I bred my ewes starting November 7th. After three weeks, I re-grouped all the ewes, and left them with one ram, with a new crayon color. He serves as a clean-up ram and hopefully the blue crayon will clue me in on any ewes which cycled, or re-cycled, in that second round (three, so far). And, I can register those lambs, since I’ll know who the sire is.

After the second three weeks, I’ll put my other two rams in with the ewe group for the winter, for easier management. If any ewe breed later in the season, I just won’t know when or by whom. This is generally ok, I usually get one or two of thee “mystery” lambs in late spring or early summer. If they’re boys, they’ll go into the slaughter channel. If they are girls, I sell them at a slight discount as 50% recorded ewes. I like managing one group of sheep over the winter, and I have an ample market for butcher lambs and recorded ewes, so this management tradeoff works out for me.

This year, quite a few ewes didn’t mark during the breeding season. It’s normal for some to have bred, but not mark. Sometimes the ram’s crayon gets clogged with dirt or manure. If it’s raining and the ewe has a non-greasy, slick coat, the crayon doesn’t make a good mark. I also have quite a few small ewelambs that I don’t expect to conceive this year (I just let nature decide whether they’re ready or not; as again I don’t want to manage multiple groups all winter.) But even given these normalcies, it seems like too many ewes did not mark.

In the back of my mind was mention on Facebook by Karen Kenagy in Oregon; who cited having a bunch of ewes breed out of season in May or June, resulting in unplanned fall lambs. Ewes breeding out of season at our latitude is uncommon; folks who want to plan for fall lambing use CIDRs to get a good percentage crop. Ewe ovulation is brought on by increasing amounts of melatonin, which is brought on by shortening day length. We have such long days in the summer, ewes are very unlikely to cycle then. That said, we do breed for high prolificacy in Katahdins, which includes the genetic propensity to breed out of season. Karen saw it firsthand, which was apparently a surprise to her. But, she also feeds more generously than I, and is several hours south of me, so not as extreme of a latitude as we.  This, I didn’t initially consider this information of import.

A few days ago, a buyer let me know that  yearling ewe I’d sold her in July just had twins! This means she bred July 9th, which is somewhat shocking. I did have that batch of ewes in with a ram, but with no expectation that they would be bred, especially immature yearlings! So, there’s that. Could this be a weird year? But, those ewes were also well-fed, they were part of a buy-back I did from a buyer who’d purchased a flock from me a year ago, but had to move. He fed a lot of alfalfa, so the ewes were in prime condition. My ewes are ramping-down on lactation, and solely on grass; so nutritionally, it’s hard to imagine them kicking back into heat during summer.

And yet, the unmarked ewes, the mention of summer breedings has me raising my eyebrows. I went back through my records to see when I separated the mature rams- July 4th. Any breedings on that last day would have happened by November 28. I weaned my ram lambs  on the same date. But I did leave one intact ram in a bit longer, to help his dam step down from weaning twins more gradually. He came out July 19th, so any ewes bred on that date would have lambed by yesterday. I removed the castrated wethers the week following. So if any of them were still fertile, any ewes bred on that last day would be due in the next week. I don’t have any ewes that look imminently due to lamb. Just ewes that didn’t mark.

What might explain the quantity of un-marked ewes? Immaculate Conception? Not quite. I put the wethers back in with the ewes the weekend before I commenced breeding season. I wanted to separate them from a group of ram lambs I was feeding on our dwindling hillside grass. I went back through these guys, and found one with a small remaining testicle, a possible failure of the emasculator. Might he have been fertile?? I’m not sure.

I mourned this potential slip-up for a day. This guy was a decent ram, but not one of my best. He was the son of an adult ram that I regretted selling after he was purchased, so at least there is some small comfort there; I might get more progeny out of him than I’d hoped. Of the ewes not marked, most of them are not my best ewes, so I feel lucky in that regard. In the end, if he bred some ewes, it’s not the end of the world. They would be registerable, since he’s the only potential culprit. If there are any lambs born on the “bridge” timeframe between when he was paired with the ewes, and the intentional sire; I’d either have to blood test to determine paternity, or just treat them like the mystery lambs I get in late spring. It does make me kick myself, as the convenience of one extra week’s worth of feeding was not worth a batch of accidental breedings, if that’s what resulted. But, so be it. Nature usually bucks one’s plans one way or another.

At this point, I mostly want to know which ewes might have been bred by him, so I know better when their due dates are. I had also been disappointed to see so may ewelambs not breed, so I ended up ceasing advertisement of several I planned to sell, to make sure I have a big enough lamb crop. I’d like to know how many of those ewes are pregnant. So, today I pulled blood samples from all the unmarked ewes. It’s early enough that most of the purpose-bred ewes won’t yet test positive. Yet it’s late enough that if they were bred during the slip-up week, they’ll likely show it in the lab results.

This first pass will at least give me some clues. Any ewes positive now I’ll know to watch a week before the planned lambing time window. And ewes not positive now were likely either bred during the normal time, or are not bred at all. There will be a few on the edge, testing neither definitively positive nor negative; and those will linger in mystery until they lamb. I’ll re-test early January on any remaining open or questionable ewes to narrow it down further, which will tell me which ewes bred by the time the cleanup ram was done. Depending on how many confirmed-pregnant ewes I have by that time will help me know how many I can re-list for sale.

Ah, best laid plans… And here I had been congratulating myself on zero ram breakouts all summer, thinking I’d have no accidental breedings!