On Informed Assumptions & High Hopes

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I wore a pair of size five normal, not-maternity jeans into the hospital to have my oldest daughter. I don’t think I could get a size five pair of jeans over my ankles now, but young muscles are an amazing thing. Penelope has young muscles, muscles that have never before been pushed and pulled and stretched by the miracle of life and they’ve kept me second-guessing as to whether or not she’ll give us a lamb or two this year. Looking at her here, I’d say yes, yes of course she is bred. But that’s only been my opinion about half the time. Including as recently as this morning. The other half I look at her and think there’s no way; she’s too straight bodied; too taut and cylindrical. While the older ewes are waddling around like hooved beach balls she’s still the ovine version of a runway model.

The earliest any of the ewes are due with lambs is Mid-April which means there’s plenty of time left for Penelope’s belly — and udder and vulva — to give us some indication whether or not she is with lamb. Either way, we’ll be happy with her. Technically, she didn’t need to be bred this year. She’ll only be one this spring and the decision to breed or not breed ewe lambs in their first year varies from shepherd to shepherd and ewe lamb to ewe lamb. In fact, the question of whether or not to breed Penelope (our only ewe lamb from last year) was probably the single most agonizing question of our first full year with sheep.

There are pros and cons to both breeding and not breeding ewe lambs their first fall. It has been well-documented that ewes who were bred their first year have better productivity over their lifetime. Since lambs are how ewes pay their way on our farm their lifetime reproductive productivity is important. I’ve been open with my philosophy on small farm finances for many years: it must pay its own way.

There’s also the issue of genetic improvement and replacement. If you’re breeding livestock you should be trying to improve your genetics. There is no time for contentedness in agriculture. You cannot rest on your laurels. There is always something. Keep back the best, breed them up to a better sire. Wash, rinse, repeat. Since it reduces the interval between one generation and the next by half, breeding ewe lambs their first fall is the quickest way to improve. For us, Penelope was our only ewe lamb from last year’s crop. Though she is a very nice ewe and probably would have made the cut either way, she’s technically the best only by default. So in this case reducing the interval is more about replacement than improvement. Our older ewes were culls from a neighbor’s bigger commercial flock. They were the old ewes he wasn’t confident would make it through the winter, who would have been pushed around by all the other sheep in his flock, who wouldn’t have been able to get enough to eat or a prime sleeping spot in a competitive environment. Since we were looking to get started in the sheep business as efficiently and affordably as possible he sorted off from his group of culls a few who he thought were most likely to do okay in our smaller setting, bred them for us, and we traded him a couple feeder pigs.

This means that with the exception of Penelope all of our ewes have many fewer days ahead than behind. Our tiny flock makes things easier for them. There’s no competition for food or the best shelter, but they’re still old and every life comes to an end. This year’s lambs could be their last so the more ewes we have producing lambs the better our chances of having ewe lambs to replace the older ladies should they not be able to produce a crop next year.

None of this comes without a trade off though. You cannot get higher productivity and quicker replacement and improvement without risk. There is no win-win in the real world, especially in the farm world. “You win some, you lose some,” has a nice ring to it, but on a farm it’s usually more like, “in order to win some, you have to lose some.” Out here, winning and losing go everywhere together. Breeding ewe lambs their first fall increases their risk of complications in lambing, at least for that first season. Young ewes also don’t tend to give as much milk as older ones, so even if they lamb successfully you could end up with a bottle lamb to contend with. Being pregnant means they may also divert calories away from their own growth in favor of the growth of their lambs, and could remain smaller until into their third year of life.

To reap the benefits of first-year breeding while mitigating the risks the experts say your ewe lambs should be at least two-thirds their full size at the beginning of the breeding season, you should breed them to a young ram and one from a breed that is either the same mature size or smaller than them. It should also be a ram who isn’t particularly heavy in his front end. Since that’s the part of the lamb that (ideally) comes through the birth canal first, you don’t want your lambs inheriting linebacker shoulders. Plus, in the heat of the moment your little ewe lamb has to hold up the weight of the ram who breeds her and you don’t want her to end up injured in the process. You want her big enough that pregnancy won’t set her back, and you want him to throw small, easy-to-birth lambs without throwing out her back while he does it.

Which brings me back around to Penelope. In some ways we were able to meet the ideal for early breeding with her, but in other ways we weren’t.

Without her full genetic history her ultimate mature size isn’t an exact science, but we can make some informed assumptions. Her mother is that “old snake” Louisa who has “a bit o’ Cheviot in ‘er,” but we’re not sure exactly what else. Her father, if her clean, black head is any indication, is (probably) Suffolk. North Country Cheviot Ewes normally weigh in around 175-200 pounds at maturity and Louisa is in that range. Suffolks are larger though, and ewes can weigh as much as 250 pounds. Assuming Penelope’s potential lies somewhere in the middle — and since she doesn’t have that standard Suffolk lengthiness, probably towards the bottom of the middle — she was right on target at 140 pounds at the beginning of the breeding season.

With her growth in check and unlimited choice in rams to whom to breed her this would have been an easy decision. Ideally, after all, we would be able to just breed her to a small, young ram and not have to worry about another thing. But being a small farm, we only had one ram to choose from and he’s neither small nor young. He was a three-year old Polled Dorset ram who had been around the block a time or two on Michigan State University’s sheep research farm before coming to us. When we loaded him up I remarked to the farm manager that I wasn’t sure I’d seen a sheep that large in person before. When I got home and unloaded him I realized it was a bit of an optical illusion with him being up in the trailer, enclosed in a small space and me outside standing on the ground, he looked larger than he really is, but he’s not a little guy either. They say Dorset rams can weigh as much as 275 pounds and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was close to it.

Still, at maturity Dorsets are smaller than Suffolks and smaller than my educated-guesstimate of Penelope’s ultimate potential. Polled Dorset ewes should top out somewhere between 150 and 200 pounds. And while our ram is not small he is also not particularly large or heavy through his front end. Plus, we had one other tool at our disposal. Having produced a couple crops of lambs for MSU, our ram had a documented reproductive history; he came with EBV’s — or “Expected Breeding Values.” Most EBV’s deal with post-birth statistics, growth rates and carcass traits. But one, the birthweight EBV (BWt), helps predict how big lambs will be when they’re born. A ram whose BWt is a positive number is likely to increase the size of lambs at birth. In other words, lambs sired by him are likely to be on the bigger side. Rams with a negative BWt number, on the other hand, are likely to sire smaller lambs.

Our ram has a positive BWt, but a relatively small positive — +0.26. That, combined with the estimated growth potential of the Dorset breed and Penelope herself, helped me feel more comfortable making the decision to breed her in her first year. Of course, we’re still in the theory at this point. I’m not even positive she took (ewe lambs are less likely to take their first fall so it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if she wasn’t bred at all.) Until she puts a lamb on the ground, raises it up to a proper weaning age and size without help, and continues to grow well herself we won’t be able to proclaim any of this a success. In the meantime, we hope the assumptions that brought us this far were informed enough and hope for the best. Stay tuned.

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