Here is this year’s Miniver Cheevy (born too  late). (And thanks to my junior high English teacher, TMJ, for forever sticking that poetic reference in my head…) I had one yearling ewe that had bred/marked during the normal time, but she must have lost that conception and re-bred late December. I could tell she was pregnant, as she was developing an udder; but I could also tell she was behind schedule, as her udder was pretty small during lambing in April.

These late arrivals are an irritant, because I have to keep checking on the ewe; at a time when I’d normally be cutting back on the surveillance workload. I contemplated bringing her into the barn, just to make my checking easier. But, I didn’t find the time, and for a long while, she didn’t look imminent anyway. Last week I started thinking her udder was looking close, and I was right. As Murphy’s Law dictates, Friday morning, when I have an 8am meeting at work, that I host, with international callers; and I’d slept in a little longer than I should have, this is the time the ewe chose to have a difficult labor. I wandered down to the field for a quick look-see, and saw feet and a fat head sticking out of her. Of course, I couldn’t catch her. It was a small race against time to get a dog and a lasso, snag her, and pull the lamb.

The lamb definitely needed a course correction, though just pulling one leg forward to offset his shoulder blades did the trick, and I was able to tug him right out. His head was a bit swollen, and no birthing fluids/slime came with when I delivered him; that means she’d been pushing for a long while before I found them. He was just over 14 pounds, which is ridiculous, especially given that I had pretty small birth weights in general. This ewe herself was also a huge single at birth. I don’t know who the sire is, but I’ll definitely be pairing her carefully next year with a sire with lower birthweight scores. I do not like having hard-delivering lambs. She may have managed to get him out on her own, but even if she had, they both would have been quite exhausted from the work, which lowers survival odds of the lamb.

The lamb was indeed tired, and took a few minutes to contemplate life before beginning to whimper and attempt to rise. The ewe was anxious about the dog and the sudden trauma of pulling the lamb, the rest of the flock was bunched up around her, and she almost walked off the job. At which point, I was thinking, I have ten minutes or I’m going to be late for my meeting! Come on, everybody, don’t screw this up! I made Maggie move off the sheep to reduce the pressure, and jiggled the lamb and made crying sounds. The ewe showed some curiosity over this, and luckily, the big guy gave enough of a cry to flip the switch in her brain that says I think I’m supposed to do something here… The fact that the lamb was kind of dried-out already didn’t help; as I think normally the rush of placental fluids upon birth and all the scent that comes with them is what helps the ewe move into the next stage of lamb care- licking, cleaning, and bonding. Big birth weights and protracted deliveries are just bad, bad, bad.

I nudged the rest of the sheep out of her space, backed away slowly, and saw her lower her head and talk to him a bit. Good. I jumped in the shower, and afterwards took a look through binoculars from the kitchen window. She still had her head down near him, she was turning to accommodate him towards her udder, and he was struggling to rise. Usually if they are at this stage, it’s a go. So I headed off to work with few worries; and made it in time for my 8am meeting. When I got home, they were all good; he was well-fed and sleepy, and she was paying vigilant attention to his location.

I’m rather glad when these late-born, mystery father lambs are boys rather than girls. This guy I’ll castrate and leave on his dam into fall, and hopefully he’ll manage to reach butcher weight by December. It’s harder to finish these June-ish lambs, because the grass starts declining in fall, and they tend to stall out in growth then, just shy of the target weight.  Late-born ewelambs are even more annoying, because I have to wean them late, discount them for being 50% recorded rather than purebred, and they are less likely to breed that fall for their new owners. So, hooray for accidental boys versus girls.

I have four open yearling ewes out of the 64 ewes exposed. I just drew blood this weekend to confirm they are open, but since none of them have any udder development, it seems extremely unlikely at this point that they are pregnant. Two of them were purchased ewelambs which were very lean and small coming here last August; so I don’t blame them for not conceiving, they just needed time and feed to mature. The other two were of my breeding and were in good condition; but must have not been ready. I definitely give extra credit to ewes that can lamb as yearlings in this environment; but not all of them can in a grass-fed system.

Here are my final stats:

  • 64 ewes exposed
  • 4 ewelambs open, 3 never marked, so likely never cycled; one did mark, but likely lost the pregnancy early on and did not cycle again
  • 112 observed conceptions (187% conception rate on those that bred)
  • Died-at-birth: 4 from 3 different sets of triplets, 1 set of twins aborted ~1 week early, 1 tiny perished fetus found delivered with a live twin
  • 15 bred ewelambs had 18 lambs (120% conception rate)
  • 45 mature ewes had 94 lambs (209% conception rate)
  • 175% conception rate when counting all ewes exposed (and fed!)

That’s pretty good! As a result of growing the flock each year, and also dropping lower performers, I still have a relatively young flock. Sixteen of the 45 “mature” ewes are two-year-olds; and only one is over seven. So I expect to see that 209% conception rate rise further once the flock is more balanced, where the majority of ewes fall between ages three and seven, the most productive age range. I need to go back through my past years’ notes, but I think this is the best conception rate I’ve had to date. I did have a few differences last fall: the rams were in the pasture next to the ewes leading into breeding (the teaser effect); I flushed the ewelambs on alfalfa for a bit before flushing the whole group on corn-barley to help boost their ovulation; and the ewes ate quite a few pumpkins during breeding, and I think that’s a pretty nutritious food.

It’s always so exciting to get the lambing gear bag out in spring, and look forward to the culmination of planning, investment and effort that goes into a lamb crop. And, it’s always a pleasant relief to put the lambing bag away again for the year! Now it’s time for them all to just graze and grow!

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