Some of my ewelambs didn’t grow well last fall and winter. I’m not sure why, maybe it was high selenium, maybe I’ve had better hay in the past, maybe their parasite load was higher this year. All the variables make each year pose different challenges. Moderate growth in ewes isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve often contemplated that, in our race to breed faster-growing lambs for market, we are probably doing a disservice to our long-lived production ewes. When I think of my dog friends with giant breeds, and how careful they are to manage growth on those pups to prevent joint and bone problems later; sometimes I wonder if that logic applies- or should apply- to breeding meat sheep bred for incredibly fast maturity. But, since I breed my ewelambs, I’m also not thrilled to have them still-petite by yearling age when they become mothers. And yet, here we are; things don’t always go as planned. I have a few tiny ewes I wish weren’t pregnant, but they are.

I’ve been watching them these past months; the small and the lean, and a few which are both. Not all of them, mind you, the best ones look good. The bottle lambs are not so hot. I’ve decided that I’m happy with their performance on milk replacer, but it’s after they’re weaned that their growth slows too much. I have some ideas of how to correct for that this year, a topic for another post.

The “tube” shaped sheep are all lean, maybe no surprise that they just don’t do as well on low protein feed as my “barrel” shaped sheep. I have one two-year-old “tube” and she is the only mature ewe who is not nice and curvy in the hips by now.

I gave the lean ones some time, thinking maybe they’d fatten once they were grained, starting late January. Many of them look like they are only carrying singles, so it was possible for them to pack in more calories than they needed, given my feeding program designed around twinners.

But no, they are still lean now, with just weeks to go before lambing. And the four orphan-reared ewelambs are downright diminutive, like little Pygmy goats. Which probably means they’ll have small-framed lambs and modest milk supplies. What to do, what to do… I decided I might as well put the new barn pens to the test, to put these sheep in a different management program until they lamb. A week and a half ago, I pulled up twelve ewelambs (some maybe could have stayed in the field, but I was conservative and only left two biggies out there), Ms. Tube, and the two pet boys.

An aside on the fellas: Proposal Lamb is still here because he is tiny, like a miniature sheep. Peanut also never grew well after being salvaged from illness and certain death. They both are probably animals nature never meant to have survive. Peanut managed to keep one testicle despite my using the crusher on him in three different attempts. Disappointed smile He looks like a little, maned elfin man. After Proposal Lamb helped with the proposal, the happy couple decided they may want to keep him, and maybe Peanut too, as a little friend. But they don’t have room for them yet. So they are “sponsoring” them for the year. What lucky little dudes.

Proposal Lamb was actually sick a few weeks ago, so I brought him in the barn to treat him and keep an eye on him (you can’t die, Proposal Lamb, that would be awful!). And he was helpful in testing out the new pen panels while I was making them. He’s feeling perky now, thanks to the fabulousness of long-acting, broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Peanut got to come inside with the ewes so he could work on his tameness. He’s already pretty social, but since he’s bound for a pet home, and has an unwelcome testicle, I figured now would be a good time to interact with him a little more and make sure he has manners. I already clonked him in the head once with a pitchfork for butting me hard enough to hurt my leg, playful little devil. He has been pious since then, so good, lesson learned. I’ll probably kick the two boys back outside once lambing commences.

Anyway, that is that: fifteen sheep in the barn loading up on super expensive alfalfa, grain with less competition, and a good amount of boredom to encourage them to eat the clean, dry grass hay that’s constantly before them. Oh my, housing ruminants inside a building is such a ridiculous pain and expense. All that bedding, twice-a-day pitchforking to keep it reasonably clean, and dozens of buckets of water from the sink. With all due respect to people who must house their sheep due to weather or predators, this is crazy spoilage and I curse it.

They’ve been in the barn for over a week, so now that they understand the system, I can let them loose outside to graze for an  hour or so while I’m doing evening chores. It’s so nice having calm, well-behaved sheep. They mill around and enjoy the hillside grass, run and do bronco kicks (because its spring), and then turn up and get in their pen independently when they hear me scooping grain. Good girls.

Besides poop scooping, the other drawback to barn coddling them this totally messes up my NSIP metrics for the year. I was already walking a thin line, because I used four rams on 34 ewes, so my breeding group sizes were small. This makes for less confidence in the numerical comparisons between them. And now… with splitting the ewes into two different feeding groups, it’ll really fracture my data into multiple incomparable units. Grr. But it felt wise to do something to help these ewes be more successful.

Here’s hoping it’ll be worth it. I’m expecting that the ewes can gain a little better in shelter and with higher protein intake, which should help with birth weights and milk supply. And any tiny lambs born in the barn may have a higher initial survival rate; though I do worry about the crowded conditions, disease transfer and lamb ownership confusion. Despite how  many people do it this way, it doesn’t seem the best option to me; at least if you have the choice of fair weather and green pastures on which to lamb. Here’s to April and the chaos of lambing soon to be upon us!