EweWithTripletsThe standard rules of thumb for sheep husbandry are these: a) keep rams in a separate location except for breeding season b) wean lambs at 60 days (or even earlier) c) ensure that ram lambs are removed from ewe groups by 90 days of age and d) use somewhat barbaric methods to get ewes to “dry off” post-weaning, such as withholding water and feeding them straw. I break all of these rules.

I move rams away from ewes around mid-July. They re-join ewes in November, in separate groups, for breeding. But once two cycles of breeding are past, I put all the rams back with the ewes. There they stay, all through winter, lambing and spring. I just like having a single feeding group during that time. I wean most of my lambs late, at 120 days, in August. I don’t like to do anything special with the ewes to get them to dry off, so this later weaning is less labor for me. And, I think it’s better for the lambs, to get that extra little bit of milk protein for another month or two. Since I don’t creep feed, the lambs are very dependent on milk for good growth, until they are big enough to really take off on grass alone.

The weaning of ram lambs by 90 days has been a point of internal debate for me. Certainly it’s well known that in traditional feeding systems, ram lambs can be mature enough to be fertile by 90 days of age. And in parts of the world closer to the equator, “aseasonal” ewes may be willing to breed in early or midsummer. But here: we are so far north of the equator, our days are very long in July. When the days start to shorten in late August, this increases melatonin production at night, which is the signal to ewes to start cycling. So, normally the earliest ewes will want to breed (naturally) in the Pacific Northwest is late August or early September. On top of this, since my lambs are not creep-fed, they grow much more gradually than in traditional systems. Though I can see ram lambs starting to exhibit randy behavior by 90 days, I’m not confident their bodies are yet mature enough to be fertile. Most of the rams are only about 45 pounds by then (whereas in Midwest feeding systems, they would be double that).

So, I’ve been asking myself, can I get by with weaning ram lambs also at 120 days? Will there be a risky combo of early-mature rams and early-cycling ewes by early August? And if so, will it be so many as to be impactful to my plans? Last summer, I decided to test the waters just a little bit.

I had some ram lambs I definitely did not want to castrate. One was a triplet set of boys, all the highest scoring EBV lambs here, so I wasn’t willing to castrate even one of them. I decided to wean two at 90 days, but leave the third, intact, on the ewe, in the ewe group, until mid-August. Then, if he did breed any ewes, I’d know who the sire was. This would help his dam and  her udder health, by allowing her to gradually ramp down milk production.

I had three other ewes with intact ram lambs that I wanted to late-wean as well, but I didn’t want to gamble on too many ram lambs in with the ewes, in case they were all fertile. So, I decided to put those ewe/lamb combos in the ram group from mid-July to mid-August. This was gambling in the other direction, of possibly having just those ewes bred by one  of many in the adult/lamb mixed ram group. I pulled those ewes out on August 19. My theory was, this was slightly before the days start getting shorter, so the ewes were very unlikely to start cycling before that time. They were also lean, coming off of weaning, which is another factor in fertility.

Three out of the four ewes in this experiment were not bred. The fourth ewe, I had made a note that I saw the rams giving her a lot of attention on August 9th. This would make her due on January 3rd. Sure enough, in mid December I could tell she was bagging-up, so I brought her into the barn on the 17th. She is certainly a Fertile Myrtle to have cycled midsummer like that, on some of the longest days of the year; while spending time with rams that were not novel to her, to boot. (Novel rams, or rams that have been absent for a time, are more likely to trigger ovulation in ewes than rams that have been present consistently…)

She had triplets on the 5th. The situation is not ideal: her nutrition hasn’t been optimal since she’s offset from the rest of the group. I’ve been feeding her well since I brought her in, but that only gave her 2.5 weeks of good feed in late pregnancy, rather than the six weeks I prefer. So, she is quite thin. Her lambs were good weights, 8.85, 8.5, and 9.25 lbs. But, the birth situation was kind of compromised, and I assume it’s because of inadequate nutrition.

The lambs were slow to get up and go, and struggled to learn to nurse. I had to intervene with bottle feeding, to buy them time and energy to get their acts together. I jacketed them and gave them a heat lamp because it was very cold, even in the barn. One of them is turning out to be an enthusiastic full-time bottle baby. I think is ok, as the ewe’s milk supply and body condition doesn’t seem like it would be supportive of feeding triplets. The ewe had a sluggish labor, resulting in me pulling two of the lambs (easily) because they were just sitting in the birth canal, waiting, longer than I want to wait and risk! The ewe seemed sort of “meh” about her lambs, not rejecting them, but not actively nurturing them either (you can really see it in her expression in the photo at the top, she is downright droopy). I realized the next day she wasn’t eating or chewing her cud, either, and was probably borderline hypocalcemic. So, I treated her for that, and pain and infection (just in case), and she has cheered up and regained more enthusiasm for motherhood and eating.

They are all doing well now, including the oprhan-rear, who has mastered the teat bucket, and is attacking it like a boss! She gives it a firm butting at each use, to ensure the pump is primed! Open-mouthed smile

So, all is salvaged, and I have two data points I was looking for: one ewe out of four with the adult rams bred earlier than I would have guessed. And none of the 80-some adult ewes with the 90 day old ram lamb bred. I may repeat some variation of the experiment this year, and see if I can convince myself that eventually, it may be safe to wean all the ram lambs at 120 days, and only separate out the adult rams in July.

I had a second “incident” in September, where I was doing some chores, and only shut one gate, instead of two, between the rams and the ewes. There was a short breakout, less than a half hour before I realized it and got the rams back outta there. I have reason to think this resulted in six ewes getting bred, they’d be due February 24th. So I’ll be watching them for signs, and I may have some more early birds still to come!