Lambing in January in New England isn’t ideal. It is usually very cold and blustery. This year it has been mixed but now it looks like we are in for a spate of very cold weather. Acquaintances I run into on the street always ask me why our lambs are born so early in the cold. I thought perhaps my blog readers might be wondering the same. So here you go – more than you probably want to know about sheep breeding.
Sheep are seasonal breeders. Unlike many mammals – cows, goats, humans - a sheep can become pregnant for about five months out of the year. The ewes become fertile in August as the days become shorter and they cycle every 21 days for about five months. (In nature there is always exceptions. Some breeds, for instance the Dorset, can be bred "out of season" and will produce lambs year round.) The gestation of a sheep is five months. You need only one ram to “cover” many sheep. As a shepherd, you can chose when to put the ram into the ewe flock and then semi-control the lambing season. They say your ram is “half your flock” and it’s true. The genetics of the ram will produce certain physical and genetic characteristic of its off-spring. So the idea is to chose wisely for what you want to do with the lamb crop.
The Farmer has another full-time business which is busiest from March until October. To fit into our other real life, we have to have lambs as early as possible. That is the simple reason we lamb in January – not the most pleasant time of the year. Our rams go into the flock in August and the breeding gets going quickly. There are all kinds of fancy ways to “tease” the ewes into coming into cycle including “teaser rams” (castrated rams). The Farmer keeps his sheep operation as low maintenance and simple as possible – so that we stay married. Suffice it to say, there is always something to be done and the whole thing is far from simple – it’s a way of life.
This year, we used an older Romney ram (who will be retired soon), a crossbred Romney Shetland ram (the offspring of one of our sheep that got in with a rogue Shetland ram from a pasture nearby), and a new black Dorper cross which came from Emily Yazwinski in Deerfield. We can tell by looking at the lambs that the Dorper cross ram was definitely the dominant father of the flock. We probably won’t keep him very long (maybe one more year) but so far, his lambs seem strong and fast growing.
To further fit in with our other businesses, the majority of our lambs will go to market in late March and April when Easter is near and the price of lamb is the highest it is all year. We will keep some of the choice twin ewe lambs out of our better mothers. I know this will burst a lot of your bubbles, but that’s farming. All it takes is a little simple math to determine that if you have 150 sheep, soon you will have 300 (assuming a 100% lambing crop – ours is usually 125% to 150%), then 600, and so forth. The simple fact of the matter is you can’t keep and feed all these critters. So we save the best and move on.
We started with sheep in 1980. We bought four beautiful Romney ewes from Robert O’Brien in Tunbridge, VT. We found a Romney ram locally named Zeno and the first year, we had three lambs. Not a very good lambing ratio. Neither The Farmer nor I probably ever thought that all these years later, we would still have sheep. We do, and we can’t imagine our lives without the animals. Along the way, we have taken many a class and seminar to learn more about “the proper way to shepherd.” We probably have all the sheep books on the market. We have met many a memorable old-time character who have shared their wisdom. We’ve grown to love the talent, enthusiasm and help that a Border Collie can add to our day and life. This suburban girl from New Jersey could never have dreamed that she would know so much about animals and sometimes share a bathroom with them. It’s fun to share this life with our daughter Julia and to see her excited about the babies and the process. It is also nice that she knows where food in general comes from.
I have this photo of our first four sheep and our little sheltie cross Haida in a special frame. Who was to know that Alfy, Putney, Frieda, and Addie would be the beginning of this bit of livestock on our land. We barely ever name a sheep now – although The Farmer seems to be able to identify by sight many of them and tell me how many lambs they produced last year. All I can say is, if you follow your dreams – you never know where you will end up nor what you will accomplish. We aren’t rich in monetary ways but we feel wealthy in ways many people could never dream of.