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News from the Farm: Lambing Differently

Good morning local food eaters!

Well, it hasn't been a very wintery winter so far. Everything is all mud and little snow around here. The maple sap has been flowing well the past couple of weeks, as it is freezing at night and thawing during the day.

We're trying a new thing with the sheep this year. Lambing season is happening now - it is usually mid January through mid March. The reason for this is that sheep's gestation (pregnancy) lasts 5 months. Sheep, like their relatives goats and deer, are for the most part seasonal breeders. There is a seasonal "rut" or rutting period in the fall when the ram (male) will actively breed the ewes (females). In many species in the wild, this is a time of male fighting for dominance to determine herd status and therefore breeding power. We generally only keep one breeding male of any species to avoid this, as they can actually really hurt or kill each other!

With deer, antelope, and other wild animals, this natural seasonal breeding results in babies being born in spring time, just as it is getting warmer and new grass is growing to feed the hungry mothers. For some reason the timing seems a little off with farm raised sheep and goats, maybe due to some part of the domestication process? If the rams and ewes are together to breed on their own, the babies come not in the spring, but in the dead of winter. Many pasture farmers especially in cold climates will only allow the ram in with the ewes later in the fall, so that the babies come in April or May. We used to do this, and letting the ram in around Thanksgiving is good timing to let the lambing be done in the warm spring on pasture.

The problem with that idyllic setup, we learned the hard way, is that there are health problems that happen when it gets too hot too fast in the spring (which has been tending to be the weather pattern more often than not around here). Parasites can be a more serious issue that time of year. For us the main limiting factor is Flystrike, the actual name of a nasty malady in lambs born in hot weather; I will spare you all the gruesome details.

Needless to say, we now take our chances with freezing lambs and other winter problems as overall preferable to spring lambing. For the past 7 or so years, we've let the sheep breed early naturally, and keep them in the barn for shelter through the lambing period. With 30 or more ewes, this means we've always had to separate the moms and lambs into little pens to avoid them getting mixed up and losing their babies.

This year, the warm weather and our new fencing inspired us to try letting them have their lambs outdoors. Sheep are extremely cold hardy, even the newborns, as long as they get dried off right away. One of the problems with barn lambing was that we were sort of on call at all hours. If we missed a birth, say in the middle of the night, we would occasionally come out to all manner of mishaps: 6 or 8 lambs with a group of moms and no idea who belonged to who (which is very upsetting for them as well, they will headbutt lambs away who aren't theirs); lambs who fell through a gap in the pens keeping them trapped away from their mom; lambs who got stepped on or otherwise accidentally killed; and even once or twice newborn lambs with no easily identifiable mother, usually a first time mom sheep who didn't know what she was doing!

The point is that this year we decided to do things differently, and so far it has been working well.

We've gotten lucky with warm weather, but even through the 15 degree days and colder nights last week, healthy lambs were born. We have about 16 thriving lambs in the pasture right now.

They do have hay, and a shelter with bedding, but none of the sheep have chose to have their babies in the shelter. Their instinct is really to go off on their own to give birth, and it seems that the moms and babies bond better and get off to a good start that way. They have plenty of space in the field to spread out with their lambs, still picking at old grasses and then coming back to the hay with their lambs in tow.

This sheep (above) actually had her lambs in the 5 inches of snow we got last Thursday. She did a good job drying them off, and then had the sense to take them to hang out in the shelter.

Farming is a balancing act and an art. Much like with parenting or medicine or countless other fields, sometimes doing nothing is more effective than various interventions. The trick is learning when to step in and when to trust nature to take its course. We'll need a lifetime or more to learn those lessons.

We've been enjoying this stew lately: and it is delicious. Any NMP sausage works well, especially kielbasa, bayou voodoo, or lincolnshire.

Tip for using whole chickens in recipes calling for boneless breasts or thighs:

If you want to use a whole chicken for recipes like this, there is always the option of deboning and cutting the whole thing up raw (which is certainly doable, but a bit more work than I like to do in the kitchen on a regular night!) Instead, I like to simmer the chicken in water until it is cooked through, about 45 minutes to an hour. Remove the chicken, SAVE that water, let the chicken cool a bit, and pick the meat off of the bones. It will be cooked through and come off quite easily. Then throw the bones back into the reserved water, for a quick and easy chicken stock. Then you can chunk or shred the cooked chicken to add to any recipe.

Stay warm and healthy everyone!


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