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Sheep Behaving Badly

I have some entertaining pictures of recent sheep activity. After 45 days in the barn, the ewes express their restlessness with weird stunts.

Activity #1 – Fighting

BFL 129 Amelia and Border Leicester 1736 go head to head, with our resident ram lamb goading them on. Sheep flocks have a hierarchy, and apparently these girls do not agree about where they stand in the pecking order.

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A solid flank shot by Amelia. Luckily, ewes don’t fight to the point of injury, like rams do. These two went back to munching hay and gossiping about each other soon after.

I have to admit that I was laughing the whole time. I am sure this felt very serious to the contenders, but watching chubby, fluffy ewes do battle would amuse anyone. I wonder if this could be a pay per view channel?

And then this happened:

Perhaps you recall a story from last spring, where one of our ewes had quadruplets? The runt died and we gave the ram lamb away to be raised by a friend, but we kept two promising ewes from the set. When a young lady contacted me to ask about keeping some bottle lambs over the summer, I consented. She had tutelage from an experienced shepherd, and handing off some problem children was just what I needed at the time, so I gave her one of the quad girls and another bottle baby. This lamb, #174, came home in the fall. She just loves people, and last week decided that perhaps people would make entertaining climbing walls, too.

So here she is, standing on my thighs and peering me straight in the eye. We will gently train her not to do this, as it’s going to get exponentially less-cute the larger she grows. I love this pretty ewe, but it is not safe to have attack-sheep on premises.

The days here are alternating between grimdark gray and sunny and white. It is a beautiful but bleak season. With the sheep stable and some time to think, I am finally catching up on paperwork and hobbies. I really value this bonding time with the core flock. The ewes are all feeling friendly and loving, so I am bombarded with shoulder-itching requests and loving nudges from my friendly ewes during this time. At other times of the year, the ewes are either preoccupied with parenting or feeling free and feral in the fields. So I gather the sheep petting endorphins when I can while we wait for the coming of lambs in late February.

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Bottle Lamb Shenanigans

This is a Covid-19-free post, so read and enjoy!

We have a whole passel of bottle lambs in 2020. We have the two remaining ewe lambs from the quadruplet situation. We have a BFL ram lamb who never caught on to nursing his mother. We have a Border ram lamb who was rejected due to having sharp teeth (we fixed the teeth but couldn’t repair the relationship. Then, we have triplet BFLs whose mother just can’t keep up with their needs.

Almost all bottle lambs start out in the house. Because we can’t feed them as frequently as a real sheep mom, we choose to keep them indoors where they will be warm enough to not suffer chilling and hypothermia. Hypothermia causes most needless deaths of young lambs – lambs who are too cold won’t nurse or digest milk, resulting in a downward metabolic spiral. We try to give the lambs motherly attentions that they would receive from a real mom – ewes don’t hold their lambs, but they mutter to them and nuzzle and groom them. Petting and stroking the lambs meets their need for attention.

This guy likes sleeping among the woollens. Of course, where he sleeps is also where he relieves himself, so I’ve been cleaning up ever since!


Of course, bottle lambs in the house are adorable. We show you the cute pictures of a lamb snoozing in a corner, but we don’t show you the mess they make. Lambs do not potty-train, so we do upwards of two large laundry loads of towels each day just trying to prevent indoor lambs from destroying our floors and furniture. Diapers aren’t really in the lamb’s best interest as we don’t want to leave manure in contact with their wool for any length of time. Finally, scampering lambs need space which is best found outdoors in the barn. They need playmates and guidance from ewes, too, so they learn to be good flockmembers and not frustrated wannabe-humans.

We gradually introduce houselambs to life outdoors by sending them out to the barn for short periods and then not bringing them back into the house eventually. We then must train these lambs to use the nursing bucket instead of the bottle. We use a Pritchard teat initially to facilitate nursing initially to facilitate nursing. Once the lambs are larger, however, they are too strong for small rubber teats. At that point, teat-bucket feeding becomes more practical.

The bucket is a competitive space, but we work to ensure that all lambs get the milk they need without overfeeding the aggressive ones.

We have set up a lamb creep as well. A creep is an area of the barn only accessible to lambs through a gate that admits only small sheep. In the creep, we offer grain, nice hay to nibble on and a sunny, dry floor. It takes the lambs a few days to discover the space, but once they do they really take to having a clubhouse just for them. We do feed some grain at this stage to help out the many triplets we have. Not all ewes can provide enough milk for fast-growing triplets, so this is our most practical option to grow them out effectively without overtaxing Mom.

