Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Sheep Questions Answered

"B" asked me to clear up a few questions about breeding sheep......

1- Is there a special time of the year that sheep will mate? 
     Here in Hawaii, our hair sheep will breed year around. There is no set mating season. But the female sheep (ewe) must be "in heat" to accept a ram. Otherwise she will reject his interest and refuse to stand. Once in heat, she will accept his advances for 1 or 2 days before going out of heat once again. If not pregnant, she will come back into heat 2 to 3 weeks later. 
      My own ewes don't go in and out of heat constantly year around, but seem to have a breeding season based upon many factors : amount of daylight, their body condition, amount of available food, length of time since last pregnancy, and whether or not they have been lactating. Since the ewes can see or are with the rams all the time, the sudden arrival of rams into the pasture doesn't bring them into heat. But once one ewe comes into heat, all the others will shortly follow within days. 

2- How do you know that one of your ewes is 3 weeks behind the rest of the flock? 
     She did not bag up and prepare to lamb along with the other ewes. So I guessed that she did not become pregnant on the first go around, but most likely came back into heat 3 weeks later and was successfully bred. 

3- How long is a sheep pregnant? 
     Their gestation period, the time from successful breeding to lambing, is about 5 months, but it varies a few days either way. 

4- How can you tell they are getting ready to have their baby? 
     Sometimes I am lucky enough to see the ewe in standing heat, and possibly witness the mating. Then I make a note so that I know when she will lamb. But most of the time I don't. Since the gestation period is 5 months, I can mark my calendar for an approximate time then watch for signs. Before lambing, the ewe's udder will fill out. And 5-7 days before, the udder will be round, firm, and full. At this point I'll check on the ewe several times a day. 

(Above, a round, full, taunt udder. This ewe lambed 3 days after this photo.) 

5- How many lambs does each sheep have? You mentioned that you preferred single lambs. Why? 
     I have had ewes have anywhere from 1 to 4 lambs at a time . Four are a nightmare for both me and the ewe. I prefer single lambs for a number of reasons. They don't overly tax the ewe. They are bigger and more robust at birth. They grow faster. They grow bigger. The ewe can keep track of them better and will be more attentive to the lamb. Twins (or more) tend to get themselves into trouble, getting lost, popping through the fence, etc. I seldom have a single lamb die, but mortality increases with twins and triplets. 

(Above, lambs of the same age. The two in the middle are a set of twins. The ones on the far right and left are each singles. The singles are far bigger than the twins. The twins are normal sized and are robust, so it's not that they are weaklings.) 

6- How do you control how many babies they have? 
     Well, I don't have a lot of control on that. But I do try to avoid over feeding them when they are due to come into heat. Having a ewe gaining weight will often result in extra lambs. So I try to avoid that. 
     Young ewes often have singles. Older ewes may have twins or more if the ewe is in good health and a bit overweight (or gaining weight). I grass feed my ewes and do not feed pellets or extra grain so that they do not become overly conditioned. This helps keep lambing to singles and twins. 


My own flock is grass fed will only a very small handful of sweet feed daily. Thus they are not being nutritionally pushed. On top of that, I don't wean most of the lambs early, so ewes are lactating a long time, much longer than in commercial flocks. These factors delay the ewes from coming back into heat quickly. My goal is not to achieve the most production out of my sheep. I'd rather see them be unstressed, healthy, more natural, happier. I don't need the maximum amount of iambs out of my flock. I'm content to just get 5-6 lambs each season. 

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