On Bred Ewes

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If I’m not mistaken Louisa is due with (round about) tax day lambs. She and Ferdinand wasted absolutely no time when we introduced them back in November. Which wasn’t intended but was a nice bonus since we were running about a week later than I had hoped getting them all into the winter sacrifice pen together. And since there are only three ewes for him to service, including Louisa, I’m assuming there’s a decent chance all three of them will be having lambs within the last two weeks of April and at the very worst no later than the first two of May.

Getting into sheep after many years raising hogs has been an interesting endeavor. My temperament is definitely different now than it was when we were starting out. Maybe it would have been different regardless–actually I’m sure it would, I’m in an entirely different decade now–but I’m not sure it would have been different in exactly the ways it is. There’s what age does to a temperament and then there’s what experience does. This, I think, is a bit of both. Experience — the good, the bad and the ugly; maybe even especially the ugly — relaxes you in a way age alone can’t. And when you’re farming, especially on a small scale, that’s a good thing. You have to be able to let go; it’ll kill you if you can’t.

One of the side effects of this temperament change is a more laid back approach to learning the ropes. I’ve learned more as I’ve gone along and those lessons along the way have been taken more in stride. I don’t remember the last time I had a farming-related epiphany. These days it’s always more subdued; tiny truths I already knew on some level just making their way to the surface, summed up in concise and (sometimes) catchy platitudes. I’m not encouraging a laissez faire approach to livestock farming if you’re new to it. Not knowing how to handle a situation until you’re in it is often the downfall of many small and beginning farmers and it can be life or death for the animals. It should always be a goal to be prepared with knowledge and skills to the best of your ability. What I’m saying is simply that one of the unexpected benefits of having been at this for a while is a certain calmness in the approach; even to proactive self-education.

I have on my winter to-do list, “sheep research,” and under that a list of individual topics I want to understand, exhaustively, before spring — vaccine protocols and availability, wool grading and use scales, carcass benchmarks, how to optimize feed conversion, the newest developments in hardwood pasture management… well, you get the picture. But then there are also the things that just transfer easily from species to species, day to day, task to task even despite differences in the details.

A ewe’s estrus cycle is shorter, at 17 days, than a sow’s which runs more like 21. Sows go into and out of estrus continually, all year round, if they’re not bred while most ewes experience periods of seasonal anestrus, where, due to the amount of sunlight they don’t go into “heat” at all. Most naturally breed in the fall for spring lambs and then not again until the following fall.* And even if they were going into estrus, unlike with a sow whom I can usually tell if she is in heat or not, ewes aren’t as forthcoming about their cycle unless there’s a ram about. Which is why it was a pleasant surprise when we ran Louisa into the winter pen and she immediately trotted over to Ferdinand and spun around. But I guess on that count we have another similarity; neither ewes nor sows are shy about their reproductive needs. A few days later we noticed Penelope, Louisa’s ewe lamb from last year, being just as assertive as her dam, nudging Ferdinand in the side and then turning and shaking her tail at him.

In gestation there are technical differences, too. A sow’s gestation cycle is just 114 days, give or take a few. Whereas the length of a ewe’s gestation can go on for over 150 days. Sows farrow litters numbering into double digits; putting ten or twelve or even fourteen babies on the ground in one marathon session. Ewes have just one or two, sometimes three and every so often four, but rarely more. Last year Louisa had just Penelope, the black-faced lamb up there on the left. I’m not sure what to expect from her this year, but her rapidly growing belly has me hopeful for twins.

And yet, despite all the differences much of the process is the same — the natural rhythm of the cycles, the gentle progression of a pregnancy, the days that seem to drag for both the farmer and the mother-to-be at the end, the indescribability of the process of birth, the wonder of new life when it’s done and then the start of the circle of life all over again. There is a groundedness that comes with time and a connection to the ebb and flow of these seasons, both literal and figurative, and it is perhaps the greatest gift a farmer can ever receive; the universe’s atonement for everything else this life demands.

*There are exceptions to the seasonal breeding rules in sheep. Some breeds are more likely to breed out of season — say in the spring or summer. Dorset, Merino, Finnsheep, Barbados Blackbelly, Polypay, Katahdin, St. Croix, and Rambouillet breeds are all known for their ability to breed out of season and are used by some farms to produce more than one crop of lambs per year. Our ram, Ferdinand is a Dorset, and we’re looking forward to trying some “accelerated” lambing with his offspring in the future.

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