Friday, February 3, 2017

How to Tell When Your Ewe is Going to Lamb

Happy Friday, everyone! This week I am thirty weeks pregnant and simultaneously super excited and a little nervous. I know I've said it before, but this pregnancy is flying by. I can't believe I'm going to have another squish to snuggle in just two months! We should probably get our butt in gear and pick out some names, purchase another car-seat, and dig out the baby clothes. It's crazy how with the first kid you plan everything and by the third you're all, "eh, everything will work out just fine!"

But anyways.... we aren't here to talk about human babies today.

Let's talk about sheep and how to tell when your ewe will have her lambs.

Knowing when to be on the lookout for lambs can be very helpful so you can prepare your supplies ahead of time and make yourself available to assist in the delivery if needed.

There are many signs to look for but my husband and I have found that the best way is to look at your calendar, circle the day that would be the most inconvenient day for your ewe to go into labor, and that will be the day she will lamb.

Ok. Ok. Maybe that isn't entirely accurate :)

Here is a short video discussing some of the signs to watch for but read the post below for more information.

(Warning: Don't watch if sheep butts gross you out!)

The first thing to remember is that sheep, just like people, don't have a specific due date. It is more like a lambing window. So even if you know the exact date of breeding you won't have an exact due date.

With this in mind, it can be helpful to know either the date of breeding or at least know in what time period breeding occurred. Two falls ago we kept our ram separate from the flock until we wanted breeding season to begin. That way we knew not to expect lambs until at least Mid-March. This year we put the ram in with the flock in August which means we have a much longer lambing window. We have been on lamb-watch since the beginning of January.

The breed of sheep you have can also affect when lambing will occur. Some sheep, like our Icelandics, are very seasonal. This means that they won't even begin cycling until late October. It makes for a very predictable lambing season since I know to not expect those lambs until sometime in April. Some other sheep breeds have been known to cycle year-round. This is why many shepherds will keep the ram separate from the rest of the flock until they want breeding to occur.

Now, let's say you have your lambing window narrowed down. How do you know when she will actually give birth? While there is no tried and true method, there are some signs to look for.

  • The ewe may start acting "different." If you have a small flock you probably know each sheep's personality pretty well and will notice if she seems "off."
  • She may start acting extra lovey-dovey, stop eating, or separate herself from the rest of the flock.
  • The udder may become distended and start to feel full.
  • Her vulva will appear swollen, dilated, and will be darker in color.
  • She may begin leaking fluid from her vulva. From my experience, when this happens lambing will occur within 24 hours. 
We have found that most of our ewes exhibit these signs before birth but don't be surprised if one of yours doesn't. I hear not all sheep read my blog :) Farm-life can be unpredictable and sometimes the only signs we see are the lambs themselves.

Here is a post/video of one of our ewes giving birth last year.

Have a great weekend! Let me know how your lambing season goes in the comments below! 

P.S. This post may be linked up with some of my favorite blog hops.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Three Lessons in Keeping a Ram

It's that time of year.

Love is in the air.

Well, if you're a sheep that is.

And if you plan on having lambs this winter or spring you are going to need a ram.

This will be our third breeding season here at the homestead and while this makes us far from experts we have learned a thing or two about keeping a ram on the property. We have mostly learned through making mistakes and I would love to share them with you so you don't have to learn the hard way like we did.

Lesson One: Teach Respect and Manners

We bought our first ram three years ago. He was a 4-5 month old Icelandic ram. He was cute and still pretty small compared to our adult ewes. And while I had read up on how to handle a ram prior to purchasing him, his size and cuteness made it easy to forget that a ram should be treated differently than ewes.

Most people want friendly sheep. It is much easier to handle an animal that will readily come up to you. Since females are generally not very aggressive, especially with people, we train them to come right up to us for treats and scratches. From our experience, even if a ewe gets pushy waiting for her treat, she still never becomes aggressive. If she doesn't get what she wants, she will just walk away.

So even though I knew I should not give treats from my hand to the ram and allow him to be so forward, I did. He was cute and friendly and I couldn't imagine him becoming aggressive. He got treats and scratches and I didn't correct him when he approached me in a forward manner.

This was all fine and dandy that first breeding season while he was still a lamb. However, by the next fall it started to cause some major problems. He became very forward and would approach us even when we didn't have the treat bucket. He would act normal and then all of a sudden ram into you. He even started to ram with a running head start. He became dangerous and a liability.  We kept him for a few months to make sure all of the ewes were bred and then we butchered him.

