It all starts with some very enthusiastic lads and gentlemen! The rather smelly, grumpy older men of the operation know when it is time. They start wrinkling their noses into tighter layers, lifting their upper lips and bullying the younger lads, who are keenly pawing the ground, sensing excitement in the air but not sure what all the excitement is about. Yes, these are the rams, the gentlemen-in-waiting, who spend most of their year eating, ruminating, sleeping and pushing one another around, in daily scrums. This is their moment, their season, when they are released into the equally enthusiastic groups of ladies-in-waiting, the ewes. Most of this activity occurs in the late fall, when the majority of our ewes will be bred, 143 to 147 days ahead of the pasture lambing season.
Ahead of their release and the dates marked in the calendar as “Rams In!” they will be checked for signs of health and functionality (yep, I’ll let you guess about that one!), and there will be a scan of their dangly ear rings, or radio-frequency identification tags, which will help us determine breed, age, breeding group and which ewes they will be bred to. They are dewormed, vaccinated and sorted … and, then, finally released!
Our ladies-in-waiting, the ewes, are sorted into groups according to age, breed and lineage and put into specific areas and barns. Believe me, keeping them sorted is the ultimate test of our fencing systems. There is nothing like hormones to make a sheep extraordinarily determined, to the detriment of everything else, including mere details such as five strands of electric fencing or a solid barn wall.
The sheep get on with the business of creating the next generation for Drover’s Way Farm. They are marked for three-week intervals, which is a typical heat cycle for the ewes, and then the next big sort occurs for removing some rams, changing others and checking condition. The rams, ever enthusiastic about following their job description, often fail to eat because it is too much of a distraction for the job at hand. Sometimes an enforced timeout is necessary for their own good, much to their chagrin.
As shepherds, we want to keep certain genetics flowing in the right direction. Of course, that is of little interest to either the ewes or the rams! Mission is accomplished by Christmas as the natural breeding season comes to a close. Both sheep and shepherds can then come into the fold for a much-needed “long winter’s nap.”
The winter nap is, in reality, quite short for the shepherd. As soon as the winter season arrives, the herding and pasturing routine ends and the choring and feeding season begins in earnest. The ewes are sorted into various “tunnels” (hoop and canvas buildings) with attached yards, or fields. The rams are parked into the “gentleman’s club,” otherwise known as the ram pen.
A certain percentage of our ewes that were bred earlier, for winter lambing, will be parked in the older barn. Our farm has been farmed since 1816, and portions of this barn date from that period, with other sections added, as needed, over the past two centuries. There is nothing like an old barn to provide warmth and shelter for the animals, although the design leaves much to be desired for the farmer when feeding and bedding. Tunnels, yards or modern barns are much easier to feed into, with modern equipment.
Some of our feeding chores require that we put hay in feeders outdoors, but most of the hay is unrolled down the long aisles of the tunnels. There is less wastage this way. Grain is fed out daily, through a little wagon with a side delivery door, custom-designed to pull behind an ATV and otherwise known as a sheep snacker. Try explaining that purchase to your long-suffering accountant as you try to make a tax statement! However, using an ATV and customized sheep equipment means that we don’t have to start a tractor to do the job. It requires much less fuel and is a big advantage at –25°C (–13°F) in the winter.
Hay can provide for most of the nutritional needs of our mamas, but most of the ewes will be carrying twins, and many will have triplets or more. It is important to give them the nutrition that their pregnancies require. Grain and high-quality hay fill this need effectively. We also provide free choice salt and minerals in covered feeders that the sheep can access at all times. I do question their ongoing enthusiasm for salt, though. Isn’t that like giving us humans salty chips? Ah, well, it keeps them happy.
Winter progresses, and just as we get into the coldest days of the year, the first lamb of the new year will inevitably appear. They never wait for that sunny, warmer winter day. It seems that bluster, storm and snow is their favourite moment of entry. Fortunately, the body warmth of the animals keeps the old barn warm, just above 0°C (32°F), which is all the lambs need to get moving, nursing from their mother and gaining that liquid gold, called colostrum, which is very high in fat and gives them the energy they need to learn how to be a lamb in this brave new world. It is quite incredible to see such a tiny animal not only survive but thrive in the deepest, coldest part of winter. It gives us all hope that new life is ongoing and spring will soon be here.
Meanwhile, in other tunnels with outdoor and indoor spaces, we have been feeding lambs that will be sold at market. One tunnel is reserved for the ewe lambs (females) and another for the ram lambs (males). They have reached the obnoxious teenage stage, obstreperous and full of ego, with grain (corn and barley) and hay as their primary interests in life. They bully one another for space, and we must provide enough feeder space so they all get equal access.
Unfortunately, being male in the barnyard world is not necessarily an advantage. A small number will be selected as ram replacements, to be sold for breeding purposes. The rest are sold as market lambs.
A decent percentage of our ewe lambs are kept back as replacements for our flock, as the older ewes go into retirement at eight years of age (some will live out their lives on the farm, while others will be sold at market). The rest of the ewe lambs are kept for market lambs.
The sheep are fed on our farm until the last day, when we trailer them to markets, one being an hour away, another about five hours away. We are very careful about how we transport them, giving them sufficient space, with feed always available, and calm handling. The sheep don’t know what is happening; all they care about is the present moment, being free of fear and with food in front of them. It is crucial to us that they have good lives, beginning to end. We work with multiple people, from individual handlers to industry regulators, to ensure that this happens. I find that these groups will listen to the farmer, because we know our animals so well.
Just as the last market lamb goes out the door, spring pasture lambing will begin, starting in April. For a sheep farmer, this is absolutely the most exciting time of the year. It is physically and emotionally demanding, like a marathon, as we act as midwives for the many lambs that will arrive over a two-month period. The ewes have their lambs in safe zones (safe from predators), where there is good grass, extensive fencing and a cavalcade of dogs, their guardian angels, including Great Pyrenees and Maremmas. We try to keep a low profile as shepherds, only interfering when there are birthing challenges, medical issues or extra nutritional needs resulting from weather challenges. We give them lots of space, so they can give birth calmly, acting on thousands of years of instinct, as domesticated sheep.
Spring lambing is a very different lambing experience from winter lambing, where less space demands more extensive penning, feeding and human involvement in the barn. In the spring, nothing beats the joy of watching young lambs gambol with one another, playing “king of the castle” games on mounds of dirt or hay, and running back to their mothers for a quick sup before rejoining playgroup—these are the moments that all shepherds live for. The next generation on Drover’s Way Farm has arrived and has thrived.
The big day finally arrives, when the entire ewe and lamb flock is released onto full pasture. As shepherds, this is a thrilling moment but also a bit scary. We have worked hard all winter to monitor, nurture, provide for our mamas and enable the best conditions for their lambs. We are launching them into a world where they will face predators and natural hazards, and the lambs will have to learn how to be part of the flock. It isn’t an easy task, but one that we feel is a good use of our land and pasture. The flock will live for the next six months on permanent and improved (planted) pasture, to eat, play, grow. It is a pastoral cycle of herding, pasturing, protecting from predators and parasites, and managing the grass growth and development. We will also spend considerable time making hay and grain for their winter feed. The age-old farming cycle continues, as it has for thousands of years.