Life On The Farm: Lambing 101

Spring

It’s September, which in Garston means spring, one of the busiest seasons in the farming year.

The trees are covered in blossom; daffodils abound; there is a ton of ground preparation to do before Terry can sow the new crops. But foremost in our minds right now are our pregnant sheep.

Mamma mia, here we go again: it’s lambing time on the farm.

Many Variations At Lambing Time

There are probably as many variations in farm lambing practices as there are farms in New Zealand. We all have our own ways of looking after the sheep in spring.

Partly it depends on the type of sheep you’re farming. Some, like Merinos, are bred to be easy-care. High country farmers put their merino ewes out on the hills and don’t go near them when they’re lambing. You’ll do more harm than good, trying to interfere there.

It also depends on the sort of lambing percentages you’re aiming for, and how intensively you farm.

Many farmers, especially those nearer sea level, where the land is warmer and winters less severe, aim for lambing percentages of 140% or more. Their sheep are bred for multiple births; twins and — even better —  triplets are common and encouraged on these sorts of farms. There’s a ton of work in this method, with lambing shepherds constantly going around the sheep. Orphan lambs — and some of those triplet lambs — will be brought into sheds and bottle-fed; others will be mothered on to ewes whose lambs have died.

On our farm, we’re somewhere in between these two extremes.

Jenny, bottle feeding orphan lambs during lambing time on the farm.
We keep rescued lambs in a cosy pen, and mother them onto new mums as soon as possible, but we don’t feed and  raise lots of orphan lambs the way intensive sheep farms do. 

Weather Matters

There is nothing nicer than lambing on a warm spring day. The sun is shining, the grass is growing, lambs are playing and there is comparatively little for us to do. There’s even time to chat as we drive slowly around each paddock looking out for signs of trouble.

Unfortunately, Spring rarely gives us 6 weeks of lovely weather. Instead, that changeable season is likely to throw everything at us: sun, wind, rain, snow, frost — you name it, we’ll get it in spades during lambing.

Spring is the time for the nor’west wind. It sweeps down the valley, gaining strength as the day goes on. A good nor’wester in Garston can rival a windy Wellington corner any day. Sometimes the wind is so strong you can literally lean onto it; truck doors slam on unwary fingers, and anything unsecured (boxes… bins… washing baskets…) can end up halfway down the paddock if you don’t catch it in time.

At least the nor’wester is a warm wind. However, it’s often the precursor to a Southerly change and that’s the weather we don’t want. Unlike the northern hemisphere, the south wind here can be bitterly cold, and brings with it rain and sometimes snow.

Going round the sheep in the wet and cold is horrible, especially in Terry’s preferred vehicle, the Polaris. which is not enclosed, and has no form of heating. I can’t complain too much because it does have a roof, so at least we don’t get wet in it. Lambing on a quad bike in the rain, as some farmers do, must be worse.

Terry, warmly dressed for driving the drafty farm Polaris.
The trusty Polaris.  A little more weatherproof than a quad bike, but still rather drafty on a cold day.

Stacking The Odds For Lambing Success

Caring for the ewes

It seems pretty harsh to expect new lambs to survive in awful weather but if you lamb outside, with a minimum of intervention that’s what they have to do. So we stack the odds in the lamb’s favour as much as we can. Often that starts in winter.

Terry works hard to feed the ewes plenty of good food during the winter because a well-fed ewe will be able to pass on more nutrition to the lamb and grow it to a good size before it’s born.

Just before lambing starts we bring in the conveyor contractor to give the ewes mineral supplements and vaccinations. The lamb will get the benefit of these when it drinks colostrum in the first few days after it is born.

Most of our paddocks have some sort of shelter which the ewes can seek out in bad weather. Tree-lanes, bushes, flax and even old wood piles all provide shelter from wind and weather when necessary. The idea is to give shelter as naturally as possible.

Ewe and lambs sheltering under a tree at lambing time.
A ewe and her twins under the trees which provide shelter from both rain and sun.

Pre-lamb shearing

A number of years ago we began pre-lamb shearing. It sounds mean to take the ewes’ woolly coats away in winter, but the sheep quickly adapt and the advantages at lambing time are huge.

