Monday, January 26, 2009

No, I'm not lambing right now

Every now and then, as I stumble through my life, I get something right. Usually not on purpose: usually I am forced into a situation where the only remaining choice is the right one.

Such is the case with the fact that I don't lamb in January and February, as so many sheep farmers in New England do.

Many of my fellow shepherds are lambing now. Some in drafty old converted dairy barns, some in sheds built more or less for the purpose. All of them are freezing as temperatures for the past few weeks have dropped below zero F more nights than not.

Lambing in the winter is a challenge. It is fun, in its own strange way -- primarily, I think, because every lamb that survives past the critical 48-hour mark is a victory. Every ewe that delivers a lamb is handled: the new lambs are collected and the family is placed in an individual pen known as a jug for a day or two while they bond. Many lambs need to be dried off quickly, as the birth fluids can pull heat from the lamb faster than its metabolism can replace it.

If maternal nutrition is anything short of excellent, the lambs will be born weak, or fade quickly after birth. The environment must be kept fresh and dry, or you risk pneumonia in both the ewes and the lambs. Providing high-quality feed and dry bedding is incredibly expensive in New England. (Straw, commonly used for bedding for sheep, actually costs more than good quality hay here, and hay is more expensive in New England than anywhere else in the US that I have heard of.) And then, in the spring while all those fat lambs are gamboling on pasture with their dozing mothers nearby, it's time to muck out the barn (unless you were doing it weekly or so all winter. Manure must be handled, composted, spread.

In 2005 I supervised two lambings. The first was a shed lambing of 450 ewes commencing Jan. 23 and ending March 1. The second was a pasture lambing of 300 ewes commencing April 20 and ending May 22.

The winter lambing flock was brought into the shed in mid-December, shorn, and bedded on straw. They were fed round bales of high-quality balage, and a mixture of whole shelled corn and roasted whole soybeans, along with a mineral mix.

The spring lambing flock was wintered outside, fed round bales of decent quality (but not fancy) balage, and no grain.

During the pre-lambing period, I had one assistant working with me. We would spend most of the morning feeding the ewes in the shed. Chores to feed and bed the winter-lambing ewes in the shed took about seven person-hours a day for 450 ewes, which works out to about one person-minute per sheep per day.

Meanwhile the spring lambing flock needed to be checked daily, its guard dog fed, and once every five days or so, it needed new bales. The daily routine took about 30 minutes, and the weekly bale feeding took about an hour, for an average of about 40 person-minutes per day, or .13 person-minutes per ewe per day.

That's right. It took nearly 10 times as much labor to care for the shed-lambing flock as it did the pasture lambing flock.

Once lambing started in the shed, we had three full-time shepherds, plus an intern or a part-time employee working. An average lambing day required about 36 person-hours in the shed, or nearly five person-minutes per ewe per day. The spring lambing flock continues to require .13 person minutes per ewe per day, or about three percent of the labor required for the winter lambing flock.

Hay and grain consumption in the shed rose as the ewes went into high production and the lambs started to eat their creep grain. At the peak, I was putting out 1,200 pounds of grain per day in the shed. The spring lambers were still fat and sassy without any grain.

When the winter lambing ended and weather outside began to warm up, we started to turn the ewes and lambs out of the shed so that we could start to remove the bedded pack. One of the shepherds went off the payroll, and one became essentially a machine operator for four to six hours a day, digging out and stacking the winter's manure.

That left me, more or less on my own, tending to 300 ewes lambing on pasture. I was working about 10 hours a day. So about two person-minutes per day per ewe for lambing time.

When all was said and done, those 450 ewes weaned 810 lambs, and the 300 we lambed outside weaned 535 -- roughly the same number of lambs per ewe (1.8). Each of those 810 lambs from the winter had more than 3 hours of labor in it, while the lambs born out on pasture had less than 45 minutes. Winter lambing was more than three times as labor intensive as pasture lambing per weaned lamb.

The winter lambing flock also required much more machine and petroleum input, as well as more purchased feed -- roughly double the pasture lambing flock. The bottom line was that I had a cost of production of a January-born lamb of about $105 at weaning, and about $75 in a pasture-born lamb. The cost of production was 40 percent higher overall for a lamb born in the winter as one born in the spring.

Since I left that farm, winter lambing has not been an option. I don't have a barn, and lambs born in the snow when it's -10 F have little chance of survival. I've also made a strategic business decision that I don't want to hire shepherds -- even at lambing time. That means spring lambing on pasture with ewes that can birth, mother, and raise their own lambs with little or no help from me.

Spring lambing is not without its problems. I have a group of lambs right now that still need to gain some weight before they are marketable, and it's really hard to get growth on lambs at this time of year; they burn up a lot of calories just keeping warm. I need more pasture land per ewe than most winter-lambing flocks, because lambs are often marketed before they place much demand on pasture. But on balance, I think I'd rather be in here by the wood stove when it's 20 below zero and blowing, than doing a nighttime barn check and trying to warm a frozen lamb.


  1. Yer one hell of a number cruncher Bill! LOL
    Makes me want to rethink my whole operation! So far though,lambing in January in NC is about the same as lambing in March/April in the mountains of Utah, (except without the snow) so it hasnt changed much for me.

  2. Hi Darci,

    I used to find number crunching tedious, and I still do to some extent. But the results can be really illuminating -- the numbers will tell you a lot about your farm business.