twitter icon facebook icon youtube icon instagram icon

Stories from the valley

The waiting is the hardest part

Contributed by Dan Macon

While I enjoy Tom Petty’s music, I’m pretty sure he didn’t write this song about raising sheep!  Regardless, we’re in that part of our production year where this line applies to our work.  We’re waiting for the lambs to arrive!

At least for me, waiting is easier if I have something to keep me occupied.  At this point, all of our preparations for lambing are complete.  We’ve given the ewes their pre-lambing vaccinations (which will protect both the ewes and their lambs from common diseases).  We’ve trimmed the ewes’ feet and given them a general health check.  They are as ready for lambing as they can possibly be!

Putting up a fence in preparation for lambing

With the physical work of preparing for lambing behind us, we turn our attention to planning.  We give a great deal of thought to how we’ll manage our grazing during the coming 2-3 months.  During the last month of pregnancy, and during the first 6-8 weeks of lactation, a ewe requires nearly twice as much high quality forage as she does during the rest of the year.  Put another way, our stocking rate doubles from late January through early May – even though we have the same number of ewes.  This is why we time our lambing to coincide with the onset of rapid grass growth in the late winter and early spring.  Our sheep – and our profitability – are in better condition if we allow Mother Nature to do the work of growing grass (and feeding our sheep)!

We also carefully plan to meet the non-nutritional requirements of our ewes and lambs during this critical period.  We lamb in our pastures, rather than in a barn, so we watch the weather carefully during our lambing season.  If we expect stormy weather, we’ll make sure that the sheep have natural cover (like trees or brush).  Over the years, we’ve selected ewes that can generally give birth without our assistance and that produce enough milk to satisfy their lambs.  We’ve also selected ewes and rams that produce vigorous lambs – lambs that are up and moving as quickly as possible.  As a result, our ewe flock is exceptionally hardy, and our ewes are tremendous mothers.

My final preparations involve making sure we have the supplies we need before the lambs arrive.  We “process” our lambs within 24 hours of birth – which means we apply an ear tag, dock the lamb’s tail (long, wooly tails can become soiled with manure, which can lead to a nasty condition called fly strike), castrate the male lambs (so that they don’t inbreed), and apply an identifying paint mark.  Last weekend, I checked all of my supplies to make sure I had enough of everything to get through lambing.

pregnant ewes grazing

At the moment, I watch the ewes to make sure their pregnancies are progressing normally.  We especially watch for signs of “twin lamb disease.”  Sometimes a ewe that is caring multiple lambs can’t ingest enough forage to meet her energy needs, which can lead to pregnancy toxemia.  Another benefit of lambing at this time of year is that we generally have enough quality forage to meet our needs – but part of a shepherd’s job description is to worry over these details!

At some point in late February, my daily checks of the ewes will change.  Like most shepherds, I can recognize the sound of a ewe that has given birth with my eyes closed.  On or around February 23, I’ll be greeted by the arrival of new life in our pastures.  I can’t wait!