Here are my lamb counts for the year. I had forty ewes overwintered here. One was a late summer-born ewe, so I suspected she may not breed, and she didn’t. That’s ok. Of the remaining 39, six are not pregnant, as confirmed by recent blood tests. Five of those are ewelambs. The sixth is my Jacob cross ewe, who is two; I don’t know why she didn’t conceive. So, she will have to go this year.

The open ewes are disappointing, but not entirely surprising. I do two things which lower the chance that ewelambs will breed in their first year. One is that I do not feed them specially leading up to breeding. Most sources recommend separating ewelambs from dry ewes and giving them extra nutrition their whole first year. This is too much management headache for me. Whatever extra gain in productivity I might get from them is offset by the labor of managing two herds all winter. I did put the ewelambs in the barn for eight weeks post-breeding to give them a boost in feed because some of them seemed lean. And this definitely benefitted the ones that lambed, as they had nice-sized lambs. But all it did for the open ewes was fatten them. Winking smileAnd, I loathed the extra work. My goal is to not have to do anything special with them at all.

The second thing I do that is not helpful for conception is to breed late. Sheep are most apt to breed in the days with waning daylight- late August through October. By November/December, some of them have missed their fertility window for the year, or will suffer lower conception rates than normal. Premier, the sheep supply company, has recently written some great articles about changing their management system. They are doing the reverse- moving away from pasture lambing into winter barn lambing.  They have their reasons for the switch, which are opposite of the factors I have in my system (they have spare labor and barn space in winter, and have problems in the pasture that I don’t have). They have seen a significant increase in conception by breeding earlier. I’m ok with this tradeoff, since I want to time lambs to land on grass. For me, the extra work and expense required to lamb in a barn in January is not justified by a 10 or 20% gain in prolificacy.

Ewes which lamb as yearlings are highly desirable and I value them more than ewes which don’t. There has been a recent, impassioned discussion on the Katahdin NSIP list about the hereditary aspect of ewes which can lamb as yearlings. One person cited that a certain ram line he introduced had a low rate of yearling ewes lambing. I looked through my records, and can see no obvious trend in genetics, however. It’s just the luck of the draw, of which ewes are early-maturing enough to conceive at seven months, with no special feed or treatment.

In my NSIP submissions, I record the open ewes as birthing one, raising zero. Which isn’t quite right, since technically they should not get credit for conceiving a fetus at all, and should not get penalized for losing a lamb post-birth. But there is currently no way to code open ewes (it’s on the wish list for future enhancements to the algorithm, to take this into account). The net result is still good enough, however- their scores for pounds-per-ewe-weaned will be lower than their peers; so one can see the genetic trend reflected in the numbers over time.

Of the remaining 33 ewes which lambed, I had 65 conceptions observed, so 197%. Four were stillborns of full-term fetuses, two more were tiny fetuses which had perished early on. I lost one two-week-old orphan lamb to what seemed like a heart defect. I found a really nice, twelve-day-old healthy-looking lamb stone-cold dead in the pasture with no clues whatsoever. And, of course, I tragically lost a good ewe to dystocia complications.

So, I’m left with 57 viable lambs a month after lambing, out of 32 surviving ewes. 178% yield is not bad, considering that only seventeen of these are mature ewes (age three or older). I expect the percentage to increase once I stop expanding the flock, and the majority of my ewes are mature. I had five sets of triplets, and eight singles, the rest twins. I had a lot of ewelambs this year- 62%! I realized that I have one ram which is contributing significantly to this trend, his ewe count was very high both last year and this year. About twenty lambs are predominantly white. I get a lot of colored lambs, everything from dark chocolate to peach colored, pintos, roans, and other splashy markings. Though I try to ignore aesthetic appearance when picking breeding stock, I sure enjoy seeing the variety of the colors. 

I have four lambs which are nursing off of a bucket “milk bar.” One is a “pure” bottle lamb that makes no attempt to nurse off his dam or any other ewes. Two more are doing some nursing off of their dams, but supplementing with the bucket. One is a triplet from a ewe with a questionable milk supply, the second is #33’s lamb, who is awkward at nursing her difficult teats.

The fourth is a true bummer lamb that left his mother, who mostly makes his living shopping around on strange ewes, but knows how to use the bucket as well. He has mostly latched on to Big Chocolate, who has a single. She hates him and kicks him whenever he tries to nurse, but he manages to pull it off anyway. He follows her around and calls to her when he can’t find her, so he considers her family, though she ignores him completely. I’m glad he has chosen her, because he’s helping keep her udder drained. Her single lamb was only nursing one side. It’s a dysfunctional relationship, but it seems to be working out for all parties.

I put the last of the barn sheep outside yesterday, yeah! So the labor load is winding down. A few more weeks of making milk replacer, and then the only work to do will be filling water tanks, moving some fencing and watching them all grow.

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