Our Sheep Are Baaack and Having Babies!

Black-Faced Ewe With Twin Lambs

With everything going on with Sports Girl and her knee surgery and recovery, I haven’t mentioned that our sheep came back to the ranch sometime around the first of the year.

The ewes had spent the last three months of 2009 at my brother- and sister-in-law’s place a few miles away getting bred. And then in the last week or so, they started lambing. Three of our five ewes have had babies so far – and all three have had twins.

Unfortunately, we did lose one lamb just 24 hours after it was born. Cocoa, the mother, was the ewe who lost her first lamb after giving birth in a snow storm last spring; I don’t think she really wanted to deal with two lambs for her mothering experience as I don’t believe she was letting the second lamb nurse at all. By the time we realized this, it was too late to save the poor little thing. Just another sad fact of nature, I guess. My girls didn’t cry, although there was certainly a feeling of sadness hanging over all of us.

So we have five baby lambs frolicking around our sheep pens. And they are really cute. Busy Toddler got the biggest belly laugh out of watching the little lambs when she went down to help feed this afternoon with Handsome Hubby.

My father-in-law has been very busy calving for the past month, as well. The winter weather here hasn’t really been very friendly for newborn calves and sheep, but somehow things are going all right.

In my naïve, younger years, I always pictured tiny baby lambs and calves laying with their mothers on a bed of bright green grass with the sun shining brightly down on them. I suppose that scenario would be more realistic if these critters were born in May rather than February and early March, but that schedule doesn’t work well for us.

My father-in-law calves in February and March so he has more time for farming later in the spring; we have to lamb as early as possible so the babies will be as close to grown/finished as possible when it’s time to show them at the county fair. So our babies have been born amidst snow, sleet, rain, fog and mud. If the critters themselves weren’t so cute, it would be anything but a pretty sight.

We’re still watching the other two ewes, hoping to keep our lamb crop ratio as close to 200 percent as we can. And we’re hoping for warmer, drier weather.

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Cow is to Heifer as Ewe is to What?

I did a little research online as I was writing my post about getting the ewes bred. From that time spent surfing, I’ve discovered that there is no special name given to a ewe who has either never had a lamb or who is expecting or has just had her first lamb — at least no name that’s widely known and used.

I thought there might be a special term for these young, inexperienced ewes, because in cattle, these are called “heifers” while the more experience mamas are simply called “cows.”

My father- and brother-in-law often refer to the “heifers” or “first-calf heifers,” and these cows are handled differently when they are bred. At our ranch the heifers are generally artificially inseminated with the bull’s “seed” rather than allowed to be bred naturally by the pasture bulls.

The AI-ing is done to increase the likelihood that the heifers will be successfully bred, to shorten the calving season (they all calve closer together when they are all bred on the same day), and to control by exactly which bull they are bred. It’s generally not a good idea to use a bull that has a history of throwing larger birth weights on a heifer. Heifers must also be more closely watched when they are calving as they are at an increased risk of having trouble during delivery.

But enough about cattle. The things is, other than the AI-ing things, first-lamb ewes have many of the same potential issues as heifers. So I wonder why do cattle have a special designation for this situation and sheep don’t?

The Sheep Cycle Starts Again

In mid-June four ewes graze in our little pasture created with electric fence.

In mid-June four ewes graze in our little pasture created with electric fence. The white spots in the middle are plastic shopping bags tied onto the fence wire in between fence posts to help critters (and people) see it better.

We are sheepless at our house right now. But don’t worry — it’s not permanent.

We took the mama sheep to another ranch at the end of September to be bred. We will get them back in a couple of months, and they should be “with lambs” then.

I say lambS, because sheep regularly have twins and triplets aren’t uncommon, especially as the sheep age. And for two of our ewes, next spring will bring their third lamb crop.

Ewes cycle about every 17 days, but in our colder South Dakota climate this will generally only happen in the fall and very early winter as the days get shorter. So leaving our ewes with the ram for 2 months will allow three chances for the ewes to become pregnant as three cycles should occur. Our more mature ewes, especially those who have lambed before, may be bred sooner than the younger lambs who have never been bred.

The average gestation length or length of pregnancy for sheep is about 147 days, give or take a few. So, if our four mature ewes were to be bred today, which is about 3 weeks after we first exposed them to the ram, they should lamb on or around March 11. I used a nifty Lambing Calculator that I found online to figure this out!

Honestly, I am enjoying our brief vacation from feeding sheep. Once school starts, the girls really don’t have time to deal with the sheep in the mornings as the school bus  arrives at the end of our driveway at 7:20 a.m. The girls are also busier in the evenings with school and church activities. Handsome Hubby does most of the work this time of year, but sometimes he asks them to help which usually doesn’t happen without some protest. It’s during these times that I miss those previous years where we sold all of our lambs at the fair and didn’t start over until spring.

But the girls are very good about caring for the sheep during the summer months, and they love having those baby lambs. We should have at least five lambs again come March — so stay tuned!

County Fair Comes and Goes …

Sports Girl and Horse Lover both showed sheep at the county fair in August. Following are some pictures leading up to and of the event:

Horse Lover helped halter break the lambs this summer. I think walking the sheep is her favorite part of showing.

Horse Lover helped halter break the lambs this summer. I think walking the sheep is her favorite part of showing.

Sports Girl briefly reunites the mama white-faced sheep with her two lambs during an evening walk before the fair in August. The lambs were weaned and therefore separated from their mama in early June.

