When I was a kid, my Dad and my uncle started an auction company called Macon Brothers Auctioneers. One August (as I remember it - I was seven or eight), as they were preparing for their first big farm equipment auction in Walla Walla, Washington (where my uncle Doug lives), they sat in the kitchen of a wheat farmer friend and watched a hail storm wipe out his crop. My Dad tells the story:
"I said, 'what are you going to do, Dick?' Dick looked out the window and said, 'Well, I guess I'll let it hail - what else can I do?!'"This story, obviously, has stayed with me. My family didn't farm or ranch at the time, but even 40-plus years after this happened, I think about Dick Fulgham's attitude about an event that was beyond his control, and how it applies to my work as a shepherd.
Weather has always had the potential to erase a year's worth of farming or ranching work (or even more than a year, in some cases). Dick had already paid to produce his wheat crop that year - without a crop to harvest, he'd have no income to cover his production expenses. In our sheep operation, all of the expense (labor, feed, vet costs, etc.) we put into our ewe flock points us towards six weeks of lambing in late February and March. And weather, as I've been reminded this week, can be just as cruel to ranchers as it can be to wheat farmers.
But while I can't do anything about the weather, I can take steps to make our ranch as resilient as possible. This means I need to plan for sudden catastrophic events (like 5 inches of rain and 40 mph winds over a two-day period) as well as for longer term problems (like drought). And over the years, we've developed a few lambing management systems to help us cope - to help make sure that our year's worth of work with the ewe flock results in a salable crop of lambs,
What's the Plan?!
For a variety of reasons, we lamb on pasture rather than in a barn. We think this system is healthier for our sheep, but it does place significant importance on planning. We time our lambing to match the onset of rapid grass growth in our Sierra foothill environment. We also pay attention to how long the ewes will be able to nurse their lambs before the grass dies in late spring. And we consider the nutritional resources necessary to prepare the ewes for breeding in the late summer and early autumn. All of these factors point us towards a lambing season that lasts from approximately February 20 through March 31.
Accordingly, we save our most productive and most sheltered paddocks for lambing. Shelter, in our system, means tree cover and topography that allow ewes and lambs get out of the wind and rain. Furthermore, by giving these lambing paddocks ample rest between grazings, we ensure that we have a large quantity of high quality forage available for that six week period. We want this forage to meet the ewes' nutritional demands at lambing, and we don't want the ewes to have to travel very far to fill their rumens.
We also emphasize maternal aptitude in our ewe flock. For the last 10 years, we've scored every ewe at birth on her ability to deliver lambs without assistance, on her maternal instincts (in other words, her ability to bond with her lambs), and on her milk production (as measured by the vigor of her lambs). A ewe that doesn't measure up in these characteristics is sold after we wean her lambs. Just as importantly, her daughters are also sold - these traits are inherited, after all. Over time, this system has created a flock that thrives in our pasture lambing system. Nearly all of our ewes give birth without assistance, and most of them can count to two (that is, they can take care of at least two lambs).
Tools of the Trade
Over the years, we've also discovered a handful of tools and techniques that can help get us through critical stretches of bad weather. Several years ago, we started parking our gooseneck stock trailer near the sheep during lambing. This gives us a sheltered space to put a ewe if she happens to give birth during a particularly nasty storm. We can also use the trailer to help get a poor mother bonded with her lambs - she still gets sold when we wean her lambs, but it helps us keep her lambs alive (and have something to sell later). Finally, one person can milk a ewe in the trailer (which isn't possible in the pasture) - having a bottle of ewe's milk available can help get critical calories into a lamb that may be chilled. We probably save a half-dozen lambs a year in the trailer.
Last year, we discovered biodegradable plastic raincoats for our lambs. LambMacs, made by the UK company Shearwell, can help lambs conserve body heat during wet and windy weather. The ewes can still smell their lambs' heads and bums (critical for maintaining the ewe-lamb bond). At the quantity we order, these LambMacs cost just $0.57 each - cheap insurance in my mind. With the stormy weather we've experienced over the last five days, we've put coats on more than half of our lambs. I suspect we've saved 10-15 lambs just in this time frame.
Finally, when we do find a chilled lamb that's unresponsive, we wrap the lamb in a coat and place it on the floorboards of the truck with the heater running full blast. A cold lamb can't digest milk, so we need to bring its body temperature up before trying to feed it (or putting it back with mom). By this stage of lambing (nearly two weeks in), most of my work coats have doubled as lamb beds. I'll need to do laundry this weekend!
The best way to keep ewes and lambs going in stormy weather, at least in my experience, is to make sure they are getting plenty of calories - and to make sure that lambs are staying with the ewes. During especially harsh weather, this means that we periodically walk through the entire bunch to make sure lambs are staying close. A cold lamb will often be laying on its side; a warm lamb is usually laying sternal, perhaps curled up. We'll look for lambs that are by themselves, and we'll make the ewe get up so that the lambs can nurse. Making sure the lambs are nursing seems to help keep body temperatures up and lambs alive.
We'll also pay close attention to forage conditions in each paddock. While we don't mind making the ewes work a bit harder to graze when they are "dry" (that is, when they aren't nursing a lamb), we prefer that they don't have to move much to graze while they're lambing. Accordingly, we might move the drop bunch (the lambing ewes) a day before we'd move them before they've started to lamb. This is especially true if we expect inclement weather.
A Few Final Thoughts
Sheep will always be labor-intensive - indeed, the labor requirements are what has driven many ranching families to abandon sheep in favor of raising cattle. Lambing will always be the most labor-intensive time of year, regardless of the system or the season. I don't think any kind of technology will ever replace the hands, eyes, and brain of the shepherd. And while we can't change the weather, we can put thought into our system and our planning process. By planning our grazing and only keeping the ewes that fit our system, we can give their lambs a fighting chance even in the worst weather. As we've discovered, there are a variety of tools that can help us ensure that our year's worth of work with our ewes results in a crop we can sell in the spring! Our particular system won't fit every producer, but every good producer has a system!