A beginner’s guide to preparing for your first lambing season
Have you ever read a blog and thought: Wow, this person really has it together! Well, this is not that blog.
This is the blog of a homesteader…
- who doesn’t know for certain if her two ewes are pregnant.
- who doesn’t have a clue how to actually deliver a lamb.
- who is not even sure she can actually get her hands up in there and assist.
- And who is now wondering how the heck she got into a predicament in which this is what she has to fret about!!!
So, in case you’re wondering, yes, I may be slightly panicking about the impending lambing season. But, as with most things on the homestead, I can usually find someone much more experienced than I who is willing to share their hard-earned, homesteading wisdom. Enter Michelle Schubert.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Michelle, owner of Bergamascos’ Babydoll Brigade in northern Scott County, Kentucky, about preparing for lambing season. Michelle has witnessed the birth of more than 123 lambs on her 15-acre farm where she and her husband sell sheep, lambs and fleece including beautiful, hand spun and custom dyed yarn.
So, how did Michelle become a shepherdess? Her tractor died.
“Our second summer here, our tractor quit running and we spent many hours every day pushing a lawn mower trying desperately to keep up with the fast-growing grass,” she recounts. “A friend suggested we get sheep.”
“After a bit of contemplation and research, I said to myself, ‘Sounds like a plan.’ Initially, I was just going to get the sheep to mow the grass, but quickly decided I would turn it into a business since I prefer to work for myself and from home.”
Michelle hasn’t looked back since. Every day starts with a smile.
“Their smile is contagious. If you’re having a bad day, just get outside and spend a few minutes watching and interacting with your Babydolls. Your mood can’t help but improve. I find myself looking out my windows several times a day and sitting outside just to watch them as they meander the hills and valleys of my small piece of tranquility.”
Although Michelle is not a vet or a medical professional, as you can imagine, she has learned a lot about preparing for lambing season over the past nine years raising Babydoll Southdown Sheep.
“Lambing season is typically exhausting but so worth it,” she exclaims.
The only downside is that those sweet, smiling Babydoll lambs wind up leaving the farm much sooner than she would like.
So, are you ready? Let’s start preparing for lambing season together.
Tell me about the first birth on the farm?
Michelle’s adventures in lambing began with one ewe who was “maybe” pregnant. She still fondly remembers the afternoon Haven was born. She rushed to get a pair of binoculars and watched in awe and anticipation as Pop gave birth to a healthy lamb on pasture on March 30, 2012, at 2:31 p.m. without any issues.
Is my ewe pregnant?
I feel a lot better about not being able to tell if my ewes are pregnant after confirming with Michelle that it is indeed difficult to determine until they are getting close to labor.
“It is tough,” says Michelle. “I go by when I put them together and when I separated them. And, of course, a lot of them, I witness the breeding happening so I use that date. If most of mine have lambed and I have stragglers, I’ll draw blood for a pregnancy test.”
Sheep have a gestation period of about five months. So, if Hunter and Henley (my two rams) did their job this summer, my ewes will be ready to give birth in about a week.
Within days of the birthing, you may notice the ewe’s udder fill out, which is a sure sign that your ewe is pregnant and will soon be giving birth.
Should I be feeding my ewes anything special?
Michelle cautions against overfeeding your ewes. “You don’t want them getting too fat, which can cause bigger lambs and possible birthing issues,” she warns. “I don’t change what I do as far as feeding unless a ewe is feeling too thin. Then I sneak her extra palmfuls of grain.”
What supplies should I have on hand?
Initially, Michelle bought many of the recommended supplies for preparing for lambing season, but she has never used them and, of course, they quickly expired. The only items she now brings with her are gloves and a pair of scissors.
“Other than trimming a couple of cords, I’ve never needed to do anything else during lambing,” she says. If there is an emergency, Michelle will bring her ewe to the vet.
Gloves come in handy if you need to help the ewe and can prevent “bottle babies”. Ewes identify and bond with their lambs through the scent that is produced within the placenta and contained in the amniotic fluid.
“I wear rubber gloves (sometimes even fresh clothing) to keep my scent off of the lamb,” she explains. “Even for the first couple of days, I wear gloves if doing anything with the lamb, especially if there are more lambs being born around the same time that I’ll be handling.”
