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Stories from the valley

Every Lambing Season is Different

Contributed by Dan Macon

I had intended to write this a week ago, on the eve of our 2022 lambing season. I had thoughts about describing the anticipation and nervousness that seem to accompany each lambing season for me. But on Wednesday, February 16 – 142 days after we turned the rams in with the ewes, lambing season began. And what a season it’s been so far!

The average gestation for sheep is 150 days, although this can range from 145 days to 155 days in my experience. We usually see a gradual increase in the lambs born each day for the first three weeks of lambing; 75-80 percent of our ewes give birth in the first four weeks of lambing (between the third week of February and the third week of March). This pattern has become so predictable that we usually schedule our annual pasture lambing school for the first Saturday of March – a time when we know we’ll have plenty of new lambs for our students to learn from.

As we usually do before lambing begins, my partner Roger Ingram and I made a small wager (the winner gets a beer) over how many ewes would give birth by February 25, and how many lambs we’d have on the ground. I said we’d have 10 ewes and 17 lambs (which seemed overly optimistic – a 170 percent lamb crop is better than we’ve ever done). Roger said 11 ewes and 18 lambs.

mother sheep and lambs

As I write this, on February 23, two days before our wager ends, we’ve had 34 ewes give birth to 59 live lambs! We’ve never experienced a lambing season like this! We made a few changes on the margins of our operation in the last year – we’ve changed the way we supplement protein for the ewes during the summer; we’ve slightly increased the amount of feed the ewes get prior to breeding. We kept the rams at our home place all spring and summer for the first time, ensuring that their nutritional intake was optimized. Whatever the cause, we’re excited by this first week!

There are several advantages to getting more lambs on the ground earlier in the year – and all at once. Since this is our most labor-intense time of year, concentrating our work shortens the timeframe when we need to check the flock three times a day. More lambs in February means bigger lambs in June, when we wean and sell them – and more size uniformity, too.

lambs laying in the grass

Despite these positives, we remain concerned about the dry conditions we’ve experienced since early January. Since the first of the year, we’ve measured less than three-quarters of an inch of rain. The lack of moisture is exacerbated by the trees and shrubs that are coming out of dormancy – they are drawing more water out of the soil. As a consequence, our grass growth has slowed significantly – so much so that we’re concerned about having enough grass to make it to irrigation season (which starts April 15). Our lack of grass means we’re moving sheep more frequently – and to more difficult-to-reach pastures – which is much more difficult now that many of the ewes have lambs at their sides.

That said, lambing season remains my favorite time of our sheep year. Every morning brings new life; every evening, I watch the lambs chase each other through the pasture. Nothing says springtime is coming like a bunch of lambs bouncing through the green grass!