So that’s the news from the lamb barn. We have 71 lambs bouncing about and only a few more ewes expecting. We are tired but finally beginning to catch up on sleep.

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Pregnancy Checks and some Updates

With temperatures in the low single digits today, we are surely in the thick of winter.  Last week, we finally received the replacement barn-ends that we ordered after the back of the barn tore in half during the Halloween storm.  Unfortunately, Matt and I concluded that we won’t actually complete the repairs until spring.  Neither of us want to battle stiff, uncooperative materials in terrible weather while the barn is filled with pregnant sheep.

Speaking of pregnant sheep, our vet Dr. Emily came out yesterday to ultrasound each of our ewes to check for pregnancy.  The news was mostly good- lots of multiples, ewes look generally healthy, and we even have a few pregnant ewe lambs!   We sent each ewe through the chute for a fairly low-stress exam.  It was a perfect opportunity to check on some of the ewes who are skillful at avoiding us under most circumstances.  I am so pleased with how chubby and healthy most of the flock is.  I really feel like I have that aspect under control at the moment.  I think the biggest factor is that Matt made all of our hay this year, and the ewes eat it with great gusto.

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I hold a sheep, Dr. Emily scans, assistant Allison evaluates

On the downside, we do have three open adult ewes.  Ewe lambs get a pass on not breeding their first year, but 1616, Beth and Eilis all scanned empty, much to my disappointment.  Sadly, we are reasonably sure that Eilis is dying, so we are preparing to euthanize her soon.  Two vets, endless exams and many treatments have all yielded no improvement in her condition.  Dr. Emily and her former owner agree that cancer is not unlikely.  I am so, so heartbroken that after all of the TLC we provided to Eilis, we have no offspring from her or from her sister, Beth.  Beth has been fat and healthy the whole time, but just won’t settle a pregnancy.  We are blood-testing her for a final chance that maybe her pregnancy could have been missed, but I am not holding my breath.

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Lamb Frustration

This year, I have a few naughty lambs.

Border Leicester #125, who is a really pretty ewe lamb, and her sidekick Border Leicester #151 persistently wiggle their way out of our electric fencing.  Sometimes, Border Leicester #122 joins in.

For a while, it really was my fault.  We only had a 1 joule charger on a large amount of fence, and the charge simply wasn’t hot enough.  Worse, we were using some old, slightly droopy netting that was easy for lambs to slip beneath.  I could watch them slide their little Roman noses under the wires and then shuffle under, awkwardly.  Sometimes, a lamb would inadvertently pull the fence out of the ground while shimmying, releasing the rest of the flock.  Having your sheep at-large will ruin your reputation in the neighborhood pretty quickly.  We needed to take action.

Then the arms race began.  We bought a hotter charger with twice as much power.  Still, 125 and 151 would sneak out.  We stopped using the older fence and even bought $600 worth of new fence.  Still, 125 and 151 were out-of-bounds somehow.

So at weaning, I went nuclear.  We are fortunate to have a neighbor’s hard-fenced horse-pasture available.  We tightened up that fence and then deposited the weaned lambs in there.  After a hard day of lamb separation, we were keen to prevent the lambs from escaping and running off to find their mothers.  Every possible escape-route was blocked and bolstered.

Yet still, this morning, the lambs are loose.  They knocked down some of the fencing in the process of escaping – fortunately, the main group of lambs was well-behaved and did not try to escape.

So our new policy is that those lambs are just “out”.  They are out, at risk of being eaten by coyotes, but they are not putting the main flock at risk.  They’ll also be on the first trailer out of here.  I am so, so frustrated at being outsmarted by two five-month-old lambs!  Unbelievable.

Some images of our at-large delegation:

 

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They are quite a ways from home, so I drive if I am carrying something large.

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Good lambs to the left, naughties to the right.

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Trying not to show their faces.

 

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Summer Arrives

Summer arrives to find the bobolinks have fledged from our neighbor’s hayfield.   Three streaky brown birds making little plink calls were flitting and bouncing around the pasture I set up for the sheep.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to provide habitat to this struggling species.

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We are so close to weaning time.  I know the ewes are ready to send their lambs off on their own for a while.  Some have probably already weaned their babies without my help.  For others,  it’s adorable yet concerning to see lambs who are nearly the same size as their mothers still nursing.  The ewes need pedicures and a spa treatment (or hoof trimming and some Selenium supplementation, depending on your perspective).

