Some thoughts on being a shepherd

Farming is a waiting game. Time is calibrated with the seasons. There is a time for everything and patience is a necessary virtue. On Mr Ed’s farm, it is lambing season. The first lambs, a nice set of twins, came last Thursday, sometime during the night, without incident. Just the way I like it. Actually, for the first time in several years, the first lambs were two weeks later than expected. Usually the first ewe gives birth a week early just to catch me by surprise. This year, factoring in the usual, I was on alert by February 7. Nothing. And a good thing too, because we had a couple of cold spells. I do at least two barn checks a night, especially when it goes below zero. It is very invigorating to take a stroll to the lambing barn when the wind chill is minus something in double digits.

I say my lambing season started last week but it really began last fall. Sheep are seasonal breeders with a five month gestation period. Breeding is triggered by length of daylight and cool nights. My rule of thumb is to lock up the ram no later than July 15th. I found out the hard way that August 1st is too late unless you want a Christmas surprise.

I generally turn the ram in about September 12. Prior to that date, I follow a ritual called “flushing the ewes”. Nature provides for it’s creatures. If the food source is plentiful at breeding time, the ewes are more likely to have twins. I set aside a section of pasture for a few weeks to let it grow up before turning the ewes on it, usually about two weeks before exposing them to the ram. I also worm them at this time. Intestinal worms like to live inside the sheep, sucking their blood and sapping their energy. A little shot of worm medicine sends them down the line and out into the sunshine, which they don’t like.

Most sheep will get bred in the first three weeks. Week two is generally the busiest time. I have had as many as five sheep give birth on the same day. Try sorting that out! Mothers and babies bond in the first few minutes. If too many are in the same area at once, some mothers try to claim more than their own, confusing the babies and the shepherd.

My sheep are shorn at least two weeks before I anticipate lambing to commence. This allows me to monitor their condition and udder size. I can usually tell if a ewe is going to lamb within 24 hours. The area around their tail begins to sag. About two hours before delivery they will stake out an area, pushing other ewes away. They will paw the straw, turning around in a circular motion. They usually will start making baaing sounds within the hour and act like they are looking for the lamb.i found it is important to stay out of sight during this time. Some ewes will delay delivery if they think there is a “predator” nearby.

Normal delivery happens pretty quickly. Normal birth is front feet first. The front feet appear followed by the nose. The ewe lays on her side and “pushes” forcing the lamb out. Once the head clears, the lamb slides out. I have seen ewes jump up at this point, swing around so the lamb drops. They will immediately clean the mucus off the lamb’s nose so it can get its first breath. The lamb will gasp for air. If I am present, I will run my finger through its mouth. If the lamb does not try to breath, I’ll insert a piece of straw into it’s nostril. This tickles the nasal area and usually triggers a gasping reaction. I have even saved lambs by blowing into their noses, holding them upside down and even swinging them in a circle to get liquid out of their lungs.

Ewes that have twins usually deliver their lambs about twenty minutes apart. This gives them time to clean off and dry the first one before the second one is born.

In cold weather the lambs will start shivering when their mothers commence the licking process. This elevates their body temperature, which in turn, speeds the drying process. Healthy lambs will try to stand up almost immediately. Usually by the time the second lamb arrives, the first one is wobbling around under the ewe looking for its first milk. Somehow it knows where to look and to tilt it’s nose upward. Once it makes the connection, it wiggles it’s tail.

Lambs need the first milk called colostrum to survive. It is thick and gooy and full of antibodies. Sometimes the teat has a plug in it. I make sure the milk is flowing. If I am not sure the lamb has nursed, I “tube” it. This involves hand milking the mother, squirting it into a syringe with a long plastic tube on it. I gently slide the tube down the baby’s throat, to it’s stomach, being very careful not to get the milk in the lungs. Usually if a lamb is weak, a good shot of mom’s milk will perk him right up.

Another thing I check are the lamb’s eyes. Some lambs are born with inverted eye lids. The lashes are turned in and irritate the eye. If left untreated, the lamb will lose interest in eating and in some cases go blind.

I also watch for signs of white muscle disease. This is from a lack of vitamin E. Soon after they are born, I give them an oral dose of Baby Lamb Strength, followed by 3 cc of vitamin E injectable. This is a frustrating disease because not all lambs get it and it comes on gradually. Deficient lambs start to get weaker when they get about three weeks old. With twins, especially with older ewes, it is easy to mistake this for not enough milk. Sometimes the ewe is not able to produce enough milk for the growing lambs. Older ewes, seven and older, will give birth to twins but just don’t have the body reserves to meet their needs. If I have a good ewe that I want to get one more lambing, I may pull one lamb off when it is born. If there is another ewe lambing at the same time that only has a single, I’ll try to graft the lamb onto that one.

I try to keep colostrum and milk replacer on hand for the occasional orphan or bum lamb. Unfortunately sometimes the mother dies from complications or the mother rejects the lamb for what ever reason. The chances for survival are pretty good if the lamb gets colostrum during its first twelve hours of life. Bottle lambs, for the first two weeks or so, need to be fed every few hours. They quickly become attached to the person with the bottle. It’s a good thing they are so cute because you lose some sleep in the process. Usually the cuteness wears off when they hit 50 pounds and follow you everywhere including trying to climb in your car.

Lambs begin nibbling early on. They will chew on hay and grain fed to their mothers. I set up a creep feed area, a pen with a lamb size opening, so the lambs have access to high protein feed. I hang a light bulb over it which seems to entice the lambs to the special area. Lambs like to jump, climb and play so I put a hay bale in the area too.

Shepherds have been looking after their flocks for thousands of years. Each season has it’s rhythm. Everything happens for a reason. Effort is rewarded by the products the sheep give us. Watching lambs playing is food for the soul.

“Hi Mr. Ed. Bet you can’t catch me”

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