You do what?!

That is often the response sheep producers get when you start talking about lambing season. Most people in the general public have no idea what it’s like to raise livestock. Sure, they have probably either had children or they know what happens in a general sense. But we won’t go there…….

Let’s go to the lambing barn instead!

Lambing season is a time of year that is very rewarding but also hard. It starts out in December for Doug and me. The barn needs to be cleaned, lambing jugs (special pens for new moms and their lambs) need to be set up, supplies need to be ordered, etc. Then the wait begins…..sure we checked our ewes with an ultrasound and we have breeding dates on most, but we are still anxiously waiting on those first lambs.

The first lambs are always the most exciting. You go down to the barn in the cold dark of night (for the 5th time), find a ewe by herself (for privacy of course!) and there they are. Sweet little lambs trying to find their first meal, busy with attempting to stand up, and the ewe is working hard to get them cleaned and dried. You get them into a lambing jug, make sure everyone is healthy and nursing, check the rest of the ewes, and go back to bed for the night. Normally after the first lambs are born the rest of the ewes follow suit pretty quickly! It is also a general rule that most lambs are born on the cold, snowy, nasty nights where going to the barn is actually painful (frozen mud is slick!). Keep in mind this is in January. You are fresh and ready to welcome more lambs into the world! You jump out of bed in the mornings and get to the barn as quick as you can to see if there are new lambs. All of your supplies are organized and easy to find.  There’s still a spring in your step! Now let’s fast forward to February…..

By now you’ve seen many (40+ at least) lambs enter the world, you’ve had to help a few ewes give birth (it’s hard to help when you cannot see!), and you’ve had more than a few late nights in the barn. The barn is where you live during this time of year. You’re up by 6:00 am or earlier every morning (livestock don’t know what sleeping in is) and you are usually checking the barn for the last time at midnight or later. Needless to say you aren’t jumping out of bed anymore, it’s more like your husband/wife dragging you out of bed and forcing you into your Muck boots each day. Your Carharts are filthy (who has time for laundry?), your “barn clothes” are the same (why wash them when you’re just going back in a few hours?) and you have lord knows what underneath your fingernails (impossible to get out). You are sleep deprived & exhausted (see above), and you now know what it feels like to be run over by hungry lambs (you are the milk supply/surrogate mother for bottle babies, this is your job!). By the end of February you have successfully tubed a few lambs, managed to keep everyone alive and healthy and  pulled  15 +lb.  lambs out of their exhausted, first time mother. It was a hard battle but you finally got them out safely! Most of my students (I teach Animal Science courses) think pulling a lamb or calf is awesome. Yes and no. I say yes because if it all works out you will have a healthy ewe and lambs to raise. I say no because usually something is wrong if you have to assist. A lamb is too big, his shoulders are stuck, twins are trying to come out at once, a lamb dies and has to be removed, get the picture now? If you don’t have to help then that means everything was most likely normal, the ewe does her job, and you get to assist in other, less intrusive, cleaner ways (they make those gloves shoulder length for a reason!).

Wait, I thought you just said raising livestock was rewarding?

Yes, yes it is! All of this work is for the end product: a lamb in the hands of a 4-H or FFA member, a little girl proudly showing her first sheep that you sold her, a parent seeing their child win in showmanship (late nights practicing pay off big time), a “champion slap” or equivalent handshake in the show ring for your prized yearling ewe you raised from a lamb. All of those late nights in the barn, hours spent up to your elbows in colostrum, iodine, feces, and well… know. All of those moments are hard earned, and it all starts from the moment that lamb hits the ground in January. Without you that lamb may not have made it. That ewe that had triplets all trying to exit at once (“It’s my turn, no it’s mine! Get your head out of there I’m next!”) may have just given up. That lamb you found outside of the barn may have frozen. Without everyone’s hard work the livestock industry would be a sorry place indeed. So keep going to the barn at midnight to check that ewe, keep pulling on those nasty Carharts (after all they are warm), keep wiping sticky lamb feces (bright yellow!) off of little rear ends (yes this is necessary), and continue showing visitors your lambs (have them come at feeding time to help out, you might make their day!). Keep on keeping on, spring is almost here and summer is just around the corner! Summer means 4-H project meetings, fairs, skillathon practices, and seeing how your sheep perform in the show ring. That lamb you saved might win its class at a big fair, or even on the green shavings in November!

But for now I am going to go check the barn (no lambs as of 8:00 pm today), brave the cold weather (25 degrees and snowing), and hope those lambs start coming soon!

Happy New Year and Happy Lambing Season! It will all be worth it in the end 🙂

– Jessy

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