The most common model used in the U.S. for managing lambing time is to “jug” each ewe into a 4×4’ pen in a barn right after she gives birth. Most people leave ewes jugged for several days. This definitely helps the ewe be sure to “learn” all of her lambs, and not get confused by any intruders into the birthing scent cone. It also gives the lambs ample chance to nurse on a ewe that’s not a moving target, to learn the smell and sound of their dam, and to gain practice at finding and using the ewe’s teats. If there is a problem during jugging, intervention is easy, since they are all easily caught in such a small space. The upside of this practice is reduced mis-mothering incidents (either caused by the dam’s or the lamb’s behavior), which can be a source of lamb losses.

But, it doesn’t prevent all of them. And, there are several downsides to jugging. The biggest one is labor: it’s extra work to set up all those pens, add bedding, then later clean them out. It’s work to move ewes in and out of the pens.  And, it’s work to deliver feed and water individually to all those pens. There are literal “real estate” costs to having space to accommodate jugging. Housing sheep in close quarters in a building will increase the odds that viral or bacterial disease sources will spread more. Plus, jugging covers up mis-mothering problems, which prevents us from using genetic selection to reduce the incidence over the generations. Inadvertently, we can be breeding populations with poor mothering and survival instincts, if we have no way to detect and note undesirable behavior in individuals.

IMO, jugging follows the 80/20 rule: 20% of the sheep in a flock take 80% of the work. Or, it might be 90/10, or 98/2. For those who can lamb during seasons when weather doesn’t force indoor operations, it can make much more sense to only deal with the ~20% of ewe-lamb sets that need help, rather than proactively jugging them all. This is my approach.

During lambing season, I walk through the flock every 2-4 hours during the day. When a ewe gives birth, I just watch. Most of the time, it’s clear that the ewe has bonded to all her lambs, they are fed, and no help is needed. Most ewes stay put in the location of birthing for a full 24-48 hours; or only move a very small amount in order to graze. To support this, I always bring them a bucket of water after they are done with giving birth. They are usually very thirsty, and being given water prevents them getting parched or getting on the move to find a drink too soon. They can do without eating for a longer period of time, and most do. They know they need to focus on their maternal job first.

Ewes that stay in the birthing location for a day or so really help their lambs. Though lambs can walk and even run pretty well within hours of being born, it’s still tough for them to keep up with a ewe that’s on the move the whole day. Newborn lambs sleep a lot, so they can lose track of where their mother went. Good mothers look for their lambs, call to them, and track them down when they are missing. Good lambs learn their mothers smell and voice, and become aggressive seekers within a day or two after birth. The best ewe-lamb sets stay together, all the time, 24/7, for weeks.

Most of the time, there are good ewes and good lambs, and the whole system works flawlessly. Walking through the field, I can see which sets are working out well. I look for the lamb ear tag numbers for the last day or two of deliveries, and confirm they are with or near their mothers. If in doubt, I grab lambs and pinch their bellies to confirm they are full. If I can’t catch a lamb, that’s a good sign that it’s fed and feeling good. If I can catch a lamb, sometimes I’ll hold it, and wait to see if it cries out, and if the mother answers, and then comes looking. This is a good sign. All of these “goodies” need no effort from me, I can just walk through the field and confirm their goodness.

Then, there is the smaller percentage where something isn’t going right, and the lamb isn’t getting fed enough. It can be a ewe that’s downright trying to reject a lamb she’s decided doesn’t belong to her. Often it’s more subtle, maybe the ewe has a favorite lamb, and makes more effort to keep that one with her, and ignores the other, but doesn’t go as far as preventing it from nursing. Or maybe the ewe is welcoming of both lambs, but she just wants to walk all over and graze, and one of the lambs falls asleep often or is too lazy to keep up, and the ewe doesn’t look back to find it. Sometimes the grass is quite long, as in the above picture, so it can be easy for lambs to get disoriented, and hard for ewes to find their lambs.

These more subtle cases can be cured by a quick in-the-field jug using a dog “x-pen.” It works best for me to anchor it to a solid fence, so the ewe is less likely to tip it over and “pancake” it onto her lambs. This doesn’t work well with “psycho” ewes; but most of my ewes are very accepting of it, especially if the pen is in the same area where the rest of the sheep are grazing. I give them some hay and a water bucket, so they are self-contained during the jugging period.

Jugging for just a day or so is usually all that’s needed. It just gives the ewe and lambs a little extra time to bond, gives the lambs more time to practice nursing efficiently, and gets enough food into them that they are strong enough to seek out their dam when needed afterwards. This simple field jugging resolves cases where the ewe is mostly just too “on the move” right after birth; or when she has a particularly lazy or passive lamb.

I used this twice on ewes in the field this season and it did the trick. I had three other sets which I brought into the barn for more intensive interaction where bottle feeding was necessary. Out of 61 ewes that lambed, only these five needed any intervention; or about 8%. It sure saves labor to not jug them all, and just step in when needed to help the few where it seems warranted. Plus, I will note scenarios where this intervention was required. I don’t fail-out a ewe or lamb based on this one black mark on their performance records; but I will if I see a trend.