Fall Lambing

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Lambing in the fall instead of spring fits our household calendar, our sometimes drought prone summer pastures and our desire to market Easter lamb.

Into middle age, with adult children living out of town and with interests that take us adventuring, the flock must be “leave-able”.  Lambing season, when I stay close to the barn, dovetails well with projects that we tackle during our mild fall weather.

On our thin soil, our pasture regrowth usually slows in mid-summer, especially in dry years. By breeding the ewes in early summer, when the grass is lush and finishing the ewes’ pregnancies on the more robust fall regrowth, we can take advantage of the growing cycles of our pasture plants.

And finally, lamb is a traditional meat for spring holidays. As a seller, I have more options for marketing if I am prepared to sell finished lamb in early spring.

With flock management practices in place to boost our success, we begin our first fall lambing season. 

 

 

Breeding for fall lambing

Raising lamb for the spring market takes advantage of our lusher spring and fall pastures and increased market demand. Historically, our pastures bounce back after the heat of summer; this regrowth coincides with the ewes' increased nutritional demands in late gestation. The warmer ground in the fall also extends our lambing area beyond the enclosed barn to the surrounding barnyard, which allows us to increase the ewe flock if we wish.

One of the drawbacks to fall lambing is lower conception rates, even with sheep like our Katahdins that will breed out of season. To bring our ewes into heat in early summer we are employing a teaser, a vasectomized ram. Exposure to the teaser ram's hormones brings the ewe flock into a synchronized heat cycle. After we remove the teaser ram and introduce our active ram, the flock should breed successfully. I am not sure how all of this will work in reality, especially in this first year. To increase our chances for success, our spring lambing season was a little earlier than usual to allow the ewes to recover and our new secure fencing enforced weaning of the spring lambs. As always, I am hopeful and look forward to a second 2017 lambing season.

 Duncan is handsome but his offspring were not so he stays on the farm as a "teaser" ram.

Duncan is handsome but his offspring were not so he stays on the farm as a "teaser" ram.

Lambing 2017

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Lambing began in the dark nights of the new moon; now, two weeks into lambing, a full moon lights my way to the barn.

 

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During my regular barn checks, I watch the ewes for signs of lambing. Ewes may become restless, dig in the bedding, yawn excessively, stare at the ceiling with heads thrown back, and lick their lips. I also watch the ewes that move away from the flock to be alone.

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With few exceptions, the ewes manage the birthing process with little interference. It is those few exceptions that keep me on guard. One ewe needed help with a lamb presenting with only one foot forward and a twin pushing from behind. Another ewe, needed her first twin lamb protected from an over zealous ewe that wanted to claim her baby. (That overly hormonal ewe did have her own lamb in 5 hours, within the confines of a secure pen.)

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Murphy, Flock Guardian

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After a week of rain, it was time to tag Mab's lambs (born 4/30) and transition them into the pasture with the flock. Because I inadvertently left a gate open, the transition from lambing jug to flock was very accelerated. Mab brought her lambs up through the yard and towards the grazing flock. Once the electric fence lines were moved, Mab took her lambs into the paddock.

For Murphy, flock guardian, the lambs, especially the ram-lamb, were intruders and he got to work.  With a calculated race around the paddock, he moved his flock to the far end of the field, then with nose and hoof, shoved the ram-lamb away from Mab and her ewe-lamb. Ears back, hide quivering, Murphy looked fierce, especially next to the week old lamb. 

As the flock moved to welcome Mab back to the flock, I moved to calm Murphy. If you drove by that day, you would have seen me waving my coat to get Murphy's attention, pushing the ram-lamb towards his mother and positioning my body between lamb and donkey. (I'd like to think I was a calm, quiet shepherd; honestly, there was a wide gap between my aspirations and reality that afternoon.)

With my hand on Murphy's back, we followed the newest members of the flock around the paddock. Mab contentedly grazed, ewe-lamb by her side while Murphy followed the ram-lamb, as he wandered though the flock and occasionally sprinted away from the shock of the electric fence.

I stepped back when Murphy settled: ears turning at every sound. not pinned back; eyes following the lambs, not wide and wild; nostrils sniffing in the lambs' direction, not wide open and snorting; and hide smooth, not twitching. Murphy walked up to the ever calm Mab, sniffed her and the ewe-lamb and then followed the wandering ram-lamb into the middle of the flock. Now that the ram-lamb was not an intruder, Murphy nudged the lamb towards its ewe, and kept the flock away from the trio as they got accustomed to grazing together. 

