Notes from Windward: #57

Working towards a 200% lambing

Hershey nuzzles her twins
Salt and Pepper
The Holy Grail of sheep ranching is a 200% lambing. While wool is a consideration, for most breeds it constitutes a minor portion of the value of the productivity of a flock. Since a fleece currently sells for $20 and a lamb for $100, given those economics, most of the shepherd's attention goes to producing as many lambs as possible.

This wasn't always the case. Back in the days before refrigeration, the ability to store, transport and market meat safely was very limited. Then, the focus was on the nonperishable part, wool. In the early part of the 19th century, beef cattle in California were butchered for their hides and tallow, and the meat was left on the range to rot. That was a world in which the night was lit only by fire, and cheep beef tallow was combined with more expensive bee's wax to make candles.

Salt's interested in
all the goings on
If you're working a flock of 600 sheep (common for a full time shepherd), you're not going to be able to help each ewe with her babies. We have a friend who tries, and he and a helper just about work themselves to exhaustion doing it. Lambing takes place over a three week period, and you can see him running from dawn to past dark with his three wheeled ATV and it's little trailer (his "Lambulance") as he gathers up the newborns from the birthing field and moves them into the maternity ward.

The ewes and their lambs are confined in a jug, a 3' by 5' pen, for the first three days after lambing. The ewes produce a first milk, called collostrum, which is very rich in food value. If the lambs don't get their colostrum fairly quickly, they'll start to weaken and die. Once they start down that slippery slope, it's very hard to bring them back, so it's far better to insure they get what they need as quickly as reasonable.

Spunky's taking good care
of her twins
The collostrum also transfers antibodies from the ewe to the lamb. The newborn's immune system won't start working until it's about 3 months old. Until then, all it has to protect itself is the antibodies it absorbs from it's mother's colostrum. For the first 24 hours, there are openings in the lining of the lamb's intestine through which these antibodies can pass into the bloodstream. After that, these opening start to close up, and by 36 hours after birth, it's too late for the lamb to absorb any more protection.

Jugging the lamb also helps with the bonding process. If the ewe doesn't bond with the lamb, she won't feed it. It's during the time when the newborn is covered with all that embryotic fluid that the mother locks onto the scent of the lamb. Once that happens, it's her lamb and she'll feed it. Otherwise, no deal - ewes won't feed lambs they haven't accepted as their own.

Joyce gives Tipper
a little extra milk
Sometimes the flushing works too well, and the ewe has triples. That's one too many for her to raise effectively, so the shepherd will try to graft the extra lamb onto a ewe who only has one. One trick to doing that is to take a lamb that's less than one day old, and rub newborn embriotic fluid all over it, particularily on the head. Then you confine the ewe with her singleton lamb and the adoptee. It doesn't always work, but if the lamb is young enough, and the fluid fresh enough, the graft will usually take.

Jugging also helps insure that the ewe won't abandon a second lamb. As callous as it may sound, if her nutrition level is too low, a ewe will stand back and allow the strongest lamb to nurse and the weakest one to die. While that does help to insure that at least one of her lambs will make it to maturity, it's contrary to what the shepherd wants. Animal husbandry is founded on practices which subvert nature's plan, ino rder to create a more desireable outcome. Taking action to keep that second lamb alive is an example.

Patrick and Starry watch
the morning's feeding.
At Windward, we've adopted a middle of the road approach. We're still at the stage of developing our herd and learning the ins and outs of animal husbandry. One result is that we're willing to accept a higher loss rate than would be acceptable to a commercial producer. We're looking for (1) naturally hardy animals who can make do without a lot of commestible grains, and (2) are good parents who don't need a lot of back up. We're steadily learning where we need to focus our attention to optimize the outcome.

In case I lost you with that term "commestible grains," the point is that it's inefficient to feed human food to animals. Vegetarians often make the point that converting three pounds of grain into one pound of meat is a poor use of edible foodstuffs in a world where people go to bed hungry every night. Sustainable agriculture is founded on the use of certain biotechnologies that convert what you can't eat into what you can. The rumanents are especially good at this because their highly developed digestive systems host bacteria that can breakdown otherwise indigestible cellulose from which they produce milk, meat and leather.

Tamara and Tiffany
tube feed a newborn
In order for these bacteria to function, they need the proper inputs. Rumanents can live on dead leaves and straw, if you suppliment their feed with the protein that their rumanent bacteria need to function. One of the best ways to do this is by feeding them rolled barley; barley because it's easily grown on marginal land, and rolled because that crushes the grain which makes it easier to digest. Most two-leggers don't care for barley, most of it being used to brew beer (originally a method of extracting its food value). Indeed, the old Egyptian verson of "good news, bad news," went "well, there's wheat and there's barley."

The 200% Lambing project actually started late last summer. The ram was locked up with the bucks, and the ewes were put on grain rations. Our critters are expected to go out and work for a living, not lounge around as barn queens feasting on commercial grains and baled hay. During the winter months that's one thing, but in the spring, summer and fall, they're expected to get out there and graze. Still, come fall, the pickings out there are getting slim and far between.

Tiffany holds a lamb
as Walt docks the tail
We start giving the ewes grain some 30 days before we let them mix with the ram. Once their lambs are weaned in early summer, the ewes start to put on weight and get ready for the next go-round. The addition of rolled grain to their diet creates a rising plane of nutrition which triggers the release of multiple ova - a process called "flushing." It makes sense that if there wasn't much food to be had, there wouldn't be any point in producing more than one lamb.

While we fell one lamb short of the goal of two lambs for every ewe, we're very proud of having gotten that close. Eleven ewes birthed 21 lambs, for a 191% lambing. Next year we'll work to exceed that 200% mark, but given the multiple-use nature of our herd, we're actually pretty happy with what we've done so far. Since the quality and color of the wool is important to us, we're breeding with multiple goals in mind, some of which are at cross purposes.

Marge attends Cocoa's birthing
If the quantity of lambs were our only concern, we would only keep lambs from ewes who had twins or better, and ship everyone else. Instead, we keep some older ewes like #10 and #11 who serve as the "wise women" of the herd and watch out for the younger ones. We also keep some who have the rare and highly prized chocolate brown wool, and hope to breed daughters who combine that color with the ability to produce twins. Part of the fascination of working with nature is the never-ending search for that perfect combination.

Now that we've taken our shepherding skills up a notch, our focus is back on facilities. Before the next lambing, we're planning on having better holding pens in place for birthing and jugging the ewes, as well as a sheep squeeze to facilitate grooming their feet and udders.

Joyce brings Cocoa's twins
back from the woods
We lost a few lambs this time because we didn't get with the program quick enough, and that won't happen next time.

It's not enough to birth 200%.

The real goal is to be able to ship 200%.

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