We expected lambing time to be cold, but on one day Daddy came home to vicious winds blowing ice and snow, and he still had to check on the late gestation ewes. Sheep are not intelligent but are predictable and they prefer having lambs during the worst possible weather.
A little later, Daddy came in with mud on his boots, snow sticking to his hat and a newborn lamb nestled under the front of his coat. When she saw the lamb, apparently dead, Mama knew what to do. She threw some newspaper over the rug in front of the gas heater, grabbed a dish towel and took the lamb from Daddy so he could go back outside and finish his chores.
In my six-year-old know-it-all wisdom, I decided that it was a waste of time to fool with such a clearly expired, six pound package of frozen lamb. Mama had no such thought. She wrapped the lamb in the dish towel, rubbed it dry and set it down near the fire. She called me over and told me to keep drying it and turning it so the heat could get to all parts of the lamb-sickle.
While Mama warmed milk on the stove and fixed a baby bottle, I kept warming the lamb despite my reservations. Mama was a small lady and very limber. She was a world-class squatter, so it was no problem for her to bring the milk-filled nipple to the lambs nose and lips.
At first, the milk dribbled to the floor, then a leg twitched. Mama rubbed milk into the lamb’s mouth. The suckling instinct of mammalian newborns is amazing. The lamb’s little lips and tongue attached to Mama’s finger which she quickly replaced with the nipple. Within minutes, the lamb was up, walking and soon back in the barn with its mom.
Sheep don’t breed in the summer, but when the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, the ewes get ready, the rams get randy and tupping happens. Then, about five months later, it’s lambing time. Ewes often deliver twins and triplets are not rare. Every lamb is important, so shepherds spend a lot of time with the sheep to make sure each lamb survives.
I was managing the University of Kentucky’s reproduction research flock, which was well-known for having big lamb crops. The average lambing rate when I started was 1.75 lambs per ewe and lambing started in mid-December. Mama didn’t like for me to miss family Christmas to stay in a sheep birthing barn, so the next year I held the rams back in the fall so lambing wouldn’t start until January.
It was great to have Christmas at home, but when I got back to Lexington, I was soon dealing with more baby lambs than I ever imagined. We had a few single births, but mostly twins and trips. I checked the ewes in the evening, the middle of the night and in the morning. The ewes and I worked together to save every lamb. We ended with an average of 2.25 lambs per ewe. I should have been proud, but I was too worn out.
Lambing time is not easy for people or sheep. Calving time, done right, is almost as difficult. Foaling time is rife with tension. Farrowing starts as a drama that ends with a count. All are soon followed by proud mamas, tired people and many, many happy, hoppy babies.
Warren Gill has fifty plus years of professional involvement including a Ph.D. in Animal Science. Animals have been essential to his career and most of his hobbies and interests.