Until dark, I saw Murphy circling the trio, repeatedly nosing that meandering ram-lamb back to Mab's side. The next day the flock was a seamless unit and Murphy's new adversaries were a few stray Guineas that appeared in our fields.

 

 

The middle of lambing season

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At the beginning of lambing, the barn was a quiet place with the ewes eating and resting. Watching for restless behavior and counting heads was pretty straightforward during my regular barn checks. Now that about half of the ewes have lambed, the barnyard is busy place. 

After the lambs and their mothers leave the lambing jugs they are moved to a barn stall with its own paddock. In the small paddock and with a few other lamb/ewe families, the lamb-ewe bond is strengthened. The lambs and their dams learn to find each other in this temporary small flock. The transition is not always smooth and I occasionally have to go to the barn to move a  bleating lamb around a corner to her frantically calling mother.

Once I am sure of the lamb-ewe bond, I move the families in with the larger flock. Fortunately the first ewe to lamb, Mauve, is also my fiercest mother and under her protection, her lamb moved safely within the flock. The first night Mauve and her lamb were in the barn, most of the flock slept outside to avoid Mauve's protective foot stomping.

Last night there were three lambs in with the larger flock. Each ewe staked out her own area of the barn for her lamb. The still expecting ewes were resting together with only a few outside. 

Watching the widening, expectant ewes; the just born lambs stand so quickly to suckle after birth; the lamb/ewe families as they bond and the flock as it integrates new members, is fascinating. For me it just does not get tiresome, even as slip into my Muck boots for another barn check.

 

Lambing jugs

 First lamb in the new lambing jug.

First lamb in the new lambing jug.

As our flock has grown, so has our need for more lambing jugs. A lambing "jug" is a small pen that a ewe and her lamb/lambs are housed in after lambing. In this small space, separate but still near the flock, the mother and lamb bond. The lamb learns the sound of its mother's nicker and how to nurse away from the jostling of the flock. The ewe/lamb bond is very important for the  success of the lamb, especially when the flock is turned out onto pasture.

We cut panels from our local ag' supply store with 4"x4" openings to length then "stitched" them together with spiral posts from Premier. The backbone of the jug pens is an uncut 16' panel. The spirals make a perfect hinge for the front of the jug and a clip latches the front door closed.

A bucket hook holds the water safely off the ground, away from the curious lamb. The welded wire hay feeder was an add on item I ordered from D-S livestock when we bought our handling system last November. It hooks over the wire panel (or a wood board). 

If all goes well, ewes get two days in the jug; new mothers and groups of twins or triplets get a few extra days before they rejoin the flock.

 

Watching the ewes

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It is in the last few weeks of gestation that lambs do most of their growing. By watching the sheep for changes in behavior, I can sometimes ward off lambing complications.

So when I go out to check the ewe flock, what am I looking for?

  • First thing I do when I leave the house is to listen. Generally the sheep are quiet; if the sheep are noisy, I need to find out what has them upset.
  • As I approach the flock I look at it as a whole. I want to see that all the girls are near to each other. Stragglers may be sick or out of sorts. If the stragglers do not join the flock as I approach, I need to get closer to check for signs of discomfort.
  • I count the sheep to make sure no ewe has wandered away.
  • I observe the ewes' ears. Katahdin ears usually stick out to the side and move to better hear my approach. Drooping ears can be a sign of illness or pain.
  • When the sheep stand first thing in the morning, I like to see them give a big stretch, almost like a cat, which signals good health.
  • When I can get a hand on the girls, I wiggle my fingers through their hair feeling for prominent bones. Too much bone and a ewe needs more feed.
  • I watch the back ends of my ewes. When the ewes are lying down, I check for early signs of prolapse. I look at the girls' udders to make sure they are filling evenly. I also watch for any discharge that can be a sign of impending labor.
  • Before lambing, hollows sometimes appear in front of some ewes' hipbones.
  • Feeling for signs of labor I check the fullness of udders and the loosness of the ligaments at the top of the tail head. 

With less than two weeks until lambing, I check the flock a few times during the day and once after dark. Next week I will start the late night and early morning barn checks.

Maude

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Maude is one of our original Katahdin ewes. She has given us 6 lambs and raised 8, accepting a set of 8 day old twins when their mother died. This is her fifth breeding season and I believe she is bred. She is calm and very maternal, "un-weaning" lambs as they move through our summer grazing paddocks. Last year, a day before her own lamb arrived, Maude tried to "steal" new lambs from their mothers-herding the lambs into a corner and pushing the actual mothers away. Until I moved Maude  and her equally maternal flockmate Mab, into their own pen, the usually quiet flock was unsettled-ewes running in circles and lambs crying for their mothers.

