Out in the Barn … Again

1 / 4
2 / 4
3 / 4
4 / 4

I am a shepherdess of a small hair sheep flock.

This is a job that I take very seriously. Our flock is made up of a permanent set of ewes that may be added to as a good specimen is born on the farm, and varying aged lambs, including males being raised for market sales. Some of our ewes have been on site for the entire 11 years that we have been raising sheep. In the beginning, we had sheep only for pasture control but eventually it grew into something else.

As our flock, which I call “My Girls,” frequently includes males, we can lamb as early as January sometimes, and generally it is stretched out over a couple of month period. If it’s not too busy I try and schedule it a little better. During this time, I keep careful watch over my flock. Many shepherds will disagree with me on frequent checks and bringing my girls in at night when they are close. Which I do, especially if it is cold.

When I first started I read that losses of up to 5 percent were to be expected every season. I was determined to break this statistic on my own farm. Call me silly but it only took once, carrying a cold slimy lamb from the field to the barn in the dark while holding it in front of a mom to smell it so she would follow, for me to absorb the idea of it being easier on everyone for the girls to be in the barn when it was time to lamb. This seems to me to be especially important with wool sheep that do not have near the resistance to the cold or stress levels that hair sheep have.

Now I am not saying that I keep my flock in the barn the entire time that they are getting close, but I do keep an eye on them, and there are some signs to watch for to get them in a sheltered spot when they are ready. 

  1. Their milk bag is full. This takes experience and can be deceiving, but when you add it to other signs, it helps to pinpoint things.

  2. Mucus Plug. You will see a slimy, mucus discharge from the vulva area. It can still be awhile from here but still …

  3. The ewes will stand off by themselves. They almost get modest at this point.

  4. The rams will become excited and try to circle the ewe as if to keep the other rams (and you) from messing with their “woman.” I haven’ read about this, but have seen this phenomenon many times. It seems as if the labor pheromone is the same as the heat one.

  5. The ewe will stare at the ground and smell it, almost as if she is looking for the lamb.

The way that you notice these things is by paying attention. During the day I do frequent checks and at dusk, I do a count. And before anyone says anything, I realize that if you have 1,000 animals, it is a whole different ball of wax, but for the average homesteader, this is an easy thing that can save a life.

A lamb can get separated if you have many fences and pastures, a new mom can be off hiding and get locked out or will stay out until her lamb is too cold for her to warm. A simple count will soon help you realize what’s wrong.

The Bible says, “What shepherd that has a 100 sheep and seeing that one is gone will not leave the 99 and go in search of the one that has gone astray?”

A good lesson there.

Another thing of importance is to listen! A ewe who has been separated from her lamb will literally be crazed with grief and fear. She will bellow and run about looking for it for hours. A ewe who has a breech presentation will also dash around trying to get away from the pain. Sheep are placid animals and even in the throes of labor will rarely complain with more than a grunt or a groan. If they are making racket for no apparent reason, there’s something wrong.

Which brings us to the next point. At night when I know I have an ewe close, I make several trips out to the barn after dark and sometimes, if it is a new mom, I get up and get dressed in the middle of the night to check.

While it is rare, even a seasoned mom can have issues with tangled limbs from a mal-presentation of multiple births. A new mother will sometimes know she is supposed to do “something” but not be sure what “the heck that thing that just caused her so much pain wants from her.” I always make sure a new lamb from a new mom is nursing before I walk away.

Some farmers say it’s not worth it to them, it’s too many hours and not cost efficient. I say, how can it not be worth it? A lost lamb because of something simple is a loss of several hundred dollars in breeding capacity. I mean think about it, ewes that we have had for 12 years have given us approximately 23 lambs. For the ram lambs, the issue is loss of meat that we have available for the market. If nothing else, you have lost the time wasted while the ewe was pregnant with that lamb. What profits you to lose a lamb or a ewe? Besides, how do I know which animals to keep and which to cull if I don’t see their instincts and what traits they will pass along? I might help a ewe the first time she has to nurse her lamb but if it’s a continuing pattern, she’s gone. Simple rule on the farm, “be nice or be tasty.”

Bottom line, the success of your flock is in your hands. Small is easy but to grow a flock, it takes dedication.

Happy Lambing,
Sam Wiseman
Sunflower Savannah Farm 

He who tills the Earth shall be satisfied with bread. Proverbs 12:11