by All Together Farm
"It is the season of motherhood again, and we are preoccupied with the pregnant and the unborn. When birth is imminent, especially with a ewe or a mare, we are at the barn the last thing before we go to bed, at least once in the middle of the night, and well before daylight in the morning. It is a sort of joke around here that we have almost never had anything born in the middle of the night. And yet somebody must get up and go out anyway. With motherhood, you don’t argue the possibilities."
“I set the alarm but always wake up before it goes off. Some part of the mind is given to the barn, these times, and you can’t put it to sleep. For a few minutes after I wake up, I lie there wondering where I will get the will and the energy to drag myself out of bed again…If I open the barn door and hear a little bleat coming out of the darkness, I will be glad to be awake. My liking for that always returns with a force that surprises me.”
-Wendell Berry, from his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood” (1980)
We do call it spring here in central Vermont, but it is hardly the season one would envision when described by the word “spring.” Often cold, raw, snowy, and muddy, March and April really are more winter than spring, but nonetheless it is during these months that our ewes play their part in the annual process of lambing. As I visit the barn to check on the expecting ewes, I have to remind myself that this miraculous process actually began the summer before.
Early summer is indeed the best time to be a sheep, as the pasture is thick and lush and at the peak of taste and nutrition. The sheep stuff themselves full, having spent the last 200 days or so eating hay, which is just not the same as fresh, green grass. It is during these weeks, mid May to mid June, that the shepard’s job of ensuring successful lambing begins. As the ewes head out on pasture, I try to condition score each of them. The process is essentially a method for determining how much fat they are carrying – think of it as a body mass index for a sheep.
Each ewe will get a score of one to five, with a score of one being a ewe who is much too thin and a score of five being a ewe who is much too heavy. I like to have my ewes, which are still nursing lambs at this point, to score between two and three. They will be going into the season during which the most nutritious feed is readily available, and a ewe that is a bit thin at this stage usually plumps up as she eats the grass during the summer. The lambs will be weaned by their mothers and the ewes will enjoy the daily rotational grazing cycle, along with the growing lambs. Come late fall, the lambs will be sent to slaughter and the ewes will be bred to continue the cycle. A ewe that is too thin or two fat can cause problems during breeding as well as lambing.
Sheep have seasonal estrous, meaning that they will only cycle and be receptive to breeding by the ram from early summer through the late fall. On our farm, the breeding season is in November. Ewes cycle about every sixteen days, and a full month with the ram normally ensures that each ewe comes into heat twice during the month and is bred by the ram. As the summer passes by and fall comes, I once again need to be watchful about the ewes’ condition, because a ewe in good flesh is more likely to shed multiple eggs during her cycle and therefore more likely to have twins during the lambing season. Likewise, I need to make sure that the ram is in good health so that he can play his part successfully. Assuming that all goes well, the month of November produces ewes that are settled, or pregnant, with singles or twins.
The fall comes and goes, pasture season ends, and the sheep are back on hay once again. Winter bears down, but eventually March rolls around and like Mr. Berry my mind turns to the unborn. I really enjoy this part of the process, as the proof of hard work and good decisions come to bear and the lambs begin to arrive. Hardy and quite self-sufficient mothers, our North Country Cheviot ewes seem not to mind the often-challenging conditions of this time of year; most choose to drop their new lambs outside in the winter paddock. It is magical, those small bleats in the still of the night, and I never tire of the intense feelings this experience conjures up inside me. I think of all the small steps that need to take place, all the little measures along the way, that ensure a good crop of healthy lambs. Spring finally arrives, and the cycle begins again…