If all goes well, these are all the supplies you really need when preparing for lambing:
- A lambing book to keep records such as the date, sex and number of lambs born.
- Latex gloves
- Scissors to cut cords
- And, if you’re like me, a copy of Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep. If something goes wrong. I’m hoping I can read and assist at the same time. Sounds doable, right?
You may also want to have on hand:
- Milk bottle and lamb nipple as well as colostrum and lamb milk replacer
- A digital veterinary thermometer
- Dental floss (may be needed to tie off a bleeding umbilical cord)
Should I bring my ewes indoors to lamb?
Although every shepherd will be preparing for lambing season a little differently, Michelle has never locked a ewe in a pen/jug when she feels lambing is close or even during lambing. Instead, her ewes can come and go from the barn as they see fit. In the evenings, she says, they decide on their own to make their way closer to the barn where they usually sleep.
“Often, in the middle of the night, they’ll go out for a couple of grazing sessions,” she explains. “Hence, come lambing time, I don’t change their routine and they are still free to come and go as they please.” As a result, Michelle has had lambs born on pasture and in the barn without any issues.
If she does see a ewe in active labor in the barn and it is late at night, she will go ahead and close the gates to the pen until the ewe lambs.
Do I need a special birthing pen?
Yes, you may want to consider sectioning your barn into smaller pens, encourages Michelle. “I have noticed many of my ewes will go to the furthest corner pen when it is time to lamb. We now call it the maternity ward and have it ready with fresh straw when lambing time arrives.”
Usually, the ewe keeps herself and her lambs inside, or away from the flock for a few hours, says Michelle. “By afternoon, mom and lamb(s) are venturing outside and within 24-hours, the lambs are checking out the grass and doing a little nibbling alongside their dams.”
Can ewes share a pen?
They need to have enough room to be able to get away from each other, cautions Michelle. You don’t want a lamb wandering over to the wrong ewe or a ewe stealing someone else’s lamb.
“My barn is set up with five roughly 10 x 10 areas and one larger area,” says Michelle. “The ewes tend to separate themselves from the others when they are getting ready to lamb.”
Do I have to be present during lambing?
Not necessarily, says Michelle. “Many, many lambs are born without any intervention from humans. Most of my lambs wind up being born in the early morning between 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. Of course, when it’s lambing time, I’m checking on them to see if any ewes are in labor. If I see a ewe in labor, I pull up a chair and have my camera ready. I have managed to witness the birth of almost every lamb born here.”
Will I have to help deliver the lamb?
Michelle doesn’t intervene unless she feels the ewe or lamb are having issues. “I, personally, feel it is best to reign in our desire to “help” and rush the birth,” she cautions. “Don’t interfere unless absolutely necessary.”
How long do I wait before assisting in the birth?
How long labor lasts varies and is largely influenced by age, according to Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep. “First-time ewes usually take significantly longer than older ewes. A good rule of thumb is to allow half an hour to an hour after the water bag breaks, or up to 2 hours of labor, before you jump in. Wait a little while longer for first-time ewes: up to 3 hours.”
As a general rule, according to Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, let the ewe do her job until any of the following:
- The lamb’s one front leg and nose are both showing but the other front leg is nowhere in sight.
- There are two right or two left legs showing (indicating twins are trying to come out at the same time)
- The lamb is showing but the ewe isn’t making progress.
- The ewe is obviously becoming weak and tired, and nothing seems to be changing.
- She has been in obvious labor for a couple of hours with no sign of change.
Do I need to dry off the lamb and iodize its navel?
“No,” says Michelle. “Instead of using a towel to dry off the lamb and wipe the membranes from the lamb’s mouth and nose, she lets the mother clean her lamb. “I feel it is part of the bonding process,” she explains.
If the ewe doesn’t start to clean her lamb, Michelle will move the baby to her nose so she sees it.
“That is usually all that is needed,” she says. “If she’s had twins, she may get confused and pay more attention to one over the other. I’ve had situations where the second one slides right out and mom is so busy cleaning the first, she doesn’t even realize she had another. This is an instance when I would move the lamb to her nose. Or, if you’ve had to help with the birth, best to put the lamb by her nose right away.”