We are now using a different ram and this time around he gets treated very differently. For one thing, the ram may only approach me when I am carrying our yellow treat bucket or when invited, otherwise I chase him away. If I do allow him to approach me I make him turn to the side so he can get some scratches on his rump. He is not allowed to be pushy and face me directly. I want him to be friendly but respectful. I never want him to think of me as being on the same level as him.

Lesson Two: Halter Training and Handling

With our first ram we had gotten him to be friendly enough by giving him treats but we never taught him to be handled. He was forward enough to get close and ram you but he was impossible to catch. This made dealing with him a nightmare. He was hard to catch and put up quite the fight when we needed to handle him. This means it took two people to deal with him even just for basic routine care.

We have since decided to halter train all of our rams. With our current ram he knows that whenever I have my yellow treat bucket he may approach me and allow me to put a halter on him. Once the halter is on him I tie him to a stake I have in the ground. This way I can safely be in the pen with the other sheep without having to constantly keep my eye on the ram. When I am finished, I will take him for a little walk around the pen to keep his halter skills fresh and then he gets another treat for waiting patiently when I take the halter off. Halter training has made handling this ram so much easier and it has also made being in the sheep pen so much safer since I can tie him up when needed.

Our Current Ram

Lesson Three: Breeding Harnesses are Hit or Miss

For many shepherds, a breeding harness is a wonderful thing. When they work it can be a great way to know when to expect lambs. Unfortunately, they don't work well for everyone. We bought one and instead of helping to determine our lambing season it just made things more confusing. Ewes were being marked and then remarked. Wethers were being marked. Icelandic ewes that should not be in heat until at least October were being marked in August. It made for a rainbow of sheep but I still have no idea when to expect lambs next year.

I think the reason I am having so much trouble with the breeding harness is our set-up. We practice intensive rotational grazing. We use electronet fencing and move the sheep every day or two to new grass. For shade we have a mobile shelter that we move along with them. During the peak heat of the day almost all of the sheep are laying under the shelter. I found this is when our ram decided to play with the ladies. He tries to mount them and because of the small space and the fact that they have no intention of leaving the shade, he is able to at least partially mount them. Thus leaving a mark even though the ewe is not bred. I have heard of similar stories of rams mounting ewes while the ewe has her head in the hay feeder. Rams are sneaky and I wish I would have known that this was a possibility before dumping a bunch of money into a harness and crayons.

I hope others can learn from our mistakes. This post from Stonehaven Farm is a great resource for dealing with ram behavior. Keeping a ram doesn't have to be hard but you always need to be intentional and aware.

Happy Shepherding! 

P.S. This post may be linked up with some of my favorite blog hops.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When You've Reached Your Limit & Her Name is Bonnie

Homesteaders want to do it all. However, we all have limits and I think we have found ours. Her name is Bonnie. The last few weeks have been overwhelming and I am happy to now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

You may remember this post where I mentioned that we would be getting a dairy cow and her calf in July. I have always wanted a dairy cow (what homesteader doesn't?) but hadn't planned on actually buying one for a couple of more years. Our plan was to keep our focus on the sheep and wait until the kids were older before adding on cattle. That all changed when a friend of mine offered me her cow in May. She is moving and won't be able to take the cow with her. The hubby and I jumped on board! When would a cow just fall into our laps again? We saw this as a great opportunity!

A dairy cow is a great opportunity, but I probably should have reread this post first. Once we brought the cow home I felt nothing but anxiety. She is a wonderfully gentle cow but we just didn't click. That sounds weird for me to say, but I just never felt as ease around her and I didn't feel comfortable with her around the kids. A lot of the daily animal care falls on me and I didn't like dealing with an animal I couldn't physically move or restrain by myself if necessary. She is a very large animal and I am just not ready to handle that yet, especially with two little kiddos in tow. Having another species on the homestead also required more work and planning. Once I realized I had made a mistake I talked to my friend, the previous owner, about it and we worked on finding Bonnie and her calf a better home. A home with someone who loves and most importantly has experience with cows. This weekend Bonnie and her calf will leave for their new forever home.

I am sad that this opportunity didn't work out but I'm glad it  has taught us some lessons. The biggest one being that decisions shouldn't be made in haste. I still love cows and I am sure that one day we will own one. But for this season in our lives we will stick with sheep as our dairy animal of choice.

Sheep have my heart and the Woolly Homestead will stay woolly for now.

Sally and Doughnut greeting me at the front door. "Hey, did you forget about us out here?"

Sally can be a pain in the butt sometimes but she loves her cuddles.

