Ready, Set.....Baaaaaa!

Written on 02/27/2021

With lambing season right around the corner – six weeks off to be exact – I am in high gear trying to get everything sorted for the "season".  After a full review of my notes from last year, I will do my best to make improvements to the process. Big ones. Little ones. Anything, really, that will help me walk through lambing with as little side stepping as possible. 

I had not expected COVID-19 would still be an issue this year, so I put out more ewes than normal to the ram last November.  I was planning on the assistance of a visiting "farm hand" (a college roommate’s daughter) to help me with chores and lamb care, so I went full on with 35 ewes (normally I only lamb 20-22 ewes).

So, like it or not, I am committed to 35 mums and hopefully they are set for twins and a few singles. We will know this coming week, after the ultrasound man comes to scan the ewes and mark them with what they are carrying. Fingers crossed our ram wasn't a big triplet producer! 

Okay. Back to the list.

I lambed mostly without a help last year – also due to Covid-19 and lockdowns (Harry and a visiting friend brilliantly assisted with as much as possible) – but a few things did create a bit of an issue. Here's the list and how, this year, I hope to sort them all out.

1. Moving the lambs with mum. 

After a ewe has her lambs, I move them into a "mothering" pen. The area is about 3 x 4 feet in size, has a self-filling drinker for fresh water and a wire, over-the-door basket for hay to feed the mother. The idea is that a few days in close quarters allows for mum and lambs to fully bond before putting them to grass in the pasture. I usually keep them in the pen for 1-2 days – depending on the birth difficulty, the size of the lambs, whether or not mum has milk as well as what the level of the ewe's mothering ability is. 

Last season, especially if I was by myself, I found it very challenging to get the lambs and their mum across the yard between the main barn and the lamb shed where the mothering pens are located. Carrying two lambs that distance was difficult (they get heavy fast), and it was equally difficult to keep the ewe's eye on the ball and get her to follow along with us. If her view of the lambs became obstructed in any way, she would panic and return to the pen where she had given birth, looking for them. I would then have to run back with the lambs in tow, show them to her and start the journey all over again. All the while the lambs are becoming increasingly heavier and heavier! Toting triplets was basically impossible.

So, this year, after snooping around online, I discovered a GREAT solution. The LAMB PRAM. Essentially a 4-wheel gardening "wagon" that I can put the lambs into and easily pull them over to the lambing shed. The sides of the wagon are metal mesh – so the mother can see her lambs in the wagon and eagerly follow along with them to their new, 2-day home. And, because I pull the wagon from the front, I am no longer in danger of obstructing her view of the lambs – she should seemingly follow us with no issues – and my arms will be saved! Bring on the triplets! Ha.


2. What's Going On?

Last year, we used our mini security cameras to monitor the pens through the night. It is a very handy way to keep an eye on the ewes without disrupting life in the barn. It allows me to check in on everybody, quickly from my bedside, rather than wondering if someone is lambing or worse, in trouble. A quick peek on the phone app for the camera and, if all is quiet, I can simply roll over worry free. Easy peasy. 

Prior to cameras, my husband and I would literally take turns throughout the night checking on the sheep in person –  which not only woke the whole barn up, it also disturbed the sleep patterns of the sheep which in turn changed up the time of day lambing took place. Truth be told, it was also a bit of a bother to have to dress through the night and go down and outside to the barn. As you can imagine, our sleep debts accumulated as the season progressed. Did I mention I get cranky when I'm tired? LOL.

Sadly, since last year, the cameras I use have been discontinued and are no longer supported by the manufacturer. Meaning they no longer provide the handy phone app and the updates they require to keep working effectively. Over the year, I noticed that they now only work during daylight – the infrared night vision is all but gone. So, basically, they have become useless for my purposes. 