A ewe that steals lambs puts her own soon-to-arrive lambs in danger by feeding the first milk, colostrum, to another lamb, leaving her own lambs at risk. Without the nutrient dense, antibody rich colostrum, a lamb's survival rate is decreased.

This year I am keeping an eye out for overly maternal behaviors and will pen Maude or Mab with a companion before the flock is upset.

 

Lamb shanks

From a 2010 NPR article
If someone asked you what part of the lamb the shank comes from, you'd probably guess right: It's the lower part of the leg, from the knee down. The kneeward part is the meaty part; there's practically nothing as you get toward the hoof. As in any animal, the most-used muscles are the toughest ones. 

In spite of being "one of the toughest cuts," shanks can be the centerpiece of a simply seasoned braise. Quickly seared in a hot pan, then braised (cook slowly in liquid in a lidded pot) at a low temperature, it takes very little effort to bring a richly flavored meal to the table. When the meat is cooked, I usually remove it from the pot and cook down the braising liquid to make an easy sauce to top the meat.

Keeping track of lambs

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Last year I started using colored lamb ear tags. With color coding, I was able to keep track of sire, and that a lamb was a single, twin or triplet. From afar, I was able to compare Burgess' lambs (blue sire tag) and Duncan's (purple sire tag). Early on I did not worry if a lamb with a lime ear tag was a bit small, after all it was a triplet.

In the past,ewes and their lambs were marked with one (single), two (twin) or three (triplet) lines to quantify the type of birth. This year I will paint the dam's ear tag number to their lambs' backs to aid in quick, from-across-the-barn assessments. This will be helpful early on when lambs can get separated from their ewes and later in the spring when they are first out on pasture.

 

 

Ground lamb

 Grilled lamb burgers with crumbled goat cheese

Grilled lamb burgers with crumbled goat cheese

Growing up we did not eat lamb so learning to cook the lamb we raise, beyond chops or a leg roast, has been a learning experience.

I have discovered that in all the recipes I have attempted, ground lamb can replace all or part of the ground beef. As I experiment with Middle Eastern, North African and Greek recipes, their spice blends compliment the delicate lamb flavor. As much as I like my mother's old family "Meat Mixture"  recipe for stuffing a pumpkin, substituting ground lamb for her choice of ground beef balances the earthy pumpkin flavor. Since family lore says that it is an old recipe, I wonder if beef was a modern concession over lamb, mutton or a mixture of different meats.

For those accustomed to cooking with imported lamb from Australia,New Zealand or feedlot fattened meat, our grassfed meat is leaner and to my taste, milder. 

If you want to try lamb in a recipe of your own, give me a call.  

Boat barn to sheep barn

 The Boat Barn sits across the drive, behind and a little to the right of the Barn.

The Boat Barn sits across the drive, behind and a little to the right of the Barn.

The Boat Barn stores our assortment of homemade,wooden boats and farm equipment. With its access to the North Field and physical separation from the Barn Field, it is a great location for overwintering the vacationing rams,weaning lambs from their ewes,and providing an extra pen for sorted sheep.

 Sliding door on the north corner of the Boat Barn

Sliding door on the north corner of the Boat Barn

A sliding barn door works best,especially when piled snow is on the ground and would impede a swinging door. If we need to keep the door closed,the opaque window panel opens,adding ventilation to the pen inside.

 The hay feeder and water bucket are accessible from outside the pen.

The hay feeder and water bucket are accessible from outside the pen.

I can add hay and water from outside the pen which is especially important when the rams are unhappily separated from their ewes. The Boat Barn has electricity to keep water in a heated bucket unfrozen, running water,and an easy to clean concrete floor.

 High stall walls should keep separated sheep in place.

High stall walls should keep separated sheep in place.

Tucked around the small craft, there is room for some convenient hay storage.

Just for this winter,we pounded posts and wired on temporary fencing for a winter ram paddock. In the spring we will permanently fence the North Field with small grazing paddocks,access to the orchard,and long gates so that big boat can leave on its next cruise.

Lilac Hill Farm Cassoulet

Cassoulet is a rich, slow cooked bean  dish, traditionally prepared with pork sausages, duck/goose pieces and pork skin.  The combination of the tender meats, creamy beans and caramelized crusty top is very satisfying, especially in winter. Once the dish is assembled and set to slowly bake, it requires little attention.