P.S. This post may be linked up with the following blog hops: Monday- The Art of Homemaking MondaysMostly Homemade Mondays, Tuesday- The Homestead Blog Hop, Wednesday- The Homemaking PartyHomestead Blog HopCoffee and Conversation, Thursday- Our Simple Homestead Blog Hop, Friday- From the Farm HopAwesome Life Friday, Saturday- Simply Natural SaturdaysSimple Saturdays.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Farm Scenes Friday 5/20/16

A day late. Oh well, that's how it goes sometimes. 

This week was all about hay. Unfortunately, the weather has not been cooperating the last few weeks. The field was not going to wait though and desperately needed to be hayed. The grass was starting to go to seed. So we went ahead and cut the field Wednesday morning and then baled it Friday evening since Saturday called for rain. Of course things didn't go smoothly but in the end things all worked out. Many of the bales are a little too wet but many bales turned out fine. Hopefully, the weather cooperates better for the second cutting later this season.

Luckily, the garden is cooperating! The garden is finally taking shape and seedlings are starting to pop up. We still need to get more seeds in the ground but at least things are started.

This weekend will be spent trying to get things ready for the cow we will be bringing home next month.

How was your week?

P.S. This post may be linked up with the following blog hops: Monday- The Art of Homemaking MondaysMostly Homemade Mondays, Tuesday- The Homestead Blog Hop, Wednesday- The Homemaking PartyHomestead Blog Hop, Thursday- Our Simple Homestead Blog Hop, Friday- From the Farm HopAwesome Life Friday, Saturday- Simply Natural SaturdaysSimple Saturdays.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Dairy Sheep: Our Milking Routine

Getting started with dairy sheep has been quite the experience and we are finally reaping the rewards! Last weekend we fully weaned Sally's and Doughnut's lambs and I started milking twice a day. This is only our first year and we are far from experts but since there isn't a ton of information on milking sheep like there is with milking cows or goats I wanted to share our experiences with you. Here is what we did this year, our plan for next year, and our daily milking routine.

This Year

Our initial plan was to start separating the lambs at night by 2-3 weeks old and then milk in the morning. Then fully wean by 4-8 weeks old depending on the size of the lambs. For multiple reasons, that plan did not work for us.

For starters we don't have a good setup in place for separating the lambs at night. Before spring pasture is available we keep our Icelandic flock in a paddock close to the house with a 3-sided shelter. They don't mind the weather and are a bit more wild then our milkers. The ewes we milk we keep in a large run-in type building. It has a large pen/stall for them that my husband built and has an attached outside yard for them. The rest of the run-in houses the stanchion and tractor equipment. Since we don't have an official barn there aren't stalls or extra room to separate the sheep.

Another reason is that when separated the ewes and lambs are super loud. Super loud. All. Night. Long. Our property is very narrow and in a semi-suburban area. So even though we have seven acres, we still have close neighbors. I tried separating them one night and didn't try again. They were too close and just called to each other all night long. I ended up going out in the middle of the night to reunite them. I didn't want to be THAT neighbor.

The last reason was that things just got hectic. Losing Sprinkles and her lamb to tetanus was an emotional blow and with everything else that goes on in spring I just felt drained for awhile. Milking is a big commitment and I wasn't ready to add that on until recently.

Before and After Milking

So now I am milking Sally (Icelandic/Finn) and Doughnut (East Friesian/Lacaune) twice a day. The Icelandic flock is out on grass 24/7 now so we put their lambs out with them and are keeping the dairy sheep close to the house. Now they are far enough apart that they don't call to each other and after a few days both parties have accepted their new normal. Unfortunately, I am not getting their full/peak production. I didn't keep up with stripping them out while they had their lambs on them and I didn't start milking until after six or so weeks. From what I could tell the ewes were already starting the weaning process and not letting the lambs nurse as much. It's a bummer, but lesson learned. I think Doughnut has the potential to make a lot more milk. Hopefully, next year she'll have twins to stimulate her milk supply more and I'll have my butt in gear by then.

Next Year's Tentative Plan

There seem to be three main ways people go about milking sheep. Wean cold turkey at thirty(ish) days and begin milking, milk-share with the lambs by separating at night (or day), or pull the lambs after a day or two and bottle/bucket feed so milking can begin immediately.

Since we don't have a great way to separate the lambs for the night or in general with our winter set-up we are thinking about pulling the dairy sheep's lambs by a few days old and bottle feeding. It would make a bit more work in the beginning but later we could run the whole flock together and never have to go through the weaning process (from mom) with the lambs. I am a bit worried that without the lambs we wouldn't get the ewe's peak production so I would probably milk multiple times a day at first to try and build up her supply.

