Yesterday marked the beginning of another cycle in our sheep production system. With help from my friend (and our local farm advisor) Roger Ingram, and intern Paul Lambertson, I went through all of our ewes in preparation for turning the rams in with them next Monday. "Going through" the ewes involves evaluating their body condition (the amount of fat cover they have), which gives us some idea of their nutritional status. We "flush" the ewes prior to breeding them, which means we increase the quality of their nutritional intake - this year we've had the ewes on green brush and irrigated pasture since the last part of August. We also evaluate each ewe's production records - how many lambs did she have last year? - was she a good mother? Finally, in our ongoing effort to eradicate footrot from our flock, we check out their feet.
Out of the 130 +/- ewes that we bred last year, we decided to cull 27. Most of these decisions were made on the basis of our EZ Care Lambing system - we score each ewe on the ease with which she had her lamb, the vigor of the lamb (a measure of milk production in the ewe), and ewe's mothering instincts. Some of the decisions were based on foot health, as well.
Sometimes these decisions are difficult. Roger decided to cull a ewe that had had a uterine prolapse shortly after giving birth. Once a ewe prolapses, she's likely to do so again. This particular ewe had outstanding confirmation, a nice fleece, and was in great body condition. It's tempting to keep a ewe like this in the flock, but doing so increases veterinary and labor costs.
Developing a rational culling policy - and sticking to it - signals the transition from a hobby (e.g., thinking of the sheep as pets) to a serious business. I enjoy all of our sheep, but I also need to make my living by raising them. A ewe that won't produce a healthy lamb (preferably two) each year can't be part of my business. Similarly, a ewe that won't take care of her lambs on her own adds to my labor costs.
Next week, the ewes will be sorted into breeding groups and the rams will be introduced to the flock. The rams will stay with the ewes for six weeks - we've used flushing and a "teaser" ram to help synchronize the ewes' estrus cycles. In mid-November, we'll trim every ewe's feet and start them on regular footbath treatments again. Finally, some time in the third week of February the first lambs will arrive. The cycle of our year starts with the work we did yesterday!