Breeding sheep on the homestead takes you to a new level of farm management. Let’s face it, nothing is quite as cute as a lamb. Your plan may be to raise sheep or other fiber animals and breeding sheep does not have to be part of that goal. There are plenty of fine animals available for those who wish to have a fiber flock. Ram lambs are often neutered and become wethers. The wethers can produce very nice fleeces, without having the risk associated with housing an intact male animal. If you don’t want the work associated with breeding on your own farm, there are plenty of ways to obtain future fiber animals for your flock.
If you want to raise a fiber flock and have additional lambs for meat, or to sell, breeding sheep will be in your future. Learning what to expect, and how to prepare will make the lambing season go a little smoother. Being prepared helps immensely, because raising farm animals always leaves us open to dealing with the unexpected emergencies, and occasional tragedy.
Breeding Sheep – Decisions to be Made
Decide what characteristics are important to you before setting up your breeding plan. Are you trying to maintain breed standards, or cross breeding with the intent to produce lambs with the best characteristics of different breeds? There are many factors to consider when choosing a breeding pair. Take into account the size of the ewe and the size of the ram. Breeding a very large ram to a smaller breed ewe may lead to problems at lambing time. Read all you can about breeding and lambing. Having a local farmer who can mentor you during your first lambing season is very valuable.
Gestation – Getting Ready for Lambs
Gestation lasts approximately 150 days from breeding. Shepherds often keep a tight vigil on their ewes during the last few days. Grain feeding can begin a few weeks before expected lambing, as much of the lamb’s growth in-utero occurs then. Begin with ¼ pound of grain per ewe and increase slowly. The final amount will depend on the breed and size of the ewe. Check with your vet or county extension agent to see about giving a Bo-Se shot if you are in a selenium deficient area.
As the ewe’s gestation period winds down, a partial or full shearing is done. This makes it more sanitary and allows the lambs to easily find the teats on the udder. Vaccines are given four weeks before lambing, to update the ewe’s immunity that will be passed on through the first milk, called colostrum. The vaccine is called the CD/T vaccine for Clostridium perfringens type C and D and Tetanus. Some owners will also administer a dewormer. Lambing time is a good time to turn to a trusted mentor to help you learn the ropes.
Getting the Barn Ready
Lambing pens are a great idea when you are breeding sheep. They don’t need to be large, 5’ x 5’ is a good size for even a large ewe and her lambs. Set these up before lambing begins. Give each pen or jug, a feed pan and bucket for water. Hang the bucket on the wall to prevent lambs from accidentally drowning in the bucket. Heavily bed the jug area with fresh, dry straw.
At lambing time look for signs of impending labor. The ewe will appear restless and may paw the ground. The vulva will look swollen. The udder will swell with milk, although this can happen right before birth too, especially with first time ewes. The area around the hip bones will appear sunken, because the ligaments have relaxed for birth.
Have a Birthing Kit Ready
When you are breeding sheep, prepare a birthing kit. An easy to carry plastic bin is a good container for the supplies you might need. Many books on sheep breeding and care will have an all-inclusive list of items to have on hand. Here is a good start.
Scissors for trimming the umbilical cord.
Betadine – Used for cleaning Ewe if you must help with delivery.
Iodine – for dipping the end of the lamb’s umbilical cord
Umbilical clamps or dental floss for tying off umbilical cords
Newborn nasal syringe
Rope to aid in pulling a lamb that is stuck
Molasses or Nutri-drench product to revive the exhausted ewe
In addition to the above, having a baby bottle and extra nipples is a great time saver, if the lamb can’t nurse or the ewe becomes ill. Pritchard style teats are commonly used, although we have used regular human baby nipples too.
Milk replacer and frozen colostrum, just in case.
Feeding tube and syringe
Delivery of the lamb or lambs should be quick, and it’s usually over in four or five hours from the onset of labor. It’s quite easy to miss the whole event if you aren’t constantly in the barn! Labor should progress and from the time you see the bag of fluid, the lambs should be out soon. Most times the ewe won’t need any help. The lamb will be born, the sac removed, and the ewe will lick the lamb dry. It is important to observe progress as you watch the ewe labor.
From the moment they struggle to their feet and find the teat, lambs will steal your heart. They will also significantly increase the amount of time you spend with the flock, at least initially. While most ewes lamb quite easily on their own, some even doing so in an open field during frigid weather, many small flock owners prefer to take a more hands on approach. In fact, many breeds do much better with higher lamb survival rates, when lambing is done in a barn, with frequent checks by the shepherd.
And then, there are the times when breeding sheep and caring for ewes in labor takes all the fortitude we have. Occasionally, presentations are wrong, and the ewe will need assistance. If you decide to breed, read all you can about the process and what to look out for. Have a mentor on call and the number for your vet, just in case.
Be Prepared Before Breeding Season Begins
I can’t stress enough how important it is to be prepared before lambing begins. Read books, watch you tube videos, talk to other sheep farmers and your farm vet before preparing for breeding sheep. If possible, attend lambing at a nearby farm. Gain as much experience in breeding sheep, as possible, because while most ewes deliver easily, there are times that things do not go well. It will still be scary if something goes wrong but having plans and equipment in place will provide some assistance and peace of mind.
The best plan is to be present as much as possible, while allowing the ewe to deliver and care for her lambs. Checking frequently through the day and night allows you the chance to give help when things do not go as planned.
One other thought to keep in mind. If you have a small property, remember that breeding will increase the number of sheep on your property. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and be swept away with the adorable lambs. Carefully consider how many additional sheep your land and infrastructure can carry, before making the decision to breed the ewe. Selling lambs can be a way to bring additional income to your homestead.
Note: Although the species are distinct, the management of most small ruminants during gestation and delivery is similar. This article refers to sheep, but if you are raising goats you should find this basic overview helpful as a starting point.
Recommended Reading: “Managing Your Ewe” and “Lamb Problems” both by Laura Lawson