Flock Management

Lambs are a’comin’!

We’re coming up on the start of lambing this week!

It’s a very exciting time, with scrambling to make sure my lambing kit is fully stocked as well keeping an exceptionally close eye on the soon-to-be mothers. Making sure they have constant access to minerals that have iodine and vitamin E and selenium are very important to prevent certain conditions, such as white muscle disease (caused by low selenium), which is essentially similar to muscular dystrophy in its effects on lambs.

The ewes have been getting ¼ lb of corn for the last 5 weeks now.  We will continue that until they lamb, at which time we will increase that from anywhere to ½ lb to 1 lb a day. This is done while they are lactating to increase milk production and vitality of the lamb. It also helps to keep the ewe from losing too much weight while she’s feeding lambs. The more lambs she has, the more corn she gets as well.

Roughly 70% of lamb growth in the womb occurs during the last 4-6 weeks a ewe is pregnant. That takes a lot of energy from the ewe to make happen! Feeding high-energy corn (which has good protein and energy easily used by the ewe) prevents or helps prevent what’s called Pregnancy Toxemia, or ketosis. This is when the ewe starts burning muscle instead of fat to grow her babies; this is obviously very bad. A ewe with ketosis can die within a couple hours of symptoms becoming visible. I prefer proactive rather than reactive methods of treating, particularly when you can prevent the condition largely through a well planned diet.

Two weeks ago, the ewes and rams got their annual booster shots of CDT vaccine. By giving their booster at this stage of pregnancy, we hope some protection passes to the lambs through colostrum.

Quick definition of Colostrum: All mammals that bare live young produce colostrum. It is thick, yellowish “first milk” that is produced by the ewe after she gives birth. Colostrum is rich in energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. More importantly, it contains maternal antibodies that help protect the newborn from disease pathogens during the early part of its life. Ewes only produce colostrum for about 24 hours after delivering their lambs.

The types of antibodies the colostrum contains depend upon the antigens to which the ewe was exposed to (by disease exposure or vaccination). Ewes should be vaccinated in late pregnancy for overeating disease (clostridium perfringins type C & D) and tetanus (clostridium tetani) so that they will pass antibodies for these diseases to their offspring via the colostrum.

Because I run a mixed hair and wool flock, I also need to strategically shear my wool ewes’ backsides, also known as crutching the ewe. This is the process of shearing the wool along the legs and backsides (vulva and rectum area) as well as cleaning the udder area free of wool. Crutching makes it easier and more sanitary for the lamb to be born while preserving the rest of the fleece for shearing time later in the spring, once the risk of freezing temps have past, and makes it easier for the lamb to find the teats quickly for a robust first drink.



Scottie/Suffolk cross
Some ewes were more cooperative than others..


Let’s take a look inside my lambing kit:

  • Rubber gloves, short ones and OB length
  • Disinfectant for your hands
  • Iodine/Betadine
  • Thermometer
  • Needles and syringes
  • Heat lamp just in case
  • Milk replacer
  • Propylene glycol
  • Suturing needles (you never know when you’ll need to stitch something)
  • Hemostats (I like the curved ones best)
  • Scale and weight sling. Taking first weights is very important for records
  • Ear tags and applicator
  • Docking and castrating bands and applicator
The nice thing about this container is that it fits over 5/4″ decking turned on edge, which we use in many of our handling areas. No need to worry about it getting muck in it from sheep.


Lambing jugs are also being readied. They are 4×4 or 5×5 pens that allow the ewe and lambs to get to know each other better. Creating a solid bond between ewe and lambs is vital for their survival. You don’t want an iffy mother to suddenly reject a day old lamb.  Bottle-feeding lambs is hard work for the shepherd while lambing is going on, and they don’t thrive as well on formula as good, wholesome sheep’s milk.

Each ewe with her lamb or lambs will stay in the lambing jugs for 24-72 hours. The more lambs she has, the longer she stays in to get that bond. This allows the shepherd to keep good tabs on the ewes and lambs to see them drinking and peeing.

(Worrying about the consistency of poop in all forms is something I never knew I’d need to know! File that under the, well now I do and can talk extensively to others about! Lucky you!)

Once the ewes come out of the lambing jugs, they go into a bigger holding area to mingle with their fellow sheep. The lambs learn which of the mamas is theirs, and not to try and steal milk! That’ll be a swift light head butt to the side if they do that!

Eventually the ewes and lambs are all together back in their full sized flock, with many additions! They all then move to a fully rested (2-4 month long) paddock to play and grow, and be adorable bouncy baby sheep.

At 2-4 weeks old the lambs then get their first CDT shots, then again in two weeks. They’ve already had their tails docked, rams have been banded, and ear tags placed in for identification purposes. Also allows us easy to figure out which lambs belong to which ewes.

Throughout this process the lambs will have 24/7 access to a creep feeder. There they get their own supply of minerals and a high protein grower feed.

