to provide a home for the foster lambs once they are strong and well-established on the bottle. They will raise a small flock, or just keep them healthy and happy for the summer.

These foster lambs provide wonderful entertainment for young families visiting Topsy Farms and the Wool Shed. If you wish to come, please phone ahead if you hope to visit lambs - there are no guarantees.

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