 A few cooking notes for adjusting this recipe:

  • Since our larder does not always have the exact meats listed in the recipe, I follow the techniques listed in this recipe, but substitute lamb shoulder chops, lamb or pork sausage and our pasture raised chicken and duck legs and thighs.
  • Until our next pig butchering when I will add enough garlic sausage to our cutting order to satisfy our cassoulet cravings , I add garlic to our ground lamb or pork. 
  • I do use rendered duck fat from our birds. Even if we do not raise many ducks this year, I will raise a few especially for the fat.
  • Our cassoulet has more beans and less meat than recommended in the recipe because we really like the beans and my cast iron pot fits fewer pieces of meat neatly on top.
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Flocking Behavior

 Our sheep are content the the company of other sheep. Each sheep is aware of the actions of their flock mates.

Our sheep are content the the company of other sheep. Each sheep is aware of the actions of their flock mates.

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 Some ewes stay closest to their pasture buddies.

Some ewes stay closest to their pasture buddies.

I use the natural flocking behavior of our sheep to move them around the farm. With only 26 ewes I can move the flock into the barnyard, across the road to the Hill Field and between pastures without the assistance of a herding dog. 

Once a sheep, usually one that is most curious and friendly, starts moving towards me in the field, the others follow. To complete the move I circle around the back of the flock, forcing the stragglers towards the rest of the group.

 

 

 

Roasting a whole lamb, without a spit or a deep hole.

In an effort to expand my repertoire of lamb recipes, we roasted a whole lamb for Easter.

With a wether lamb in the barn, a houseful of easy to please guests, roasters locally available and an experienced pig roasting friend, I was ready to attempt this new venture.

Honestly, the recipes I read on the internet were a bit daunting. The ground is still partially frozen, so digging a big hole for a fire was out of the question and an expensive spit did not seem like a good investment, for our first try.  So we decided to apply the “low and slow” method of roasting meat to create a tender, evenly cooked product.

Here’s what we did:

I brought the lamb in from the cooler an hour before roasting.

We started the charcoal with two chimney starters in the belly of the roaster. Once the coals in the chimneys were hot, they were poured  out and 50 more pounds of briquets and a few pieces of apple wood were piled on top. Our roasting expert ( friends with skills are this cook’s blessing)  used a shop vac to blow air on the briquets, to get the coals burning quickly.

While the fired was building, I blended a rub for the lamb: olive oil,chopped garlic and parsley, and homemade basil, lemon and chili salts. We covered the whole lamb with the seasoned olive oil and added a few heads of garlic and quartered oranges to the abdominal cavity and stitched it up.

Once the coals were hot, the drip pan was set in the roaster then the grate to heat.

We placed the lamb, belly side toward the fire, legs splayed and inserted  digital thermometers into the leg and shoulder.

Thanks to the wise advice and watchful eye of our friend, the grill was kept at 225’.

Although I would have preferred to take the lamb off the grill at around 145’, it cooked much quicker than expected, and we pulled it off the grill when the leg thermometer read 166’. (This took about 2 1/2 hours of roasting.) The shoulder, which takes longer to cook was about 145’.

We set the lamb on a clean tablecloth on the picnic table and covered it with pieces of foil.

After half an hour of rest, I sliced the lamb.

The meat was moist and slightly smokey.

Perfect for our celebration.

Next time, to protect the bottom of the legs from over roasting, I’ll wrap them with foil.

And, I will remember to take pictures.

 

Wethers to the butcher

Yesterday I drove two wether lambs to Gensemer's in Bloomsburg. Caroline was correct, Katahdins gain weight when the weather turns cold. Selecting for calm ewes, building efficient handling systems to limit stress and rotational grazing across our improving pastures seems to have fostered my developing shepherding skills. Hopefully this experience will translate into higher finished weights. The two lambs in the back of my Subaru looked good; there is a certain amount of satisfaction in a job well done.

 

Settling in for winter

With the wind starting to blow, the water tote near empty and the North Field grazed down, it was time to move the cows into the Barn Field with the sheep. The two shelters, hay ring, unfinished hay from the ram pen and troughs were also dragged into the field. After a bit of jostling for position, the sheep, donkey and cows are content. The Barn Field is protected from the wind and quite lovely, especially on this sunny day.

Transient

Barn pedicures

 We wormed the flock earlier this week and today we trimmed hooves.

Transient

Usually trimming is physically challenging: herd the sheep into a corral, catch one, turn it over and restrain the moving leg and trim hooves as the sheep sits back on your legs.