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We have two especially naughty lambs who have figured out how to slip under the electric fence.  They taunt the other lambs by eating the grass I am saving for later meals.  Sadly, one is a ewe lamb that I would have considered keeping, but I don’t really need troublemakers.  Worse, in the process of slipping out, the lambs have occasionally knocked down the fence and allowed other sheep to escape.  We do not want loose sheep in roads and on neighbor’s land.

Our haying efforts have produced 75 round bales so far.  We have several more fields waiting for first-cutting, but Matt is struggling with equipment breaking down.  First, the round baler wasn’t operating smoothly, so he needed to adjust the tension on the belts that roll the hay into a snowball.  Then, one of the bearings on the new mower seized, causing extensive damage to a part that is no longer made.  Good thing Matt is a decent welder.  He’ll need to replace the gnawed-off metal with in-fill, and then use a lathe to make it smooth and round again.  Yeesh.

I have learned how to rake the hay into windrows that the baler then scoops up and rolls.  There is a satisfying rhythm to it, like mowing the lawn.  Would you like to know more about how hay is made?  I’ve been debating whether or not to write a post explaining hay, so let me know if an explainer would be useful for you.

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Waiting for Spring

It’s almost May.

The grass has been taking its time in growing, but the lambs haven’t.  It pains me to see my tired ewes nursing their enormous lambs.

We began vaccinating our flock for Clostridium C+D plus Tetanus last week.  Matt and I hauled in the scale he built us and weighed each lamb.   Our lambs ranged from 60 lbs to 20, with the smaller lambs being younger.  In order to have some data that’s more useful than strict weight, I made a spreadsheet comparing days in age to current weight.  I admit I omitted birthweight.  Aside from animals born clearly outside the norm (huge or tiny), birthweight hasn’t been that helpful as a general measurement for me.  In any case, the sheep ranged from .49 to .99 in growth rate.  Meaning some weigh a pound for every day of age, others a half-pound.  Even my non-standard metric shows us a little bit about who is thriving and who isn’t.  We’ve begun efforts to supplement all of the lambs on the low end.

To double down on my New Sheep Math, I’ve also gone through and added up the total lamb-growth for all moms.   It seems like a helpful way to look at which ewes are working the hardest, feeding up to 1.81 lbs of lamb growth/day in a way that controls for lamb age (vs total weight, which would make the oldest lambs look better than the youngest).  Have I mentioned how much I love a good spreadsheet?

While we wait for pasture, I am lucky enough to have my 2019 yarn back from the mill.  This year, we asked to have it unskeined, on cones.  So I have massive cones of yarn to skein, wash, dye and organize.  It’s good, clean fun while I agonize about our hay supply and the ewes yearning for fresh grass.  By the by, I need to shout out my friend Laini Fondiller, who connected me with a neighbor of hers with some extra hay.  It’s just enough to stave off starvation and rioting in the barn, so I am grateful for a good farmer friend.

And of course, for those wondering, Dad is going really well.  This week is a pile of appointments, but he is looking and feeling stronger.

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Patient Bethlehem wishes I’d just let her go outside

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Is it just me, or does Chloe look like a victim of cabin fever?

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This cute fella wants to romp and play- grow faster, grass!

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Triumph and Tribulation

We have 73 lambs on the ground and only one ewe left yet to lamb.  Lambing was a constant process of checking, evaluating, assisting, monitoring, feeding and collapsing.  For me, tiredness can be measured in my motivation to do regular daily activities.  Cleaning falls off first, then relaxation, then cooking.  When I didn’t feel like cooking, I knew I was pretty far down the line of being exhausted.

With bottle lambs starting off life in the house,  sleep was persistently interrupted by little baas in the night.  We keep bottle lambs in a crate next to the bed so we can wake up and bottle feed as needed.

As focused as I have become on the problem children, most of the lambs are doing well and growing rapidly.  While it feels overwhelming to have five lambs dependent on us for food, this shouldn’t really be surprising given that we have 68 lambs who are not dependent on us for food and we did lamb some older ewes who were unable to raise multiples.

As physically and mentally exhausted as I am, I try to be grateful each day that I’m lucky enough to have this as a job, lucky enough to have generally healthy animals, and lucky enough to have a nice warm bed to collapse into at 9:30 most nights.