Michelle has also never iodized the lamb’s navel. “Maybe I’m lucky,” she points out. “But I’ve never had any issues with a lamb’s naval.”
Will I have to cut the cord?
“The cord breaks when the ewe moves away from the lamb or the ewe chews the cord,” explains Michelle. “Occasionally, they will leave it too long and it drags on the ground. In this case, I shorten it. It can be done with any scissors you’ve cleaned well with 91% Isopropyl Alcohol.
What happens if a lamb does not immediately get colostrum?
“Don’t panic,” says Michelle. “I’ve had three children. I know from personal experience, labor and delivery are a ton of work for both mom and baby. Sometimes, in my opinion, the lambs are tired after making their way into the world and need time to get it together. I do not feel a lamb is going to die if it doesn’t make it to the teat five seconds after it is born. I think that as long as they are up and nursing at some point within the first six hours (the absolute longest), they’ll be fine.”
Should I strip the waxy plug from the udders?
“No, I don’t,” says Michelle. “I think letting the lamb do this helps them gain strength.”
What happens if a ewe rejects her lamb?
“I HATE having bottle babies,” she exclaims. In fact, Michelle has only had one lamb be rejected by his mom and it was several hours after he was born. “The mother cleaned him, the lamb nursed and then what the heck happened, I have no idea,” she recounts. “He became a bottle baby but did continue to live full time with his mom and his sister. His mom just refused to let him nurse.”
Here are some common reasons for lamb rejection, according to Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep:
- The ewe has a painful or sensitive udder from mastitis or an overabundance of milk.
- She has delivered one lamb in one location, then moved and delivered the other, forgetting about the first.
- Some ewes cannot count to two; they may be willing to accept twins, but as long as they have one, they are happy and do not seek out the other.
- The lamb has wandered away before the ewe has had a chance to lick it off and become bonded to it.
- The ewe has sore or chapped teats, or the lamb has sharp teeth.
- Because of a difficult lambing, the ewe is exhausted and not interested in her lamb.
- The lamb is chilled and abandoned as dead.
- The ewe has new-mother syndrome: young, first-time moms may be nervous, flighty, confused, or just frightened by their lambs.
- The lambs have been swapped: if two ewes lamb near each other at the same time, one ewe occasionally adopts and bonds to the other’s lamb, but the other ewe does not accept the first ewe’s lamb….”
“I really do wonder if a lot of the rejections are due to too much human interference during the first 24 hours or so,” says Michelle. “There is plenty of time after the first couple of days to snuggle newborn lambs.”
What is the best advice you would give to someone preparing for their first lambing season?
“Let the ewes do their jobs,” emphasizes Michelle. “When humans get impatient and interfere with the process it can cause problems with ewes rejecting lambs, etc. My personal opinion is that all of this suggested human intervention may be the cause of so many instances of abandoned/bum lambs.”
She also suggests reading as much as you can about preparing for lambing including what to expect, what may go wrong and how others tackle lambing season.
“Then do what feels right for you, your ewes, and your lambs. I prefer a more” natural” way of doing things here at the Bergamascos’ Babydoll Brigade Farm.”
Are there any books you recommend reading?
Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep is an excellent book to read while you are preparing for lambing season.
Note: “Keep in mind,” she says. “Not all the advice in regards to quantities would apply to smaller breeds such as Babydolls.”
Tails, castration and tagging
Now, you may be wondering about the exciting topics of tail docking, castration and ear tagging. Due to the fact that this post is already getting rather long, I will link to those posts here once I have them finished.
So, who is ready to kiss and snuggle adorable newborn lambs? Me!!! Now, excuse me while I once again go check on my ewes’ lady parts to see if we are getting any closer to that terrifying and exciting day.
Share your tips!
Are you preparing for lambing season or do you have any tips for preparing for lambing season? I would love to hear them! Please leave them in the comments below.
Want to read more about raising sheep? Check out my previous posts:
- Meet the Gang of Sheep Thieves (Raising sheep for beginners)
- Dreamers to Farmers in TWO Years! (Raising sheep for milk)
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