Preparing for Lambing

While springtime continues to evade us, with three inches of fresh snow on the farm this morning, springtime preparations continue in earnest. Within a week we are expecting lambs on the farm, and the work to prepare has been non-stop.

Every frosty morning has been an opportunity for Kara to hop on the skid steer to clean barns before the afternoon mud returns. She moves one group of sheep, cleans their space, moves another, cleans their space. After the deep bedding pack of winter, the thawing mess is an ordeal to remove and stack at the end of the West field for composting. Mom wields a pitchfork, digging out the corners and under feeders that are hard to reach with the rig. Load after load, the old bedding is removed, and fresh straw strewn for sheepy comfort.

As the new group returns, the flock looks so much shorter and the dividing panels so much taller without the deep bedding! I’m certain the sheep enjoy the clean, dry home makeover.

It’s always a Tetris game this time of year to work out who will be going where and to make enough room for all the jug pens to assemble in the center and south wing of the main barn. These smaller pens are where the ewe and her lambs shelter after giving birth, keeping them safe from drafts and helping them to bond calmly.

After a week or so, as the family has stabilized and the lambs have grown strong, they graduate into a mixing pen with other moms and lambs of similar size. As the jugs are evacuated, they can be dismantled to make the mixing pen larger to accommodate more sheep. Every year it is a dance of what-goes-where and a chance to improve the setup with each year’s experience. The old barn makes its springtime transformation to the maternity ward.

One of the jugs already has an occupant—a ewe who is struggling with a vaginal prolapse. We want to keep a close eye on her as her time nears, so we can be there to help with the delivery and any complications that may arise. The red-faced ewe watches from her safe space as we come and go, as if lambing preparations are her own personal entertainment opportunity.

As the ewes draw closer to their due dates, they slow down and spend much of their time eating, sleeping, or sighing. Their sides widen, their udders fill, and babies are on the brain. They come up to the gate for scratches and loving, dreamy-eyed. Back when we had our little Bichon dog Sophie (a small, fluffy white sweetheart), pregnant ewes would come to the gate as if to ask who’s lamb she might be. Now our sheepdog Finlee attends, and they give each other nibbles and kisses through the fence.

Clambering about on ladders, we rig up the trusty barn camera system. They connect to the farm’s internet network, so we can watch the cameras from home, from the chicken coop, from the bedside, from the breakfast table. Through the night we take shifts, watching for signs of imminent delivery or anything that looks like trouble. Domestic sheep can experience birthing complications that would be quickly de-selected in wild species, so it is our responsibility to be there to assist when necessary. If things go badly, they go badly quickly, and timing informed by experience is of the utmost importance.

Kara has checked all her lambing supplies, and at Farmstead Creamery there’s been a flurry of deliveries—fleece lamb coats, syringes, electrolytes, harnesses in case of a prolapse, gloves, tubing supplies, heat lamps, and more. The farmhouse kitchen transforms into a large animal vet clinic, with our trusty troubleshooting books open and ready on the kitchen table.

Other tasks are budgeted ahead of time to clear space for the “drop everything right now” regimen of lambing season, such as making big pots of soup and freezing the extras. Crock pot dinners become a staple through lambing as well—set it up ahead of time and come back to warm, hearty meals after being out in the barn all day.

The reward for all this effort is the happy, healthy, successful delivery of the next wave of adorable, bouncy lambs. With more than 20 years of lambing experience, we’ve seen so many complications and so many success stories that we’ve learned you can never be too prepared for the delivery process. We also know that sleep will be in chronic short supply for many weeks to come.

Yet, even as the snow continues to drift past the window this morning, the thought of lambing season shows that winter will eventually end and that spring is coming. Soon, the buds will swell and the grass will grow, and the year will turn towards life and growing. Keep our ewes and their lambs in your thoughts this week, as they make this important life transition. If you use social media, watch our farm’s Facebook page for pictures and videos of new lambs to come! See you down on the farm sometime.