Things have down-shifted here for winter. I bred 34 ewes in the first part of November. After the crummy and cold 2011 spring, I wanted to lamb a little later next year. But I decided I couldn’t push it too far, the timing is tricky for me.

There are several motivators for finishing breeding earlier rather than later in winter. For one, it avoids the most common flood periods, and moving and keeping separate five groups of sheep in preparation for a flood would have surely driven me batty! I usually start feeding hay in earnest by Thanksgiving, and I didn’t want to be hauling feed to five separate groups of sheep. And this year, we wanted to go clamming over Thanksgiving weekend; so I needed breeding to be done by then. (Keeping records of which ewes bred, feeding and watering multiple groups, and re-sorting the groups if they get mixed up is more than I would ask of a farm sitter).

Those needs for early winter breeding are in tension with wanting to lamb late in the spring, when the weather is kinder, the grass is coming on, and when we’re past the worst of the flood threats on the tail end of winter. Moving soon-to-deliver ewes and mamas with new babies is also a headache. This tension limits me to a small window of choice for breeding and lambing to make it all line up ideally.

And then, there are wrenches thrown into the system. Our new ram had a knee infection and a high fever, which, in theory, killed all of his stored sperm. By all calculations, he could have been sterile until the end of November. So after all the other sheep were done breeding, I had to leave him in with his ewes for another seventeen days. Thankfully for marking harnesses, though, I was able to cut this period a little short. I knew when he had bred his ewes the first time, and thus when they would re-breed if the first breeding didn’t take. He re-bred a ewe bred who was bred on the first day of turn-out; but that’s not surprising, as they often miss the fertility window on  that first day of being joined. The next four ewes didn’t re-breed, and the last one was never marked. So towards the tail end of that seventeen days, I called it good. If that last ewe was re-bred later by someone in the  bunch, I’d be ale to guess just by the lateness of the lamb births. So interestingly enough, the ram must have had enough viable sperm to service a modest six ewes, despite his fever just a few weeks before.

This irritating bit of timing paired with going out of town made me leave the larger group of sheep in our big field longer than I would have liked, and they overgrazed it. I hoped to leave a good four inches of grass out there, to give the plants ideal reserves for spring regrowth. But instead, I’ve left 1-2 inches, which I’m not pleased about. This will mean that grass will be ready to graze later in the spring as it struggles a bit to get started again. Oh well. Sometimes I just have to accept that I can’t manage things as perfectly as I might if I weren’t working full time and if we chose to never go on vacation.

For now, I have the sheep loose in the Reed Canary Grass field. RCG dies off in winter, and it’s a hardy grass, so I don’t mind that they eat it down after it’s dead. Grass experts have told me that RCG still benefits from leaving a 4” reserve. But I’m cheating, because I like the sheep to have some space to move and exercise during the winter. And by May or June, we’ll have more RCG than we know what to do with; we are still mowing it at least twice a year to keep it manageable. When it warms up in February or so, I’ll have to fence them into a sacrifice area, to let the RCG start to grow again. But then dealing with mud starts, since the sheep are confined in a concentrated area; so the shorter time in confinement, the better.

This time of  year is a low workload time. I feed hay twice a day, at about 6am and 6pm. I am careful to not vary that schedule more than an hour, so that means not sleeping in on the weekends (or sometimes going back to bed after feeding sheep in the dark). On freezing days, I have to break ice out of their water troughs, or even haul water if the hoses have been frozen for a week or two. But this winter has been gentle in that respect, an delightfully dry and mud-free to boot. Hoof trimming is out of the way until after lambing; this is the good time of year for foot health here. A month ago, and again yesterday, I handled all the sheep, to check for body condition and treat as I see fit for each one with de-wormer or a vitamin B shot to give them a boost. As always, there is a spectrum in their condition- some ewes make me cringe because they are chunkier than I’d prefer, other ewes are too lean, and most are in the middle somewhere. Feeding a mob is tricky that way.

Lambing will start in the last week of March, with the most lambs concentrated in the first two weeks of April. Until then, it’s a quiet time of year.

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