Fortunately I borrowed a sling chair from Caroline at Owen's Farm in Sunbury, PA earlier this week. Instead of flipping and resting the sheep on our legs, we backed the sheep into the chair. Secure within the sling seat, the sheep were relatively still.

In addition to trimming I made sure the gland between the toes (sheep are cloven hoofed, the hoof is split into two toes) was clear. 

 


 

Transient

The new ewes we purchased earlier this summer were ear tagged too.

Ear tags are a mostly permanent way of identifying sheep. Record keeping is an important tool in building a healthy flock. Armed with data I can select the most successful sheep on our farm with an eye towards reducing worming medications and birthing complications and increasing butcher weights and overall vigor.

I say mostly permanent because my oldest ewes have lost their Lilac Hill tags. Their original farm tags are still intact. I may purchase the more secure tags in the future.

 

 

Transient

 On Lilac HIll Farm, I ear tag the ewes on the left ear and the rams and wethers on the right.  With the left/right tagging, I can identify the girls and boys from afar. Why left=girls/right=boys? I am the only leftie in the house so it makes sense to me.

Because well trimmed hooves are so important to the well being of our pasture raised and bred sheep, I view this as the beginning of our lambing year.

 

Death on the Farm

Today one of the ewe lambs I brought to the farm last week died. This was not altogether unexpected. After the dash to catch and pen the lambs in the trailer, I noticed one had bottle jaw, defined by Merriam Webster's medical dictionary as "a pendulous edematous condition of the tissues under the lower jaw in cattle and sheep resulting from infestation with bloodsucking gastrointestinal parasites." I knew that the seller's farm had wormed the sheep two days before we arrived. I also noted that only two sheep in the flock had bottle jaw. Rather than unloading the affected sheep from the trailer, the owner did not charge me for the ewe until we were sure of good health. Today during morning chores the ewe was not with her flock and by lunch she had died.

This incident brings up all sorts of "farmer" thoughts.  

I am glad that we have multiple paddocks where I can quarantine new animals on the farm. In the next 6-8 weeks I will worm the new ewes again and watch for other health issues.

If the former owner had not offered the ewe for free until proved, I would not have taken her home. My limited experience has taught me that at least. What I had not thought as carefully about was the  answer to the what-if-she-survives question. I had hoped to use the ewe in my breeding program but I do not believe that would have benefitted Lilac Hill in the long run. Adding a ewe that is not resistant or resiliant to worms is not a ewe that should be in any breeding flock. With wormer medications losing their effectiveness against parasites, better management practices, including targeted worming, rotational grazing and multispecies grazing as well as breeding for resistant and resiliant sheep will build the strong flock I envision.

I am glad that I follow an experienced farmer's advice to watch my animals every day. With only five days of observing the new sheep, I knew that something was wrong with the ewe today, even though her bottle jaw seemed to be resolving.

Following Penn State recommendations, we composted the body. Rather than relying on the assistance of a friend and his equipment, as we have in the past, our small skid-steer handled the task. Today I was very glad that we are far along enough in our farm building to know that dead animals should be composted, to own the skid-steer to manage the heavy work and to be able to operate the machine effectively. Having a just started compost pile of last winter's chicken bedding and a few bales of rotten hay at the edge of the property, also made the job easier.

It is a rotten day on the farm when an animal dies. Fortunately, rotten days usually teach me something about being a better caretaker of this farm.

 

New bachelor

The "Wedding sheep" have left the farm and Burgess was left alone in the Bachelor Field.  With an eye to lambing in April next year, Burgess' services are not needed until winter so he must remain behind the sturdy fence. As a herd creature, he cannot live alone so I selected a wethered lamb from this year to keep him company.  Initially I moved one of Maude's twins in with Burgess but Paxton managed to squeeze through the gate.  Mab's lamb is larger and cannot escape so he was my second choice. 

The weaning process is unsettling for the flock so I moved the ewes and lambs within the confines of the barnyard. Last night, the second night of separation, I did not hear the sad bleating across the farm. I believe the ewes will go back onto pasture, and behind two strands of electric twine tomorrow.

Burgess likes his pasture companion; his gentle nature is apparent. When I had observed this lamb in the field, he seemed to inherit his ewe's calm nature which will be a welcome addition to the flock during breeding season.

Since the little guy will be on the farm until next year, he will need a name.  Since the ewe lambs from this year are Shakespearian, Portia, Beatrice and Hero, maybe Claudio or Antonio would suit.