At 8 weeks old the lambs are weaned from their loving mothers, and they’ll go into a pen all to themselves, out of sight of the ewes. Lot’s and lot’s of yelling commences, day in and out for a couple days.  Here they will continue to get creep feed and their own hay. We will weigh them at certain time intervals to see which ones are growing well, make notations about them and their mothers for future breeding decisions.

Ewe lambs will be marketed as either replacement stock for purebred flocks, kept to better my own flock, or culled with the wether lambs if they don’t fare well enough to belong in a breeding flock. Wether lambs (castrated ram lambs) will be marketed as meat lambs (I know I know, how can I eat my own sheep? As I joke, one bite at a time!), I will keep a few for direct package sales off the farm, as well as a few people I have that want to purchase live on the hoof and take the animal themselves to the processor to get just what they want cut wise. Then I’ll send the rest to auction.

While all this is going on with the lambs, the ewes are also still getting special attention.The first 24-48 hours after I wean the lambs from them, they go into a pen with low quality hay to try and dry up the ewes as quickly as possible. We don’t want them to ever get mastitis in their udders, so this is a process we monitor very closely. After about a week, if they’re drying up well, they get to be back in their nice comfy pasture, still with the lower quality hay until they’ve completely dried up and the udder has shrunk considerably.  They get to enjoy the summer out, or in the case of the hair sheep, some of the exceptional producers will be rebred for fall/winter lambing. Wool sheep are hard to get to rebreed out of season so we let them have their natural cycle.


All in all I think I’ve got a decent hold on lambing time. When the month is done and you can stand in your pasture and actually see what you’ve helped bring into the world, it’s a great day. The hours of missed sleep from every two hour checks in the middle of the night, the constant attention given to new born lambs to make sure they’ve latched onto the teat well, it’s all worth it. Every exhausted, painstakingly patient, backbreaking moment.


Flock Management

Concerning Rams

How Ram Selection Affects Your Flock

Ted at the start of the breeding season for the 2017 lamb crop with one of our 2014 ewes.

Rams have such an important job in a long term breeding program; they represent 50% of your future flock genetics. That 50% really matters in the long run. If you allow any flaw you can’t truly live with, it will show up tenfold from our experience. We’ve sold or culled a good many rams because they just had something we didn’t like or didn’t mix well with our particular farm.

A ram that does great at one farm won’t always perform as well at another; we work to find rams that are a good fit for our local conditions, build, breeding system, and other factors.  We sell if we think he’ll do well in a different environment, or choose to cull if we discover a problem that we wouldn’t want to see passed on in someone else’s flock.  Some of the reasons we’ve parted with rams include producing lambs with too much bone, too much height, not enough thrift, badly formed feet, hooves that don’t stay nice, or poor parasite resistance. Rams that no matter what we did weren’t amenable to being worked by dogs or that did not like they way we humans worked them also found new homes with people who work differently.

It’s vitally important you really search for a ram that fits your needs, and that he comes from a farm that also has similar goals as yours, meets your needs for breeding, and will take the strain of whatever environment he will live in.

Freebie, our Kat/Dorper cross, showing good muscling, a stocky build, and good, compact feet that we’ve never had to tend beyond regular checks.

For example, parasite loads are different on every farm, and each parasite’s drug resistance also varies by location. A particular ram might do well one place but very poorly at another based solely on different worm load, treatment resistances, and that ram’s individual resistance against individual worm species. If the ram is producing otherwise good stock but he or his lambs have a lot of parasite problems in your flock, you should sell him on; he might be a star performer at a farm with different worms.

Whether you breed a particular ram in the first place is solely up to you as the farmer, and what you hope to get. You may actually get decent lambs with stronger traits than the ram himself from his mixing with your ewes, or you might get ones that die quickly, or require such input from you that they aren’t financially feasible over the long run.  If a combination doesn’t work for you, it’s better to cull or sell any resulting lambs completely out of your flock quickly, rather than allowing genetics that don’t fit your farm to remain and mix with the rest of your lines over time.

What we look for in flock genetics

George, our yearling Scottish Blackface ram, on the way home in the trailer.

We live in an area where barber pole worms are the primary parasite, and barber pole resistances in our entire area of the East Coast to most wormers are high.  Hence, good resistance to barber pole worm is one of our absolute top priorities, and the rams and ewes that are in our long term flock almost never require treatment.  We have several sheep we’ve never had to worm, and a second group who have only ever required treatment a couple of times over the years we’ve had them, so they have become the core of our long term breeding flock.

Our flock also lives on soft, sandy, but fairly well drained soil, so we need hooves that stay neat without constant trimming.  Pastures don’t hold well as standing forage over the winter here, so the flock must do well on hay in the winter.

Our ewes need to regularly twin and breed out of season, as we rely on good lambing rates and the STAR system to keep our system economical for our area, and to fill a regional need for lamb in the off season.