Enjoy some photos from the barn:

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Lambing Mixup

So my prayers for “not lambing” during our deepest cold last night were not answered.

At maybe 2:30am, Matt woke me to say that he needed help in the barn.  It was -15F out and one of our oldest BFL ewes, Kay, was lambing simultaneously with Wild Thing, a Border Leicester. Kay is 9, which is an age where sheep get a little marginal in their ability to manage lots of lambs and to compete at the feed bunk.  Kay is sturdy and healthy, but I can tell she is at risk of falling behind under strain.

When we got to the barn, we had a pile of white lambs in front of us, but it was not at all clear whose were whose. Kay was licking up a nice, big, rather Border-y looking ram lamb, while Wild Thing was mothering a suspiciously blue-headed ewe. There were two other lambs – one that was clearly a blue-tinged BFL and another that was hard to evaluate due to the pink of her ears.  Sometimes BFLs are born looking a tad pink.  Such lambs typically blue-up as they age.

We brought the two unclaimed lambs in for warming. The obvious BFL died, sadly. Sometimes they are just too far gone and she was the runt.  This was our first lost lamb born alive.  It is a painful failure to lose a valuable ewe lamb like that.  We were left pondering about the ‘ownership’ of the little girl before us.  Her pink ears have gray patches, which Borders typically don’t have.  Her ears are also very high-set, desirable in both breeds but more conspicuous in my BFL stock.

After a long discussion, we came up with a theory of the case – K had triplet BFL girls, one of which was claimed by Wild Thing. Meanwhile, Wild Thing’s big, vigorous lamb wandered over to K. Sometimes ewes make decisions when faced with lots of lambs that they don’t think they can manage and raise.  Ewes may choose one or two of the litter to focus on mothering, instead of dividing their effort too much and losing all lambs to the cold.  So perhaps Kay thought that Wild Thing’s ram was her most vigorous lamb (he is about twice the size of the triplets) and chose him.

The outcome is that Kay is raising a Border ram, Wild Thing is raising a very nice BFL ewe, and we are also raising a BFL ewe since there were no claimants to the other lamb. In this cold, it’s not really worth the risk or the battle to foster her onto a ewe. Plus, who would we choose? Try to convince an unfriendly, aptly-named Border to accept a lamb that’s definitely not hers? Or put her with her real mom to make her compete against a huge ram lamb for sparse milk? We would have ended up raising one or two of K’s triplets in any case, given her age.  She didn’t lamb with enough milk to support more than one big lamb or two small ones.

So that was our night.  I got maybe an hour of sleep – the wash cycle with the dirty lamb towels took longer to complete than the amount of sleep I got.  This morning, I was greeted with…surprise!  More lambs.  A single from an experienced mom, fortunately, so I can feel comfortable that they will manage with less help.

Mercifully, this cold snap will soon break and everyone will be grateful.

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Lambing Under Duress

Our exposed, West-facing hillside got 63mph winds with 52mph sustained gusts.  Combined with raw, cold snow, the weather is absolutely brutal right now.  We can feel every crack, fissure and draft in our house.  It is cold indoors and worse outdoors.  Much worse.

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Here’s the wind blowing across in front of the garage

So I was worried about what I’d find in the barn.  Mostly, the sheep have been huddling for warmth under tough circumstances.  But all of the lambs are fine and nursing.  We had a birth this afternoon- one enormous ram from our 2017 bottle lamb, Sue.  Last year, her lamb didn’t make it, so we were watching her carefully.  This year, much better luck.  With some toweling-off from us, he was up and suckling quickly.

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The lambs are handling the weather by cuddling up to conserve energy.  Here’s an adorable pile of little ones during the worst of the weather this morning:

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Fierce mommas are the best kind to have.  Summer is very concerned that her little ram lamb might be cold, so she guards him constantly.  Next to this hay bale, he’s in the lee of the wind.

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Shepherds have to protect themselves, too.  I’m breaking my anonymity by showing you the multi-level attire I adopted to deal with getting to and from the barn.  Once in the barn, I was actually significantly overdressed.  As breezy as it is, the barn offers good protection.

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Compendium of Lambs

We started our lambing season about a week earlier than expected, and we haven’t had a break yet.  Eleven little Border Leicesters now grace our barn.  We have had three sets of twins and two sets of triplets.  Sadly, one triplet wasn’t born alive.  This happens sometimes, despite our best efforts.

Enjoy some photos of our bouncing babies!

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