Grit Blogs > The Daily Commute

Katahdin Ewe Lambs Early: Blizzard Baby In Osage County

By Hank Will, Editor-in-Chief


Tags: sheep, lambs, lambing, farms,

GRIT Editor Hank Will at the wheel of his 1964 IH pickup.Earlier this week Missy, one of our “named and tame” black Katahdin ewes, lambed early, right in the middle of what I hope is our last blizzard. Our sheep production model aims to have the ewes bred for April lambing because by then the pasture grass is coming on strong and we believe that good grass makes awesome milk. And awesome milk makes strong, rapidly growing lambs. Suffice it to say, things don't always work out the way you plan.

Quoting a good friend, we had a fencing malfunction last year -- so our big ram George (a great grandson to Wendell Berry's ram) managed to connect with at least one of the ewes. I have to say that George is very respectful of fences good and bad, but this particular ewe has a mind of her own and a knack for finding holes to slip through. The grass is, after all, greener on the other side. So, I have no doubt that Missy slipped through the fence into George's paddock because I caught her on the way back out. I figured there was the chance of some February lambs and that figuring was born out on an incredibly cold and snowy day.

Colorful Katahdin ewes and black lamb. 

We had been monitoring the flock and noted that a couple of the girls looked mighty big. The night before the snow flew, signs of immediate parturition were absent, although our sheep are allowed to keep their tails, so it isn't always possible to get a good look at all the signs. Early that fateful day, my Partner In Culinary Crime had slipped on the ice and racked her knee and ankle bad enough that she was imobilized (she managed to hobble and crawl back to the house). So she didn't brave the blizzard to check on things mid-day. The ewes had plenty of hay and plenty of water and the snow was piling up -- I would check them when I got home from work. By then it was about 7 degrees and the wind was howling out of the north east.

Katahdin sheep in the haystack 

I fed the hogs and poultry. Broke ice where ice needed to be broken and was about to deliver a fresh 1800-pound hay bale to the cattle when my mind registered something odd with what my eye had seen. There was a little black snow-covered lamb standing next to a snow-covered black ewe over by the mineral feeder. Huh?! Oh ya, there was that hole in the fence. As I jumped off the tractor to have a closer look I heard a little lamb voice coming from the hay stack. Missy pretty much always has twins and this time was no different. I checked the lamb by her side; he was strong and his belly was full. The little girl had been cleaned and was breathing, snow-covered and half frozen in the hay. I tucked her into my coveralls and raced her into the house, but no amount of massaging, heat and warm colostrum drench could bring her back. Our terriers licked her face, cuddled with her and stayed on the job for about an hour after she expired. What a bummer.

By the time I got back to haying the cattle, Missy and her lamb were nestled down in the open-front shed, out of the wind and the weather. That little guy has experienced nights with temperatures into the negative teens and continues to thrive. What a way to come into the world. Fixing fence is a top priority for me this summer, but malfunctions are always expected on the farm.


Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .

allison, pa shepherdess
7/20/2011 11:23:30 AM

I was glad to read that we're not the only ones! One cold morning in early April the Chief Shepherd dashed back into the house after going out to open the coop door for the chickens and hollered, "Allison, there's a new lamb in the barn!" Our unexpected blessed event was not due to a fence situation, though. We'd had all new fencing put in since we only started sheep farming in early 2010. No, we didn't realize that Katahdin lambs come into sexual maturity earlier than what we'd read about in Storey's Guide (our sheep Bible). It turns out that last summer's ram lambs should have been separated out sooner than we did, and they'd gotten, well, "rammy." Surprise! We ended up with over a dozen beautiful lambs, who WERE separated soon after weaning this time. They're all doing great now, including the first rejected lamb we've ever raised by bottle-feeding, sometimes while wearing our down-filled winter coats and polar-fleece gloves at 5:00 AM or 11:00 PM. Our flock is now around 50 sheep with more expected any day, this time from planned exposure to our fully grown ram! By the way, in response to an older blog posting about your sheep: we can hear the coyotes sometimes at night from up in the woods. But with our electric fences we've never had a problem with them, even with no guard animals. (Our only predation problem here at Heart's Desire Farm so far is that once a hawk carried away a chicken while she was foraging....) I just discovered your blog and plan to return! Thanks for sharing your farming life with us.


hank will_2
2/24/2011 5:03:25 PM

Hey Mark -- thanks for dropping by. I wish we were still neighbors and could get into some fleecy trouble together these days. Not a day goes by that I don't think about you and Duane and Mike and all the help you gave me in Knox County. Not to mention the moral support and incredible gift of labor at my farm sale. I was skeptical about sheep until I found these hair sheep. I really enjoy them and we do well with them -- and no shearing. :) thkans Dave. Karen walks without any limp now, so I think she will be OK. Those darn fences are the bane of my existence. I love fencing, but I don't love barb wire the way I do electric. :)


smitty
2/18/2011 7:33:32 PM

Hank Greetings from Knox county. Glad to see your sheep enterprise growing. We ultra sounded the majority of the ewes last weekend.(first time we have ever done this) This allowed us to cull any ewes that were open out of 156 exposed ewes we ended up with 5 open 2 bred but I judged to thin to be productive and 1 bred way out side the lambing window. One of the open ewes was a ewe lamb that weighed 195LBs (4-H project gone wild) brought 224 dollars. I remember not too many years ago we couldn't get that out of a cull cow. The least we received was .80/lb. We had around 45 ewes that were to far along to ultra sound as we are trying to get some fair lambs and also had some ram control issues or as you say fencing malfunctions. You may not remember but when we started back up in the sheep I bought a load of Finn ewes that we bred to old style Dorset rams. Of the 102 crossbred ewes we ultra sounded we have 12 carrying singles 57 with twins 37 carrying Triplets and 6 with quads or more. I was hoping to sort and cut my feed bill but the ultra sound results tell me I better sort and feed some extra grain. Lamb prices have been very strong this year and look to be for some time. The Ohio sheep team continues to put out a good news letter that you can access. As always I believe sheep are the small farmers opportunity and a great way for young or new farmers to get started. Sheering can still be a challenge but in the last few years several young guys have started. Smitty


nebraska dave
2/11/2011 8:09:20 PM

@Hank, it's so true about the best laid plans on a functioning farm. I'm sure glad that the early birthing wasn't a total loss. Things seem to happen at the most inopportune times. I surely hope that your Partner In Culinary Crime gets back on her feet and gets better real soon. Is there a market for black sheep's wool? It's been above 40 for two days in a row. Ha, maybe that ground hog was right in Pennsylvania and we will have an early spring. It sure felt like Spring was on the way today. Have a great wooly Kansas day.