I don't know if this will actually work out better but we need to try something different from this year. We will also be milking Doughnut's daughter, Caramel, in addition to Sally and Doughnut.

Our Daily Milking Routine

I am currently milking by hand. It takes me about ten minutes per ewe to actually milk but including prep and clean-up after it takes about 45-60 minutes every morning and evening. I'm still a newbie and I hope to cut down on the time some. Doughnut milks out pretty easily but Sally is a pain to milk. Her teats make it difficult to hand milk and she is very flighty. Once we can find a better replacement she'll be back out with our Icelandic flock.

So here is my milking routine. A lot of my information came from the Fiasco Farm site.

My Supplies:

  • wide-mouth quart or half-gallon canning jars
  • canning funnel
  • reusable coffee filter
  • plastic wide-mouth lids
  • paper towels or wash rags
  • bucket for soapy water
  • dish soap
  • bleach (this isn't something I normally like to use but I haven't found a better way to sanitize yet)
Milking Steps:
  1. Clean: I scrub all of my jars, lids, funnel, filter, and bucket with hot soapy water then rinse well. Ideally, I do this right when I am done milking so everything is ready to go for next time. 
  2. Sanitize: I fill my bucket with a gallon of hot water and a tablespoon of bleach. I then let my jars, funnel, lids, and filter soak for at least thirty seconds. Usually longer. Then I let everything air dry on a rack. I do this step when I first get up in the morning (am milking) or during dinner (pm milking) so everything has a chance to dry a little.
  3. Before I head out to milk I add a squirt of dish soap to my bleach water and will use that to wash the udders.
  4. I take everything outside. I use a plastic tote to carry everything or use the stroller. If I know I may take longer than usual I also bring a bucket of ice water out to place my jars into after milking to begin the cooling process. 
  5. Once outside I measure out everyone's grain. I feed a mixture of peas, oats, and barley. Doughnut gets close to a pound and Sally gets half a pound. Sally being half Icelandic is much more efficient with her food. I add any supplements they need that day at this time. (Dolomite, herbs, wormers, etc...)
  6. I halter one of the girls and put her in the stanchion. Since they know treats are in the stanchion they hop right up. 
  7. Clean the udder. I use a fresh paper towel to clean the udder. I don't double dip in the bucket. Then I dry thoroughly with a paper towel. I shy away from using paper towels normally but with milking I want everything to be super clean since we use the milk raw. The cleaning/massaging also helps with letdown. This post has great info for triggering letdown in sheep.
  8. Begin milking. I milk 3-4 squirts onto the stand to clean out the teat and to check for any abnormalities in the milk. If everything looks good, I begin milking into my jar. I sit behind the ewe and milk with my left hand on her right teat and hold the jar in my right hand. Then the reverse to milk the other side. I switch back and forth multiple times until she is completely milked out. I will try to get a video posted next week to demonstrate the process. 
  9. I follow up with a homemade teat dip and then lead the ewe back to her pen or out to pasture. Then I repeat the process with my other ewe.
  10. I pour the remaining bucket of wash water on to the milking stand and give it a good scrub so it will be clean for the next milking. I gather my things and head inside.
  11. Once inside, I filter the milk into sanitized jars, label with date and am/pm, then place into the freezer for 30-60 minutes to speed up the cooling process. I set the timer on my phone so I don't forget them in the freezer. 
  12. Then I clean everything. Everything gets a rinse with cool water first to remove the milk and prevent milkstone. Then a good wash/scrub with HOT soapy water and rinsed well. I allow everything to air-dry. Then for the next milking I begin with step 2. 
  13. A couple times a month I also soak everything in a vinegar water solution to remove any milkstone that may have formed and I also use a stronger bleach solution to disinfect the coffee filter. 

This is what works for me now. I'm sure it will evolve over time. What does your milking routine look like?

P.S. This post may be linked up with the following blog hops: Monday- The Art of Homemaking MondaysMostly Homemade Mondays, Tuesday- The Homestead Blog Hop, Wednesday- The Homemaking PartyHomestead Blog Hop, Thursday- Our Simple Homestead Blog Hop, Friday- From the Farm HopAwesome Life Friday, Saturday- Simply Natural Saturdays, Simple Saturdays.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Livestock Loss

Update: After meeting with a vet we are 99% sure this was tetanus. Sprinkles arrived to our farm after we normally vaccinate our sheep for it and she didn't receive her CDT shot. We try to keep records for all of our sheep and keep everyone up to date but she fell through the cracks. I feel awful knowing we probably could have prevented this but mistakes will always happen. All we can do is learn from them.

