So much for coming in like a lion and out like a lamb, March has been pretty mild so far. Actually this whole winter has been pretty mild here in Northeast Pennsylvania. No way, I'm not complaining! I'm loving it. I enjoy the seasonal changes, but I'm most definitely not a huge fan of the cold dreary drudge that winter usually brings every year. The lion may have decided to give it a rest this year, but here at the farm we're still anticipating going out of this month with lambs!
This past week we had a few nice days that we were able to round up the expecting mamas and start to get them ready for lambing. We try to vaccinate them a few weeks before they give birth so that the vaccine antibodies are in their milk and the lambs are protected in the early weeks and then they get a booster after a few weeks of life. We vaccinate for common, but preventable diseases that can kill sheep quickly if not treated for, such as 'over-eating' disease and tetanus.
We also like to try to clean up the wool around the sheep's back ends and we do this for a couple reasons. One is that it just makes for a cleaner birth. I would assume I don't have to explain the details of a birth, but it's messy, so we shear the long wool off ewe's butt, back legs and also off her udder and belly, if needed, so that the mess doesn't get tangled and stuck in the wool back there. This is calling crutching. Why don't we just shear the entire fleece you, might ask. Well, perhaps a more experienced shearer might feel comfortable handling a pregnant ewe and flipping it around in the different positions that one maneuvers a sheep while shearing it, but I'm just not quite confident in my skills yet and we try to give our sheep the most stress free experiences we can, especially while preggo. Who wants to stress out a pregnant animal and risk losing a lamb, not I. The other reason we chose not to shear them completely, is that lambing usually starts the end of March and in a typical year, March can still give us some pretty hardcore cold, and we want to make sure our girl's (& the boys too) don't have to tough out those super cold last few days of winter, with no wool sweaters on their backs, so we typically wait to shear our flock until after lambing & after the last of the deep cold, sometime in April or May.
The second reason we want to crutch is to give the lambs better access to their mother's udder & teats. Little lambs understand that they need to suck to get nourishment, however they don't always figure out what or where that nourishment might be when they first emerge so they just nuzzle around until they find something to suck on and go to town. Unfortunately if there is a lot of long wool hanging around the udder of a mother, the lamb might find that instead of a teat and end up getting no nourishment and quit possibly and mouth full of feces and other icky stuff that could cause sickness and definitely not give them a good start to life. So to help them find where they need to go, we clean up the ewe's bellies so that there is no confusion for the lambs when looking for food. Not only does it help the lambs to find their source of milk, but cleaning up the back area and udder also help the shepherd get a better view of the ewe's backside, which is how one might see that a ewe is ready to go soon. Some signs that a ewe is getting ready to give birth are a "bagged up" udder. Her udder will drop and swell with milk anywhere from a few weeks to a few days before the lamb is born. So having a clear view of the back & underside of the sheep is desirable in the last few weeks/days of gestation.
Thankfully we've got some pretty cool parental units and a good friend who were able to come on up and help out this week. We were also able to trim the girl's hooves too. Sheep maintenance is much more efficient when you've got a system and good helpers. So crutching and vaccinating went smoothly and now we wait patiently for lambs to arrive, or if your me, you make three or four trips to the barn everyday to stand and watch them for signs of impending labor, staring at their butts to see signs of a swollen lady parts, feeling udders to see if they are filling up with milk, watching closely to see if anyone looks uncomfortable or restless. Of course I'm sure that one day I'll wake up and look out the kitchen window and see little lambs bouncing around the field and I'll have missed the whole stinking thing, but until then I'll keep up my, not so patient, vigilance.