Woolly, pregnant ewes are prone to lying down and getting cast, which means they end up stuck on their broad, woolly backs, unable to get up again. If a ewe gets cast after you’ve been through her paddock, she could end up lying there suffering for hours. She might even die.

Sheep can even become cast after giving birth. It is awful to find a cast ewe with a lamb nearby, dead because the mother wasn’t able to get up and lick the mucus away from its nose. Alternatively, a lamb may have a clear nose and get up and wander away from the cast ewe. Because it hasn’t been licked and suckled, the mother-baby bond doesn’t form and they can be difficult to pair up again.

Shorn ewes are far less likely to get cast. They are also less likely to lie down on their little lambs by mistake, and because they, too, feel the cold they are more likely to seek shelter for their lambs in bad weather.

Breeding For Survival

So those are some ways that we manage our sheep for successful and easy-care lambing. But over the past few years, we’ve been actively breeding for success as well.

Our sheep are the old-fashioned Romneys, which many New Zealanders would picture when they think “sheep.” They’re a good, all-rounder — good for meat and wool production — but traditionally they’ve needed a lot of looking after at lambing time.

Ideally, we only want to breed from ewes who have had a trouble-free birth and are good mothers. If we have to help a ewe to give birth, or to feed her lambs because her teats are at an awkward angle, or — worst of all — she takes one look of disgust at her newborn lamb and hightails it off into the distance, we give the ewe a black ear tag so that she is culled (removed from the breeding flock) before the next lambing season.

The Brown Fat Factor

We have also introduced new blood into the flock, with Snowline Rams from Cheddar Valley Station. These sheep are bred to produce hardy lambs with plenty of brown fat under their skin at birth.

Brown fat, also known as “brown adipose tissue”, is what keeps the lamb warm and gives it energy during its first few days of life. It’s especially important in that crucial time between birth and the lamb’s first feed and having plenty of it can make a big difference to a lamb born into cold weather.

Summing It All Up

So those are some of the reasons why we lamb as we do, and why you’ll see the Polaris or the farm truck driving slowly around our paddocks morning and evening during Spring.

Ewe and lambs in front of the lucerne paddock, which is growing one of next winter's feed crop.
The green lucerne paddock is growing next winter’s balage crop. Meanwhile, old straw makes a cosy bed for a well-fed lamb.

We actively work over a long period of time to give our sheep a natural environment and a safe lambing experience. But what is it really like to be out on the lambing beat?

That’s a topic for another day. Look out, in a week or two,  for “Lambing Part 2: A Family Affair.”

Photos courtesy of Jenny and Steph McNamee.

4 Replies to “Life On The Farm: Lambing 101”

  1. How pleasant to read the long and detailed report on lambing season as only someone with vast experience could write it. In reading this article, I was taken back to the family farm of my father’s childhood. In earlier days, as told to me by my father and grandfather, the family farm was almost entirely self-sufficient – growing, processing, preserving, and eating their own food from what they raised on their 160 acres. By my time, things were much better but winter weather could still make springtime calving season (Herefords for us, not sheep) a cold and miserable experience. Certainly, it was not a life for anyone reluctant to get their hands dirty. Yet, in retrospect, life really was simpler then, with closer horizons and problems that were immediate and not something involving computers.

    Reading this article also reminds me of James Herriot’s stories of lambing season in his wonderful All Creatures Great and Small series. More good memories.

    1. Thanks, Randy. I’m very flattered to be reminding you of James Herriot. I grew up loving those stories and still own all the books.

  2. Hi Lyn,
    I have a very vivid memory from the early years of our marriage when new husband headed off on foot up the steep farm track into a howling blizzard that obliterated my view of him within a few metres.
    It was a long afternoon waiting for his safe return that day. Spring snows that bring joy to skiers are no pleasure during lambing time.
    Thanks for the stories.
    Robyn P.

    1. I can certainly imagine how worried you were. In those days we had no way to contact our men, short of heading out after them. Mobiles make life a lot easier for farmers these days in that regard.
      And yes, snow is all right in its place but not at lambing time.
      I’m so glad you’re enjoying my stories. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.🙂

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