Sports Girl briefly reunites the mama white-faced sheep with her two lambs during an evening walk before the fair in August. The lambs were weaned and therefore separated from their mama in early June.

The lambs must all be sheared just before the show. They are all shown as market or "meat" lambs, and therefore the condition of their carcass is much more important than the quality of their wool.

The lambs must all be sheared just before the show. They are all shown as market or "meat" lambs, and therefore the condition of their carcass is much more important than the quality of their wool.

Handsome Hubby transports the sheep from the ranch to the fair using a rack in back of his pickup.

Handsome Hubby transports the sheep from the ranch to the fair using a rack in back of his pickup.

Sports Girl (far right) shows one of her black-faced lambs at our county fair in August 2009. I believe all of our sheep earned purple ribbons, although none were top finishers in their classes. Oh well ... there's always next year!

Sports Girl (far right) shows one of her black-faced lambs at our county fair in August 2009. I believe all of our sheep earned purple ribbons, although none were top finishers in their classes. Oh well ... there's always next year!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch …

So my health has been an interesting situation. One that has kept me distracted since the end of May. I do believe I’m finally on the mend, and I hope to go home from the hospital tomorrow.

In the mean time, many things have happened in our country life. It was time to let the heifers and their calves into the pasture to eat the grass surrounding our home. Unfortunately, we had taken out the barbed wire fence to plant our trees, and we certainly didn’t want the cows trampling the little seedling trees.

We were undecided on what type of permanent fence we wanted to install, and time was critical, so we purchased and installed an electric fence. The heifers and calves were very curious about the fence and I think every one of them must have tested it out at least once. Each instance resulted in a startled critter jumping quickly away and sometimes bellering.  These “tests” would have made some great video – if I had had the energy to capture it. But it probably would have also drawn negative comments from more animal rights activists, so perhaps it’s just as well that I only have memories of the incidents.

A few times the cow or calf jumped the wrong way and went through the fence. They usually made their way back through the fence, but I think we had to help at least one critter out of the enclosed area. Thankfully, these animals seemed to learn fast as after about a week the fence malfunctioned for a couple of days while we were out of town, and yet all of the cows stayed away.

Besides the electric fence, Handsome Hubby planted the grass seed between our newly planted shelterbelt and our home. He and Sports Girl also planted a garden.

A couple of days later it started to rain. And rain. Even though the mud was a real pain to contend with, the moisture should certainly help all of our new vegetation to prosper. We can already see stalks of grass starting to sprout. Now if the temperatures would just warm up a bit.

The cows were moved on to the next pasture almost quicker than they were moved in, and now they are awaiting their ride to the woods in a semi-trailer. Handsome Hubby’s family has a few different permits from the U.S. Forest Service, and they summer the majority of their cattle in the Black Hills National Forest from mid-June until early October. The arrangement isn’t the most convenient, but it provides an additional source of grass while the family farms for next year’s feed.

We’re still using the electric fence to allow our flock of sheep to graze on a little grass while not worrying about them wandering away. At least now I don’t have to disable the fence and open a gate every time I come and go from home. That’s an inconvenience I really dread, but I try to be a good sport about it. I know how valuable that grass is for feeding those cows. And thankfully, I only have to do it a few weeks out of the year.

Little Lamb Lost

If you watched the videos and did the math from yesterday’s post on our five lambs, you might have figured out that we have four ewes, but I only mentioned three of them lambing.

All four ewes actually did lamb. Unfortunately, the last one lambed at the start of the first blizzard two weeks ago, and her lamb did not survive. It was our first sheep loss since Sports Girls first started showing in 4-H almost six years ago. And while that’s a respectable survival rate, it didn’t make the loss any easier for us.

Handsome Hubby said the ewe, Cocoa, was acting strangely when he went out to feed the sheep at 7:30 a.m. But by the time Sports Girl went to check her again later that morning, she had given birth and the lamb was dead. It was Cocoa’s first lamb, so we really don’t know if she experienced any complications giving birth or if the lamb died as a result of exposure to the cold, snowy weather.

Sports Girl said Cocoa was nudging at her dead baby; that’s how she knew the lamb was there under a light dusting of freshly fallen snow. Sports Girl carried the lamb up to the house, but it was already cold to the touch and certainly wasn’t savable. It was heart breaking to watch Cocoa continue to sniff all around her pen for most of the day looking for her baby. She was new to this lambing stuff, but she knew things hadn’t worked out right.

Sports Girl said she felt a little guilty about not checking on Cocoa sooner, and I even felt guilty over not telling her to check on the ewe sooner. Who knows if it would have made a difference, but I’m sure next year we’ll all be more attentive when the sheep are due to lamb

And while I didn’t actually see Sports Girl cry, I think she probably did shed a few tears over losing the lamb. It’s certainly reasonable to think a 13-year-old girl would be affected by such a close encounter with death. I know I would have been at her age – it was actually still difficult for me at 38!

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep (& White, Too!)

We have had five baby lambs by three of our ewes this spring – two sets of twins and one singlet. One set of twins is all white, while the other set of twins and the singlet are black-faced lambs. They are as cute as can be and are growing as fast as Aunt Myrtle’s mustache!

Here is some video footage of both sets of twins, which were born on Saturday, Feb. 28. They are only a couple days old here.

Four of the lambs are whethers (males) and one, a white lamb, is a ewe (female). Sports Girl and Horse Lover are now feeding, worming, docking, neutering, vaccinating and taming the lambs – with the help of their dad, of course – all in preparation to show them at our county fair in August.

I’ll keep you posted …