Finally, because we raise our lambs for meat, we look for fast growth, good feed efficiency, good muscling, and a reasonable height (tall sheep are inefficient); these traits come after hardiness, since a lamb that is well muscled doesn’t do well if it has worm issues, bad feet or teeth, and is generally hard to keep alive.

Flock Management

Introducing unfamiliar rams

Christmas day, in this case, meant it was time to separate Ted from the ewes. Not much of a Christmas present for Ted, but he’s led a pretty sweet life around here since October, so I don’t think he really has much room to complain.

Sheep don’t do well by themselves.  Any group of sheep less than three isn’t really particularly happy, and a lone sheep is just a little bundle of panic and misery on hooves.  Lucky for Ted, he’s not our only ram, and he’ll have plenty of company.  On the other hand, he’s never been in with our other two rams, Bill and Freebie, visible in our first photo above.

Introducing unfamiliar rams requires a lot of care.  Rams and roosters have a lot more in common than most people realize.  Throwing two strange rams in a space with each other can easily end just like a cockfight, unless you’re very careful to make certain they can’t do each other too much real harm while they work out their new pecking order.  When you throw one strange ram in with a group who already have things worked out, you have to be doubly careful, since he’ll automatically be outnumbered.

The biggest key is limiting their space.  They are going to do their best to beat each other no matter what you do.  However, if you don’t give them enough room to back up and get a running start, you cut way down on the amount of damage they can do. Second, everyone has to be in excellent shape before you put them together.  Ted lightly sprained a hock Thanksgiving week, and we waited a solid three weeks after he stopped limping before rearranging things.

We’re in the middle of completely reworking our pens and paddocks this winter, so the corner above is one of the sturdiest we have right now.  However, at 8×16 that pen is far too large to be even remotely safe for them.  As soon as we got Ted separated from the ewes and into the pen with the boys, the first thing we did was push all three back into the back corner and rig the cattle panel “gate” to cut the pen in half.  At 8×8, it was still a little to big for our taste, but it was the best we could give them.  We checked all the corners, reinforced a couple, gave them a fresh square bale and fresh water, and got the heck out of the way.

Thankfully, it was enough.  Ted and Bill got one solid hit in before we got them all pushed back, and you could feel it through your feet on the ground.  In the 8×8 pen, they only had room enough for about two steps before they made contact; after a few frustrated minutes figuring that out, they shifted to standing next to each other and knocking each other sideways in the ribs, while Freebie stood in the other corner and got in cheap shots whenever he could manage.

Healthy rams are quite capable of doing that all day – and they will, guaranteed, until they sort out the new chain of command.  They kept a running low-key brawl going all Christmas day, with us popping out frequently to check on them.  In fact, they were going half the night after – our pens are set up about fifty feet outside the bedroom window where we can keep an ear on things in the winter.

By morning, they had it largely sorted out.  Bill had one knot on his head, Ted (somewhat to our surprise) was our very tired new lead ram, and Freebie appeared to have escaped the melee completely unscathed.  They spent the morning of the 26th standing in separate corners, watching each other mistrustfully.  By afternoon, hunger won out, and they were grudgingly sharing their fresh bale of hay.

Ram flock - 12/26/14
Freebie, Ted, and Bill, a day and a half after putting them together.

No broken bones, no one limping, and everyone healthy.  That’s a successful introduction with these guys.

Everyone stayed wary all weekend, but there wasn’t much in the way of further argument.  They were all too tired, which is a good thing.  A worn out ram really doesn’t start any more trouble.  By Sunday before sundown, they were all full of hay and napping, with Bill passed out on Freebie’s back.

The ram flock, four days after putting them together.
The ram flock, four days after putting them together.

By this morning, everyone had finally relaxed enough to give them their full 8×16 space back for now.  They thought about taking advantage of the room for about thirty seconds, decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and within five minutes they were all tucked into a big pile of fresh hay.

Good boys.

Flock Management

New arrivals settling in

As of Veterans Day, our new group of Katahdins are settling in quite well. They’ve learned their way around, and adapted to having a road nearby – the nearest road at their birth farm was at least 1/4 mile away from their pasture, and we don’t have them so far back, so traffic really took them a couple of days to get used to.  After three weeks, they are apparently completely unfazed now by the parade of combines, cotton trucks, and cars that call this road home.

As the photo shows, they are also starting to get used to having a new batch of humans around. Over the last couple of weeks, their flight zone has steadily dropped from nearly 100 feet to more like twenty – or less with an appropriate bribe of food. That’s good, since we’ll need to move them soon into smaller quarters for the winter.

Flock Management

2014 New Arrivals

We have new arrivals here at Pickwick Fields. These ewes are Katahdins with a bit of Texel genetics. What does that mean? In this case, they have been selectively bred to produce very good loin and chop cuts, which we get many requests for.

If they do as well as we hope, we may transition to them as our primary production group over the next couple of years.