Baaa, Baaaah!!! The spring lambing season has started with a bang (more of a soft 'plop', actually ) at Coulter Farms. Monday morning we saw the first pair of lamb twins. By the end of the day, there were at least eight tiny, glowing white lambs. Tuesday brought another eight or ten and I haven't even gotten a count today (Wednesday) of how many lambs are frisking around in the fluffy straw. When it rains, it pours :)
We try to time our lambing season to start March 1st. That way, the lambs are mostly weaned and ready to devour lush Organic grass pasture by late April. Our 100 ewes do not always choose to cooperate with our carefully laid breeding plans, though. Sheep have a five month gestation period... but putting our two rams in with the ewes on October 1st usually gives us a rush of lambs in early March followed by a steady flow over the next two months.
We like the 'concept' of lambing outdoors on pasture... it seems like a good idea..... but it doesn't work in practice. Chilly spring rains and raw wind are a death sentence for a newborn, wet lamb. Lambs (especially triplets) only weigh a couple of pounds and are very vulnerable to wet and wind in their first few hours. A belly full of warm milk from momma and a dry fleece are all they need to survive and thrive. They do much better being born in dry 5 degree weather than on a wet 50 degree day.
Another 'nail in the coffin' of outdoor lambing is predators. Red tailed hawks and bald eagles are infamous for pecking out the eyes of newborn lambs and then waiting, patiently, for them to die. While foxes and coyotes are something we have to watch out for, we have a lot more trouble with feathered predators than furry ones. Anyway, we have decided that the benefits of lambing on a nice fluffy, warm, dry, composting bedding pack in our spacious, airy lambing shed far outweigh the costs and extra work of lambing indoors.
We had used a llama as a guard animal for many years. She did a good job of chasing predators (and, annoyingly, farmers) out of the pasture when there were baby lambs. However, she had a few exasperating quirks in her personality. She would lay her ears back, scream like a woman, and spit a nasty slime of rumen juice on anyone who dared to try to work with 'her' lambs. Another unhandy habit, which turned her maternal instinct into a curse rather than a blessing, was that she would woo newborn lambs away from their mothers by nuzzling, humming and calling to them. I wish I had a picture of the day we saw a lamb standing on his two hind legs, trying in vain to nurse from its 'llama mama' that not only had no milk, but was WAY too tall to be any help to the hapless lamb. We never could cajole that wayward lamb back to her mother, and ended up having to raise him on a bottle... :( ... Grrr. Anyway, when that llama went on to her reward, we chose to not replace her.
Raising sheep is a great 'fit' for our farm. Sheep are most happy browsing on broadleaf and stemmy weeds that the dairy and beef cattle will not eat. These weeds are mineral rich and highly nutritive, but are often bitter and full of tannins that the cattle would benefit from, but are too spoiled to eat. Anyway, with no herbicides on our Certified Organic farm, we rely, heavily, on the sheep to come through and clean up what the cattle are too finicky to eat. You will never find a weedy pasture after our sheep have been through it.
We like bringing our 100% Grassfed, Certified Organic Lamb meat to market, too, since it is such a rare thing. Sheep are very vulnerable to intestinal parasites, and receive a lot of toxic chemical wormers in a conventional system. Worming organically with things like diatomaceous earth, garlic and black walnut hull powder is a challenge, but we think it is worth it! Try 'googling' 'certified organic, 100% grassfed lamb' and you'll see that very few farms are raising lamb this way.
I was turned off by lamb as a boy. We would have it at Easter and I would have to make a 'soup' of mint jelly to choke down the fatty, strong tasting stuff. Our 100% Grassfed lamb is a totally different meat than 'grain fed'. It is our family's favorite meat. Try some at this week's drop or farm market!