Survivor. The Amazing Race. A Spartan Run.
These are TV shows and athletic events that help summarize what “lambing” is for our family.
If you have known me for very long, you know that for a few weeks in the spring my life is consumed with this activity. Many of you may not have any idea what that entails. You know that I am frazzled and exhausted and may be late or miss appointments. My kids may come to school without necessary materials, or attend their sporting event without the proper jersey.
“Lambing” is the term used when momma sheep, called ewes, give birth to their lambs. It’s called calving for cows, kidding for goats (no joke!), etc.
Survivor: We operate in survival mode. Period. We ourselves are trying to survive, while we work hard to keep all living things alive. From sick ewes to starving babies there is always something struggling to survive. Dishes need to wait, laundry will pile while we diligently work to keep our livestock alive. Kids help when they are home, and often have to fend for themselves.
Amazing Race: We go from Point A to Point B in a strategic, yet frantic state. Point A: 250 pregnant mommas. Point B: Each ewe giving birth to 1-4 lambs. Time? About a month. Reward? Seeing those mommas and babies happily roaming the green pastures. Then after months of feeding and caring for these babies, they will be ready to sell, providing part of our income.
Spartan Race: A Spartan race is not just a run like a 5K or a marathon. But in addition to the race of varying lengths, difficult obstacles are added for all the more fun! From filling and carrying buckes of corn and water; chasing and catching lambs to haul in a trailer to pasture; climbing over gates and pens; wrestling a ewe to get the essential colostrum milked from her to give a starving cold baby; lifting and feeding hay; holding and feeding many, many bottle lambs are just a few of the obstacles we encounter in this great race.
Why Do We Do What We Do?
Why do we do this, you might be asking. Trust me, I ask myself that a lot! I am reminded though, it is because this is what God has called us to. It was no coincidence or accident that the Lord guided us to generous, committed Christians who owned this sheep farm. Brad went to them with questions with our little herd. One thing led to another and it was clear to both them and to us that this sheep farm would become ours. We would become the ones to provide this source of meat to those that desire it.
What do we do?
Curious to know more about the process of lambing, or how it looks on our farm anyway?
Shortly before lambing is scheduled to begin, the sheep are sheared. Without their wooly blankets, they are sensitive to the cold, so they are hauled to our 2 hoop barns. This is where they will have their lambs.
The barns are partitioned off with about 20 ewes in a pen. They are able to go inside and outside, but at night we close the doors so they remain inside in case any of them have lambs during the night. The nights are pretty cold, so we want them inside during the night.
A Day in the Life…
At daybreak, around 6 or 6:30am depending on when it starts getting light, we check each barn for new lambs. Sometimes there are multiple lambs in a pen and we need to determine who they belong to. If a ewe is close to having lambs, but has not given birth to her own, she will sometimes out of instinct start licking a new lamb and “claim” it as hers. We need to determine which ewes actually lambed and make sure we put the right lambs with her. She will butt away any that she doesn’t want. Sometimes it could be hers, but if another ewe claims it, she might not want it back. It will become a bottle lamb. More on bottle lambs later!
We pick up the new lamb and put it in a small 4’ x 4’ wooden pen called a “jug”. We put the lamb/lambs in there with the mom. They will stay here for 1-3 days to bond and to make sure the lamb and mother are both doing well.
Some mornings there might just be 2-4 lambs, some mornings there might be 12-15. Some lambs might not get taken care of by their moms and they are cold and in need of help. It is essential that a lamb gets colostrum within a couple hours of being born. That is the first thing we do if a lamb has not gotten up yet. We can either milk another ewe that has just had a lamb, or mix up powdered colostrum. We give them 2 oz. by using a tube that is inserted down their throat and we pour the colostrum right into their stomachs. They are often too weak to suck from a bottle. This will usually be what is needed to give them the energy to get up and nurse from their mom. If they are extra cold and weak we put them in a box in my kitchen wrapped with a towel with hot water bottles or in a large plastic box with a heat lamp in our garage.