Bummed, I searched around and looked into my options. I got lucky. I ran across a VERY affordable camera system that is designed for livestock – specifically sheep – monitoring in the barn. As such, they have excellent night vision up to 90', rotate to pre-established pen positions, and zoom in and out (and focus) on demand. The camera itself is wireless, so the only cables required are AC power. Conveniently, I was able to re-use the power cables I already had wired up in the barn from my old set-up. I ordered one camera immediately and have installed it at the end of my barn. I pre-set the pen views and all but two are fully accessible (a concrete wall is in the way for two at the other end). Eager to test the night vision, I didn't actually mount the camera – just temporarily propped it up to test out the views before doing a more permanent installation.

The first night, I tuned in, and I have to say, I was amazed at the capability of this thing. I can now see not just that a ewe might be in labor – but I can easily distinguish between sheep turds, other "dark" spots in the straw bedding and what might be a new lamb. (Ran to the barn a few times in the night last year only to find out that what we thought was a lamb was just a big cluster of sheep poop!) The zoom feature is as advertised and very impressive. Recording video and sound is also available along with a two-way microphone for communicating to the house if things get tricky and I need help.

So that's our monitoring set-up upgrade done and dusted. Bring on the late-night home video! For those looking for the ideal set-up, the camera is made by Livestock Eye in the UK and is offered for both barn and/or pasture set-up (pasture battery cable hookup available) via wireless or 4G signal. Just outstanding.

3. Feed Waste

With 20 ewes, feeding in the barn isn't too bad. However, hay waste with the current barn set up can't be helped. Fodder (hay & straw) in the last couple of years has bumped up in price, so waste freaks me out. A sheep farmer makes very little as it is in Ireland (surprising, I know!) – so the cost of wasting perfectly good hay is not helpful. The donkeys are happy enough to take the seconds  from the barn corridor, but the hay inside the pens sadly gets soiled and unusable as a donkey treat. This season, with 35 ewes, I am anticipating even more waste, and after doing the math, I decided there has to be a better feeding set-up to reduce it.

The barn we inherited with the farm is magnificent. It was very well thought out, positioned perfectly to maximize fresh air ventilation, and organized to house about 36 ewes comfortably during lambing. I am not one to pack them in, so any more than that would be pushing it. Separating each 12 x 10 pen is a walk-through wooden trough. The sheep can access feed from both sides and, in the past, I have used it for both grain and hay delivery to the ewes. But, as they eat, the hay is pulled into the pen by the sheep and essentially half of what I put out just becomes "bedding".

Not great, for a lot of reasons.

This year, however, I invested in over-the-gate wire hay racks. I asked a friend to install a couple hangers for the same racks along the concrete wall at the back of each pen as well. The mesh on the feeder is 3x3", so hay is easily grabbed by the ewes – even those missing a few teeth! And, although the sheep were quite put out initially (they preferred to be able to gobble mouthfuls at a time), it has essentially eliminated the waste strewn about in the pens. Check.

4. Who's Your Mama?

One other discovery I've made over the last couple of years is that keeping track of a lamb's health and breeding records gets very difficult as lamb care lingers on into the summer and fall. Ideally, knowing the health history of a lamb's mother is critical when evaluating which ewe lambs to retain as replacements. I have not typically tagged my lambs until in the later fall when fly strike is less likely should there be any scabbing or bleeding with their ears. But without tags, I find that I have a hard time tracking which lambs should be culled and which should be kept. 

This year, I am taking a medium step. Instead of ear tagging as young lambs, I have a set of paint number brands and a can of very bright, fade resistant fleece paint. I can now "brand" the number of the mother on the lamb's side as well as on the mother so I can quickly identify who's who from a distance. Because this year I will be lambing in mid- to late April into late May, I didn't want to go full on and ear tag. These potentially warm months can bring flies, so paint it is. Definitely worth a try.

That's it! 

Not too bad a list. Hopefully the improvements will minimize the work and maximize the enjoyment of lambing season. I just love shepherding the mamas through this time of year. It is such an amazing experience. Ten years ago, did I think I would be doing this? Ha, nope. But, I guess the road of life just offers up funny, unexpected detours – take them, if you get the chance, it's worth it.