Raising sheep is always hard work, but lambing season is the toughest. There’s a lot at stake. Preparation, vigilance, and a keen shepherd’s sense are the keys to success. The reward is sweet. When I look out on a pasture dotted with ewes and frolicking lambs, it’s easy to forget the long nights spent out in the barn.
Sheep have twins most of the time. In a highly managed flock, lambing rates (average number of lambs born per ewe) can reach 1.8 or greater. A more important statistic is the number of lambs making it through to weaning and beyond. The industry average is probably 1.5 weaned lambs per ewe, for an implied mortality rate of around 15%. Hobby sheep farmers tend to have more volatile performance from year to year with their smaller sampling. There were several seasons when I got all twins and never lost a lamb. Other years, some of the ewes had singles, or a couple lambs died. That can be significant for a small operation like mine.
One non-statistical phenomena is what I call the Murphy’s Law of lambing season. Things tend to happen at the worst possible times, often with the least likely outcome. For instance, last year my best prized ewe had triplets, and then proceeded to get a terrible case of mastitis. She recovered, but half her udder was scarred for life. I bred her again this year, hoping maybe she’d just have single. Wham, triplets again! Twice in a row. That’s rare. With three lambs on just one half an udder, they need bottle supplement.
Another example. Just before this year’s lambing season began, I was elected to the school board. I had to attend a mandatory orientation meeting with superintendent. Just as I was getting in the car, I decided to do a quick check of the barn. It had to be. There was a ewe outside in labor, water bag hanging out, the first of the season. I’d be gone only two hours. It was getting dark though. Should I just leave? What to do?
Every sheep and lamb count on a small farm, so I telephoned the school board chair, and told her I’d be late. “As soon as I see the lamb presenting correctly, I’ll be right in”, I said. I figured an experienced Mamma like this one would be fine for couple hours so long as the delivery looked normal, which is the case some 80% of the time. So, I changed clothes, gently guided the ewe into a lambing jug, and waited. Normally with a veteran ewe, the feet and nose of the lamb appear within 15 minutes of the water bag. Not this time. Murphy’s Law of lambing strikes again!
Almost an hour went by, cause for some concern. The ewe wasn’t tired though, she just wasn’t really pushing. I decided to wait a bit more, knowing the chances of making my meeting had all but slipped away. After another 15 minutes, I was about to put on the gloves for an examination, when all of a sudden Mom got down to business. Right away, two little hoofs appeared, followed by a nose. A perfectly normal presentation. In a jiffy, the lamb was born, problem-free, and her twin sister shortly after that. Once again, Murphy’s Law of lambing got the best of me. In a hurry? That’s exactly when to expect a delay.