After the lambs are all taken care of we can then begin the feeding of the ewes. They first get corn, then alfalfa hay. Each day 10 buckets of corn are filled and fed by hand, poured along the feed bunk. Usually one of the kids fills the buckets the night before, and are loaded onto our little farm pickup so they are ready to go in the morning.
After we give the corn to the ewes outside, we go down the alley in the barns to feed the ewes who have lambs. They each get one slab of alfalfa hay. We pick up stacks of hay and carry it down the alley to each ewe. This needs to be done quickly, as sheep are like toddlers, impatient and greedy! They beg and beller and sometimes the agile ones will jump out of their jugs if they are not fed quick enough.
Once the ewes with lambs are fed hay, we put hay out for the outside ewes without lambs. Each group of 20 ewes gets one square bale, spread out across the feed bunk. There are stacks of hay by each pen. The older boys have now taken on that responsibility to stack the hay there so it’s ready to feed for several days. Each bale weighs about a 75-100 pounds, so I am thankful they are able to help with that!
When the hay is all fed, the ewes in jugs need a pail of water filled. The other ewes drink from an automatic waterer. The number of ewes with lambs varies on the day, but if the jugs are full – that is 64 ewes that need to be brought hay and water.
After everything is fed and watered, lambs are looked at to see if there are any that look sick or hungry. If a ewe has triplets or not enough milk to support her lambs we will take them and put them in the bottle lamb pen. They will get milk replacer fed to them by a machine! Which is great, but it takes lambs some time to learn how to drink from the machine. Until they learn, I will go in with a bottle and feed the hungry ones 3 times a day. There are usually about 10 that have not figured out the machine.
When all that is taken care of, about 9 or 9:30, we eat breakfast and take a bit of a break! Often not long, as many ewes will begin to lamb shortly after we feed them. We will take turns checking on the sheep throughout the day and taking care of the necessary items.
The afternoons are usually spent processing the lambs. Each lamb and ewe is recorded by tag number. The lamb has a rubberband put on it’s tail, and males are castrated in the same way. A number is painted on the lamb that matches its mom’s number, so if there is a problem with a lamb, we can also check the mom to make sure she is ok. Just like humans, sheep can get mastitis or an asortment of other sicknesses that will decrease their milk supply and we often notice that by a skinny lamb.
Once lambs are processed they are moved out of their little jugs and put into a larger pen. This will allow the mom and lambs to practice finding each other in a crowd. This is a loud process, but you will see that each lamb has a distinct cry and smell, only recognizable by it’s mother. If a lamb that is not hers tries to get close, the ewe will butt it away.
After they have gotten used to this, we will haul them out to pasture. This is the greatest thing! It’s so fun to see the lambs so happy running around in the grass, and it also means we are done feeding them!
Of course this all happens in April and May when SOOO many other things are also happening! Track meets, concerts, award nights, soccer and baseball. This was the one great thing about COVID – everyone was home and there were no scheduled events. Everyone could help! But, I’m thankful for the events! It gives us a break, we often take turns going to the events, and if they sheep are behaving we might both be able to attend. I love watching my kids do what they love.
One of our greatest assests is our daughter who is a lambing expert. Many of the sheep are hers and the income is helping fund her college education. We greatly miss her during the week while she is at college She would often take a week or two off from school to help us. However, she has been home on the weekends, giving us a bit of a reprieve.
Most sheep have their lambs without assistance, but there are also quite a few that need help. We monitor closely and will pull a lamb if labor is prolonged or if the ewe is struggling.
So that is more than you ever wanted to know about the topic of lambing! I grew up in the city, so I feel like it’s important for those that are not involved with agriculture to be more educated than I was!
I start with an adrenline rush. Helping bring life into the world is exhilarating! There are also discouraging, heartbreaking moments. The worst one this year was a ewe that had to be put down when her uterus ruptured. She was full of lambs. It was hard. I cried. I will hit a point of exhaustion and crabbiness midway through and wonder if it will ever end. But then just when I think I can not go on, we get near the end. The thrill returns and I feel I could accomplish just about anything.
I may even sign up for a Spartan Race!