Learning Lessons from Lambing Season

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Photo by iStock/PPAMPicture
Hank Will shares his experiences and lessons learned from lambing season.

Lambs have been dropping at my place for going on a month now, and with around half the ewes finished, we’ve got only one bottle baby (a triplet runt) and only one new mom that lost her little one to a crushing injury. The bottle baby is doing great and loves his hay, his bottle, and us. The new mom mourned her baby’s loss for a short while, until she reluctantly agreed to allow other triplet lambs to poach her good supply of milk. There’s a lot to learn from the social dynamic of a sheep flock when it comes to protecting their young from predators and sharing some of the feeding duties.

In years past, we’ve had bottle lambs, orphans, and hungry triplets to contend with. More often than not, they just needed us to give them a hand at first — eventually, they learned to scrap for a living, growing vigorously into productive members of the collective. Every time I think they just won’t make it on their own, they discover a new way to poach milk from an unsuspecting ewe. Usually, they choose a posterior attack when the ewe is distracted with grazing or with her own lambs. The lambs ultimately wear the ewe’s scent because their heads and necks are in the path of the ewe’s waste stream. It’s remarkable, really.

While our average lambing rate is well above two, our weaning rate is slightly below two. Most losses are due to predation by coyotes, and while I believe that coyote babies need to eat too, I don’t believe that our sheep need to feed them all. We do love having the coyotes around, however, and listening to them each night is a big part of why we live where we do. What to do? We’ve had decent luck reducing coyote losses over the years with the help of donkeys. This year, we added a Great Pyrenees pup named Rupert to the mix. He’s about 7 months old and tips the scales at more than 100 pounds — his voice is deep and comforting to hear coming from the lambing pasture at night.

Our goal this year is to lose fewer lambs to coyotes with the help of the donkeys, Rupert, and some new cross-fencing yet to be installed. The fencing will reduce the paddock sizes, which will be better for the pastures and healthier for the sheep. The fencing will also give the guardian animals a much smaller area to patrol at any given time. I’m sure we’ll wind up sacrificing something to the coyotes, but I am fundamentally OK with that.

If you’ve got lambs, kids, colts, or calves hitting the ground this season, I’d love to hear about your experiences and how you interact with the predators in your area. Not into livestock? Then let me know how you keep your greens from getting grazed and the squash bugs from decimating your winter squash patch. If you’re comfortable sharing, please send me an email at HWill@MotherEarthNews.com — send photos too, if you can — and we might be able to get some of your experiences and ideas into a future issue.

See you in June,