MamaWithTwinsI recently took a class on building sheep equipment from wood. I’m currently pondering how to set up my own space in our new barn to accommodate sheep activities, so was happy for the opportunity to get ideas from what others have done. The instructors showed us different panels, creep gates, lamb milk buckets and hay and grain feeders they had made from scratch; illustrating how you can often duplicate expensive commercially made equipment for very little money using scrap wood and miscellaneous supplies.

The examples and handouts were great, and I’ll definitely be gleaning from the ideas I got. But, the two-way discussion in the class was the most interesting part. It had less to do with how to build equipment, and much more to do with what kind of equipment is required in different systems and why. The instructors appeared to have very traditional barn-lambing operations and very traditional American sheep breeds; and the class attendees were a mixed bunch with a variety of different breeds of sheep and management systems.

We first talked about hay feeders, and how they are so worthwhile for not wasting hay. I can definitely vouch for this, as I still feed hay on the ground, and I do get a lot of waste! Things aren’t simple for me, because if I made hay feeders for my pasture, I’d either need to move them every time it threatens to flood, or anchor them with buried concrete feet to keep them from floating away or being washed into fencing, causing damage. I have a plan to rearrange my feeding system in the next year, so I’ve been hesitant to commit to a hay bunk design until then. In the meantime, I’ll definitely be wasting some hay…

Big Jugs

Then the conversation moved towards lambing jugs, which many traditional barn lambers use for containing the ewe and her lambs for the first several days after birth. One of the instructors mentioned using 8×8’ jugs, or sometimes even ten foot ones! Wow! So that’s 64 square feet of space per ewe- the same sized cubicle I have at work! Winking smile

I have seen more commonly that people use very small, 4×4’ jugs, so this seemed extraordinarily generous to me. It was explained that you should have enough jugs to hold about 20% of your birthing ewes. So for a flock of 100 ewes, that’s over a thousand square feet of lambing space, and the associated bedding to fill it, and the labor to clean it out.

Godzilla Mamas

Next we discussed creep gates in the corner of the pens which were on display in the class. One instructor explained a measurable problem with ewes laying on and killing their lambs, so she includes in each jug a corner creep gate where the lambs can get away from their mother to lay down. I thought this was interesting, as it’s more of an issue I associate with hog production, not sheep. I wonder if it may be more of a problem with very large breeds of sheep which tend to have very small lambs? Or is it partly a mis-mothering problem? Somehow, I cannot imagine my ewes making the mistake of flopping down on top of a lamb and squishing it, nor failing to notice or feel a vigorous, struggling lamb underneath them. But, never say never, I suppose.

LambsAndMomsMy Own Private Sunshine

The instructor also talked about putting a heat lamp in every single one of these corner hideouts in the jugs. Partly to attract the lambs to sleep away from their dangerous, body-crushing mothers, but apparently also because of concern about the lambs keeping warm enough. Granted, I’ll use synthetic fleece jackets on tiny lambs when there is cold rain, but heat lamps inside a barn would make my lambs think they were vacationing in Florida! This also brings to mind a severe warning I’ve read in more than one source, that heat lamps promote pneumonia; and should only be used to revive a chilled lamb, and no longer. It’s interesting that what works for some may not work for others.

The other point of discussion is with these high-input, grain-fed growers, the goal is to get them off of their mothers and onto grain as early as possible. So they actually don’t want or need a strong mother-lamb bond, and prefer to acclimate the lambs from being separate from their mothers early, to make early weaning go more smoothly. Whereas in my system, I really need both the mother and her lambs to make a good effort to keep track of each other in the pasture, and I wean as late as possible, or sometimes not at all.

Mommie Dearest

Next, the instructor talked about how you could turn the creep gates upside down, and lock the lambs in the corner behind it, so their mother could see and smell them, but couldn’t get to them. A puzzled sheep owner in the group asked, and why would you want to keep the mother away from her lambs again? It was explained that sometimes you can get bad mothers which are hysterical and harass and claw their lambs, endangering or killing them. So, in that case, you have to keep them separated except at nursing times, which must be closely supervised. I think I would be less sympathetic to such a psycho mama, and would be more inclined to headstall and hobble her. That way her lambs could nurse at will, and I wouldn’t have to supervise every feeding. And a mama like that definitely would not stay here another year!

