Notes from Windward: #67


First Lamb of the Season

Brownie delivers in a snow storm

  March 2:

     Timing the fall breeding is always a compromise. Let the rams in too soon and some of the ewes will birth in the heart of winter, and you'll lose lambs to the cold. Wait too late, and the lambs won't be able to take full advantage of the grass when it's in full growth, and you'll lose production. The compromise we've found works best for us is to target the first births for the first of March. This year, we were only off by a day, but the weather still holding on to winter. Still, the temps are hovering around the freezing mark, which is much easier on the lambs than it would be if we had a heavy snow cover, or over night temps around 20 F°.

the other ewes crowd around to see Brownie's lamb

     At this morning's feeding, Brownie hung back and showed no interest in the hay. When a sheep is not interested in eating, that's an important sign that something is up. Brownie is our smartest ewe, and when our eyes met I knew what was up--she was starting to go into labor.

     Lambing is an important time for the flock, and everyone is interested in seeing the first lamb. Here's a pic of our two rams watching the developments in the main pen. The new lamb is Chaucer's boy; he's the larger ram on the left. The other is Zed, who's always been a ham for the camera.


     Chaucer is a big ram, and Brownie is small for a ewe, so it wasn't an easy birth. When I went up to check on her, the ram lamb was half-in and half-out, so I took ahold of him--I'm calling him "Deuce" since he was born on the 2nd--and eased his way into the world. A quick check to make sure that his mouth and nose were clear, and I left mother and son to get acquainted. It's critical that the ewe clean off the lamb since that's the way she imprints and will recognize the lamb as her's in the future. If that doesn't happen, she'll reject the lamb and refuse to allow it to nurse.

     After they'd had a chance to bond, I toweled Deuce off and helped him get to his feet--real wobbly at first, but that's to be expected. The next task was to milk Brownie a bit to make sure that both of her teats were producing. There's a wax plug that forms in the orifice of the teat that has to be expelled in order for the lamb to suckle--by working the teat until the plug is expelled, we make sure that the lamb will be able to nurse as early on as possible. To trigger the recognition of what the nursing thing is all about, I squirt a stream of milk into the lamb's mouth. When he starts licking his lips, I know he's "got it."

Brownie looks for reassurance that everything is fine

     As I noted, Brownie is our smartest ewe; the fact that she went into the lambing jug on her own, a location that's sheltered from the falling snow, is evidence of how aware she is of her surroundings. Most ewes will just hunker down where ever labor strikes them, and while the mother is protected from the cold by her lanolin coated wool, the newborn can get chilled quickly if it's dropped on wet ground.

      I fetched a bucket of water for Brownie to drink, since lactators need water in order to make milk, but that's about all that I was willing to do for Brownie and her boy. The key is that if he makes it, he'll be a good candidate for use as a ram since his mother has good felting wool and his father is huge, but it makes no sense to use a ram that comes from a ewe that isn't a competent mother since by intervening too much, you just breed more birthing problems into the flock.

     And that's the steward's delima, hence the practice that we will intervene, heroically if we must, in order to keep a lamb alive, but that any such intervention bars that lamb from becoming a breeder. Since Deuce has a shot at becoming a herd ram, he and his mom have to make it work with a minimum of assistance.

  March 3:

     For lamb and ewe, making it through the first night is the key test, and I'm happy to report that this morning found Brownie up and around--vocally complaining about the lack of room serve to the jugging pen--as Deuce was in position and nursing away. By "in position" I'm describing a stance in which the lambs hind legs are fully extended, the fore legs are bent with the lamb resting on it's front knees, and with it's head bent back at almost a right angle to it's spine.

     There's an important reason why a lamb needs to nurse from that position; a ruminant has four stomachs in a row, and it's important that the milk by-pass the first three to settle in the fourth. That's were the lamb excretes an enzyme that causes the milk to coagulate into a form of cottage cheese--an essential part of making cheese is the addition of rennet to the milk, and while there are some forms of vegetable-derived rennant, the enzyme traditionally used is extracted from the fourth stomach of a still-born lamb.

Deuce watches his mom chow down

     By stretching his neck way back, the lamb collapses the first three stomachs causing the milk to flow through a narrow channel into that fourth stomach which quickly fills up with curds. That's also why this is one of the two season when we have to keep a sharp eye out for coyotes since they too are denning up with their kits this time of year. While coyotes derive most of their diet from rodents such as the critters that city folk call squirrels, but country folk refer to as "tree rats," mother coyotes will take down a lamb, rip out that fourth stomach and take that back to their den to feed their kits.

