When we moved to Auburn, we decided we wanted to grow food for our local farmers market. We started out with fall crops – winter squash, pumpkins and popcorn – and I quickly discovered that I was a better stockman than a farmer. Even so, one my favorite things about growing crops was seeing the new plants emerge from the soil in the spring. New life, for me, is perhaps the part of agriculture that I most enjoy.
Now that we’ve focused entirely on sheep, I find that I look forward to this time of year – lambing season – even more than I looked forward to the germination of my vegetable seeds. Perhaps the length of time between “planting” and “germination” allows my anticipation to build. After all, corn seeds germinate in 6-7 days; ewes are pregnant for 145-155 days. In other words, we have to wait five months to see if the work we did preparing our ewes for breeding pays off.
For me, newborn lambs are especially remarkable. We’ve invested significant effort and energy in building a flock of solid mothers. Our ewes, for the most part, can give birth without our assistance. Most of them can count to two (meaning they can take care of twins), and many of them can count to three. And our lambs hit the ground running – almost literally. Like most “prey” species, lambs are precocious – they are born with the ability to get up, nurse, and follow their mothers. Even knowing the science behind this, however, I’m always awestruck when I get to watch a lamb be born. The ewe will immediately begin to clean the afterbirth from the lamb, knickering softly to it all the while. Usually within 10-15 minutes, the lamb attempts to stand – and within 30 minutes, most lambs find a teat and have their first meal. No matter how many times I see it, I’m always amazed.
If our ewes are good mothers, I suppose we shepherds are like mother hens. We worry about our flock constantly during lambing, and this worry manifests itself in planning, diligence, and near-constant scanning of the weather apps on our smartphones. Since we lamb on pasture (rather than in a barn), we plan to save the most sheltered pastures (those with trees, brush and terrain that block the wind and rain) for the six weeks of lambing. We check the flock at least three times a day (in the morning before our “real” jobs, on our lunch break, and in the evening after “work”). When it’s storming, we’ll also check several times during the night; a lamb born at night during a cold rain might need a little extra help.
In many ways, our entire sheep year is centered on the six weeks during which new life arrives. Our most significant labor demand comes from the third week of February through the end of March. Our decisions about which ewes to put with which rams in October comes to fruition during the spring. And lambing season, at least for me, is like six weeks of Christmas. Happy Spring!