Fair Weather Wethers

Next we discussed how long people keep ewes and their newborn lambs jugged. I know some people only do it for 24 hours or so- just long enough to observe the lambs nursing and getting colostrum, and to verify the ewe-lamb bond. But one of the class speakers discussed how sometimes she keeps them jugged for a week or more; and that this year, she was prevented from turning them out on schedule because of the snow. This made me smile, because I wouldn’t hesitate at all to turn out Katahdin ewes and lambs in the snow. It was only around 30 degrees out during our recent snow storm- hardly a big freeze.

TwinRamLambsSaving Money Where You Can

So to circle back to cost, we are discussing how to save money by making equipment from scrap lumber and free materials. And then we are talking about ewes that need gigantic, bedded, heated lambing jugs for a week or more, protection from modest weather, and intensive monitoring to make sure they don’t accidentally or intentionally murder their own lambs. And this, in a breed that only gets a 130% crop, at best. This paradox made me chuckle! Smile

Barn v. Pasture: Pros and Cons

It makes me reflect on the status quo assumptions of the old-school sheep industry. Though barn lambing as described here is a commonly accepted best practice, it’s very expensive labor- and materials-wise. Not only that, I have to wonder if it doesn’t introduce more problems than it prevents. Certainly, lambing in a warm and dry place, and hovering over every ewe-lamb pair 24/7 will save a few lambs that would otherwise perish, and increase the crop and overall gross profit. But…

Self-Jugging and Natural Cleanliness

On the other hand, pasture lambing gives each ewe an opportunity to instinctively find a private place to give birth. She can then spend the first 24 hours alone with her lambs to bond, so the set can memorize each other’s voices and smell. Essentially, she “jugs” herself, given the opportunity to get away from the mob. This nearly eliminates the problem of ewes getting lambs “mixed up” in the chaos of multiple births happening simultaneously in a confined area. Jugs seem mostly to be an invention to overcome problems associated with overcrowded lambing conditions.

And then there is the cleanliness question. Surely, lambing out in the dirt introduces some bacteria. But because ewes can find a private corner to lamb in pasture, placental fluid exposure is reduced amongst the flock. Placental fluids are the the biggest disease vector we need to manage, necessitating scrupulous bedding removal and disinfection  of lambing jugs between tenants in barn lambing operations. And in a barn, airborne disease transmission cannot be helped. In an open-air pasture, when there is opportunity to rotate the lambing flock to clean grass every day or two, the cross-contamination risk is quite reduced. In the meantime, sunshine disinfects previously used paddocks before the sheep visit again.

LambsMothering Spotlight

Lastly, in the pasture, bad mothers become apparent right away, enabling us to select hard against genetic mis-mothering traits. Whereas, barn lambing conceals bad mothering, enabling the problem to worsen with each generation, without us knowing it. And at some point, we can find ourselves starting to accept bad mothering as “normal.” Maybe acceptance of this “truth” is why the sheep industry has been on an eighty-year decline in this country. Maybe we just need to be asking ourselves a little bit more, is it possible that they really can do it on their own? Are we not giving them enough credit? Are we accepting less productivity and higher cost than we could achieve?

Clearly this intensive labor strategy works for some people, or they wouldn’t keep doing it- everyone needs to find what works best for their own setup, breed of sheep and goals. But I think it’s worth questioning whether we want to strive towards breeding sheep flocks that can be lower maintenance and higher producing all at the same time. At one point in the class discussion, a fellow hair sheep owner said something like, wow, I don’t do any of this, I just leave my sheep to their own devices! And another in the group shot back a retort, oh, so you must like to lose money then? It made me smile inwardly, because clearly, there are different strokes for different folks; and not everyone is on the same page with this high-input versus low-input system theory. I didn’t say a word; my easy-cheesy, responsible, mellow, all-weather, high-percenter, grass hay-eating, do-it-all-themselves ewes out in the pasture can just be my little secret. Winking smile