I love the path we have chosen. I love our animals, garden, and even the chores. And while everything is great most of the time there are some moments where I really question what we are doing here.

Last week was one of those moments.

It started out on Monday with us losing, Sprinkles, one of our dairy ewes.

That was really hard. We realized on Saturday that she wasn't acting herself. From her symptoms it looked like she had bloat. We treated her for that but it didn't work. We tried other treatments on Sunday and by Monday we were treating her for every illness she could possible have. But she just kept fading. Then on Monday evening she passed away.

I cried, my husband cried. We had tried so hard to save her and nothing worked. This was the first time we lost a sheep that was supposed to be a keeper.

Looking back we are now seeing things that should have tipped us off sooner. We think that she may have had mastitis for awhile and then having bloat tipped her over the edge. We learned a lot of lessons through this experience, I just wish it wasn't at the expense of an animals life.

Unfortunately, with livestock in particular, that is the way a lot of lessons are learned. Most of us homesteaders didn't grow up with this lifestyle. We are learning as we go.

Sometimes the lessons are hard, but it means we can do better next time.

It stinks that we lose animals sometimes. But I feel a little bit better knowing that I did my best and these animals were raised with love and compassion.

P.S. This post may be linked up with the following blog hops: Monday- The Art of Homemaking Mondays, Tuesday- The Homestead Blog HopTuesdays with a Twist, Wednesday- The Homemaking PartyHomestead Blog Hop, Thursday- Our Simple Homestead Blog Hop, Friday- From the Farm HopAwesome Life Friday, Saturday- Simply Natural Saturdays.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sprinkles' Lambing (Video)

Watching an animal (or human for that matter) be born is always a marvelous sight. It doesn't matter how many times you witness it, it is amazing every time. This is one of the reasons why spring is such an exciting time on the homestead.

Birth, babies, and fresh starts..... It just doesn't get any better!

** Birth talk and a lambing video follow. Quit now if you are squeamish.**

This year we had two dairy ewes (mix of mainly East Friesian and Lacaune) pregnant in addition to our Icelandic ewes. The Icelandic ewes we have lamb easily and are great mothers. The Icelandic breed is known for these qualities and that is part of the reason we started with them. I have heard different things in regards to the mothering ability of dairy sheep. In my very limited experience it seems they don't excel at lambing and mothering quite like our Icelandic girls do.

(Read more about predicting when your ewe is going to lamb here.) 

I found Sprinkles in labor on the morning of March 12th. The amniotic sac had already broken and I could see two little hooves beginning to make an appearance. We put the other sheep into the run area so she could have a little privacy. We let her labor like this for well over an hour. She was making progress but very minimally. Finally, we made the decision to assist.

Assisting in labor is always a hard decision to make. I believe that most of the time birth happens just the way it is supposed to, but sometimes it doesn't. My priority is for both ewe and lamb to remain healthy.

I checked her to make sure there was nothing preventing the lamb from coming out. Sometimes if there are two lambs they can become entangled. Once I found nothing obstructing the lamb I helped to ease the lamb out. Sprinkles seemed exhausted by this time and while she was pushing, her pushes weren't being very effective. This part is not in the video since my husband had to put the camera down in order to help keep Sprinkles calm and prevent her from walking away while I tried to check her.

Once the lamb was out it took her awhile to begin  'mothering' the lamb. This surprised me since our Icelandic ewes (unassisted birth or not) always begin cleaning the lamb immediately and become very protective. This is where I'm not sure if it is a breed difference, an individual difference, or just because she is a first time mom. We had a similar experience with our other dairy ewe, Doughnut, which makes me think it could be a difference in breeds.

But who knows? We are still relatively new to sheep and learning as we go.

Here is the video of Sprinkles lambing. It is very shortened since from the time I found her to lamb on the ground took almost two hours.

Check out this post for more lambing info and a lambing kit supply list.

P.S. This post may be linked up with the following blog hops: Monday- The Art of Homemaking Mondays, Tuesday- The Homestead Blog HopTuesdays with a Twist, Wednesday- The Homemaking PartyHomestead Blog Hop, Thursday- Our Simple Homestead Blog Hop, Friday- From the Farm HopAwesome Life Friday, Saturday- Simply Natural Saturdays.