Deuce moving in to nurse while mom is feeding

     Brownie and Deuce will spend a couple of days in the lambing jug, primarily to keep Brownie from moving around a lot thereby requiring Deuce to spend a lot of energy trying to keep up with his mom. Some exercise is good, but given the metabolic demands being placed on the lamb by the cold, I'd rather have him conserve his energy for a day or two. There'll be lots of time for gamboling around the sheep pen next week.

  March 5:

     Now that Deuce is all of three days old, it's time for mother and son to leave the lambing jug for greener pastures. The sheep over-winter in the lower half of the main garden, but as each ewe gives birth, she'll be transitioned over to the summer pen where she'll have new grass to nibble, plenty of hay to full up on and even a ration of rolled wheat since the more nutrition she can take in, the faster the lamb will grow.

Brownie and Deuce explore the summer pen

  March 8:

     After the happy news about Brownie and Deuce comes sad news about the next ewe to birth. She too was smart enough to head into the lambing jug to deliver, but her twins were born too weak to stand.

Pia looks to me to do something

     The usual practice is for a herd to cull ewes when they get to around six years old since their ability to raise a pair of lambs falls off as they age, and there's little point commercially in keeping a ewe that will want to abandon one lamb in order to raise the other. At Windward, it's our tradition to cull on attitude, and if a ewe makes it to retirement age, we just keep her on and do what we can to support her.

     Pia is going on ten and she's the oldest ewe in our flock. We have to do a bit more to help the older ewes, but we feel it's worth it because they know the routine, they're good team players and we're doing this for the wool anyway, so when a ewe produces a good fleece we want to keep that production going.

Keeping the lambs out of the wind

     The day was a good deal warmer than when Brownie gave birth, but there was a steady wind that chilled the newborns. I toweled them off, cleared Sally's teats and squirted some milk into the lambs' mouths, but got precious little reaction from either lamb. At that point, the next step is to milk out some colostrum and tube feed the lambs in the hope that getting some food into their bellies will give them the energy to get going.

     The problem there turned out to be that when we split the herd so that Terry could keep some of the flock with her while she was helping her kids get their land set up, the feeding tube went with her. I poured a few mouthfuls of milk into each lamb, and put them into a container to protect them from the wind while Todd made a run to the feed store to buy another feeding tube.

     I'm sad to report that by the time he returned, it was too late; the lambs were completely out of it and never regained consciousness. I let Sally stay in the jug with her lambs for the next day until she too concluded that they were gone. Sorry, girl--we'll all try to do better next time.

  March 14:

     At the morning feeding Susie showed up with a fine pair of ram lambs trailing along behind her. After feeding the rams and the other ewes, I served Susie her own flake of hay in the lambing jug and settling her in with her two lambs so that they could nurse without having to chase their momma around the pen.

Susie's two ram lambs

     By the afternoon, it was clear that one of the ram lambs had the nursing thing going just fine, but the other lamb didn't seem to have the same push. That could be because one lamb was hogging the teat leaving his brother without enough nourishment to keep up, so I went into the jug and shuffled mother and lamb around so that the less assertive lamb had a chance to nurse for a while. This sort of sibling rivalry is common, and can result in the loss of the less assertive lamb. I'll make an effort to see that there's some parity in order to not lose the lamb, but the lack of hardiness indicates that this one's a whether lamb at best.

  March 15:

     This morning found the strong lamb up and eager, and the weak lamb just about gone. This is a fairly common response for an older ewe with two lambs, and under other circumstances, we would have made a greater effort to intervene with the second ram lamb. We didn't for a number of reasons, one of which being that until we get more fencing done, we don't want the herd to increase in size.

Susie and her ram lamb in the summer pen

     A flock of sheep can double in size each year, so you have to be careful to not exceed the number of sheep your land can support. Most any time we want we can double the flock size, so what we're doing is aimed more at keeping the total number of animals constant while increasing their hardiness. It is emotionally very tempting to get in there and do everything one can to keep as many of the lambs alive as possible, and sometimes we do that as a way to expand our knowledge of husbandry since there's no substitute for actually working with the animals in order to expand your skillset.

     But the other side of the equation is that we don't raise sheep as a source of meat, but rather as a source for wool--meat is just a by-product of what we do, and right now we're focused on working with the animal systems that are part of the hyper-integraed aquaponics work that is one of our three core projects. We've learned a lot about raising sheep, and certainly have more to learn, but people have been raising sheep for millinea, and the days of open grazing are coming to an end. And so this year we're letting the weak ones go in order to strengthen the flock.

Brownie and her quickly growning boy

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67