There are two forms of lambing: shed lambing and range lambing. They are very different, and yet share the same concepts just in different setups. Of course, the main goal of each is to keep as many lambs alive and healthy as possible. This is a HUGE task and you work your ass off whether you’re working with 1,600 ewes out in the sagebrush or 400 in the corrals and barns! We begin shed lambing our purebred Rambouillets and black faces, Suffolk/Hampshire cross, the beginning of March through April. We raise our rams from this bunch. As we’re wrapping up with them, we begin lambing out all the rest of our sheep on the range through the month of May. It is a very busy 3 months, and we have way more than just lambing going on! I will begin with my days at Orr, the ranch where we shed lamb, then move on to range lambing in my next post. Each operation has their own setup and may do things a little differently, but I am going to explain each as we practice them.
Just as it implies, shed lambing occurs in a shed. In our case, two sheds- essentially, the day time one and the night one. We simply don’t have enough jugs in just one of the sheds to house all the incoming lambs. Each night we run the “droppers”, or the heavy ewes that have yet to lamb, generally around 200 head, into the big shed which is bedded with straw.
The walls are lined with “jugs” which is sheepherder terminology for a little, square panel pen that can fit a ewe and her lamb/s, also bedded with straw, and heated with a heat lamp. Throughout the night, the ewes are checked every couple hours in their lit up, cozy bed by the 3 Peruvians (Edwis, David, and Mequias) that live here for lambing season. They check for any ewe or lamb that may be having complications. This includes a ewe not being able to birth her lamb/s on her own, often due to them being too big or backwards, although I’ve seen many other scenarios! Sometimes a ewe will not claim her own lamb/s or another ewe will try to claim hers, which requires the ewes being separated. There are also those few lambs that are either too weak, too cold, or simply too dumb to find a tit on their own and need help sucking for the first time. With each ewe that lambs, whether there are complications or not, she and her lamb/s are placed in a jug. They are kept in the jug for 1-4 days, depending on their health, the weather, and how many available jugs we have for new ones. This allows the mother and babies to become bonded to one another, so when mixed with other ewes and lambs they know who they belong to. It allows us to help the lambs suck if needed, in a confined area where it is much easier to work with the ewe. It is also just a warm and cozy spot for the lambs to acclimate to their new world before being kicked outside where oftentimes it is cold, it is currently March/April in Wyoming!
Each morning as the sun comes up, the big garage door is also lifted for the ewes to venture out to their small pasture for the day. The guys scatter corn out for all the separate bunches of ewes and feed the bum lambs. I feed alfalfa bales off an old wooden wagon pulled behind the tractor for the bigger bunches of ewes, while one guy dumps ground alfalfa in feeders for the smaller bunches using the skidsteer. We then fill multiple 5-gallon-buckets (for the ewes in the jugs), old orange lick tubs (for the small pens), and metal troughs (for the larger pens) with water using hoses from hydrants.
After I’m done with my part, I begin tagging, banding, and weighing lambs and am soon joined by one of the guys as he finishes his morning tasks. We use green tags for the ram lambs, a tag in each ear as they are prone to sticking their heads in places and ripping them out, and one pink tag for the ewe lambs. I put the year, followed by the next number in order (starting at 1 for each the ewe lambs and ram lambs), and then the number indicating whether they are a single, twin, or triplet.
I record each of the lambs' new tag numbers with their mothers’ numbers and their weight. We weigh all of the lambs born in the big shed from the night before, and weigh lambs throughout the day in the other shed as they are born. The lambs are at least 24 hours old before we tag and band them, and as these are the ones we raise for rams, we only band the tails. When we tag them, we spray paint a matching number on mother and her lambs so that when mixed with others we can tell who belongs to who in case of problems.
From the jug we move the ewe and lamb/s to the “mixing pens” under the lean tos of both sheds. We put about 5 pairs together to start so they can get used to being around new ewes and lambs and still be able to figure out who momma is. We then mix these 5 with the next 5 in a larger pen, then about 20 in the next larger pen, and mix them one more time to 40 ewes in the biggest pen. This rotation occurs out of each shed in their own separate pens. With all these strawed pens getting wet and dirty with use, comes a lot of cleaning! We clean out the jugs after each use using a pitchfork and wheelbarrow. We coat them with lyme to help with the drying process and bacteria, before re-bedding them with fresh straw. The mixing pens we clean out as needed, generally after about 5 bunches have been through them or depending how wet it is outside. Our goal is to keep the bedding for the lambs as dry and clean as possible, to reduce risk of illnesses and to keep them cozy!
In the midst of all this moving sheep around and cleaning, we have to check the droppers every so often. If there is something that needs help lambing we rope her, pull the lamb/s, and take them to the “day-time” barn, it is closer to the pasture than the shed we keep them at night. If there is a ewe that has lambed outside, we carry her lamb/s into the shed with her following closely behind. Oftentimes, moving the ewes to the shed doesn’t go as smoothly as planned- they don’t want to follow their lambs, or we want to pull them inside the barn rather than outside. In these instances we take the skidsteer to the ewe and load her up to take her in!
Around noon, one of the guys heads up to the house to cook lunch. I am not in this rotation because I’m not much of a cook, and would rather be working than cooking. We all meet at the house when one of us receives the lunchtime call and are at a good stopping point in our work. Sometimes we eat at 1, sometimes not until 3 or 4. It all depends on how our day is going, and yes, Edwis and I get a little “hangry” when we have to wait that late for food! Every day is the same, rice and potatoes, but with a different meat (chicken, spam, or vienna) and lots of veggies. I enjoy these guys’ cooking, and we all enjoy getting to sit down for a brief moment in our day. After lunch we feed the bums and check all the older lambs for anything that may be sick or not getting enough milk to grow. I walk from pen to pen with my lariat, medicine bag, and dogs, spending time watching the sheep and getting to know them. Watching the lambs race each other from one end of the pen to the other. Watching them pick their mother’s blat out of the herd and run full speed to her flank to hit a tit with full force. Listening to the low murmuring sounds the ewes make towards their little ones.
As evening nears us, it is time to feed and water everything again. We finish up as the sun is setting, oftentimes sharing a beer to end our long day together. I climb in my dirt covered, stinky pickup and drive the 15 minutes through the winding mountains home.
Please reach out to me if you have any questions or would like to discuss something. I always love to chat! And stay tuned for my next story about range lambing, so that you can see the difference between the two.
Eat Lamb, Wear Wool!