This blog was written by Abigial, one of our farm apprentices. This spring gave apprentices an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of lambing season hands-on. Abigial first became involved with Wolfe’s Neck Farm in 2013 as a volunteer with Freeport High School, and went on to join the Teen Ag Program that summer. After studying Sustainable Agriculture at Kennebec Community College, Abigial has returned to Wolfe’s Neck Farm to join our Organic Dairy Program.
By Abigial Smith
Lambing is one of my favorite times of the year. Who can deny the cuteness of an uncoordinated bouncing lamb? I don’t know who, but with our last lamb born just last week, it’s the perfect time to come to the farm and check out the action.
1. Where can I find the lambs when I’m at the farm?
The new lambs are located in small pens, called jugs, along the back wall of the barn. The lamb and ewe stay in here together for one to two days to help them bond. It’s also easier to make sure both the ewe and her lambs are healthy before letting them go into the larger group. While in the jug, lambs get a tag so we know who belongs to whom.
2. How many lambs are born during lambing season every year?
We were expecting around 36 lambs in total, meaning roughly a 130% lamb crop. This is a little lower than we would’ve liked, but is a result of last summer’s drought. With below average precipitation, pasture quality was low and the ewes were not in top conditioning during breeding. This year, we are striving to improve our lamb crop percentage to 150%.
3. What can you do for more lambs to be born next year?
A big factor in increasing the lamb crop percentage is flushing. Flushing is when you increase the nutrition level for an animal right before and during breeding. This helps increase the number for multiple births, meaning more twins. Next year, we are planning on flushing the sheep with a combination of a high-energy grain mix (corn and barley), and improving our pasture quality.
4. How can you improve pasture quality?
We have already started to improve the pastures by frost seeding a diverse mix of grasses and legumes—spreading seed on frozen ground in early spring, and letting it incorporate as the ground thaws. This will become a nutritious source of food for our sheep and dairy cows during summer grazing. It will also improve the hay quality for a more nutritious winter diet.
5. How do you decide where and when the sheep graze?
Summer grazing for the sheep begins around late May, early June. The sheep will graze a field for two days, then be moved to a fresh field. The fields get periodically clipped so sheep and dairy cows are always eating fresh nutrient-rich vegetative regrowth. The animals will never graze the same field twice in one year. We are also rotating the type of animal on the field. If we graze a field with the sheep one year, the next year we’ll have it grazed by the cows, and then the next year we’ll hay the field, if possible. By doing this, we help control and end the lifecycle of any parasites.
6. How do you manage grazing with two types of animals—cows and sheep?
Sheep and cows have a great symbiotic and complementary life. They both prefer slightly different grasses, which helps make sure our pastures stay diverse and healthy. The best part about having both sheep and cows on the same operation is that they mostly do not share the same parasites. Cows kill the sheep parasites and vice versa. For example, cows can ingest sheep parasites, but the parasites cannot live in a cow so they die and are expelled.
This greatly lowers the amount of parasites in the pasture, and therefore in the sheep when they graze. Combined with only grazing a field once a year and having a rotating animal grazing schedule means our sheep and cows have only a tiny parasite load to deal with. Lower parasites means healthier, happier sheep that can gain more weight faster.
7. What do the newborn lambs eat?
Newborn lambs grow by observing how their mothers eat and having open access to food. In the sheep pen, you may see a gate and small pen we’ve set up with a feeder in it. Only the lambs can fit in this area, and we’re using it to improve their growth with a method called creep feeding. Creep feeding is when the lambs have open access to a high-quality feed—alfalfa pellets in our case this year. Their moms get some alfalfa pellets in the morning and afternoon to help them keep up their weight and produce enough milk for their lambs. Lambs quickly learn to eat solid food by watching their moms. Shortly after birth, you can sometimes see lambs nibbling on hay, slowly eating more and more solid food. Then, around six to eight weeks old they’re almost completely eating solid food. At this point we wean the lambs by separating the adult ewes and the lambs into different pastures. This gives the ewes a rest period to relax, gain some weight and get ready for breeding in the fall.
It’s crazy to think how fast a lamb grows, from learning how to stand and nurse within a few minutes of birth, to eating solid food in a few weeks. With that being said, if you want to see the most adorable stage for a sheep—the uncoordinated, hyper bouncing stage—you better come to the farm soon. As the lambs grow, they will move out of the barn and into the field, but you can still see them.
We hope this has helped you understand a little more about what goes into raising lambs and what we do at Wolfes Neck Farm to improve the sheep flock.