Ewes through the dodge gate,
dart left, duck right, straight ahead—
Ewes through the dodge gate,
dart left, duck right, straight ahead—
In the fall, the cows and calves are gathered into private pastures near the Home Ranch. They have spent the summer months grazing on National Forest permits. It takes several “back rides” to make sure that all the critters have come down from the summering ground, and we collect them into pastures where they can graze and hang out until it is time to sort them. Here are some views of our family, friends and employees moving cows and calves closer to home. Soon it will be time to load the calves onto trucks to their new homes, and the cows onto trucks to go to winter pastures and cornfields where they will ruminate and gestate until spring.
The rams hang around for ten and a half months, waiting for the day when they are called to go to work, fathering lambs for the next season. We put the bucks in over a period of days and weeks. We figure that the first bucks to go in with the ewes are getting tired, so we send reinforcements. They sometimes resent being worked through the chutes, but are happy to jump out of the trailers to join the ladies. When we were loading them, I said, “Hop in boys–all the corn you can eat.” Meghan said, “All the ladies you can breed!” I added, “…and all the wind you can tolerate.” Such is the life of a buck in the winter.
The ides of December means that it’s time to put the rams in with the ewes. Romance in December brings lambs in May. A sheep’s gestation is five months less five days. I wish we could predict now just when the shearers will arrive and what the weather will be like on the 10th of May.
For many years, our lambs have been born on the open range, under the care of herders. Lambs usually come into the world under one of three management systems. Shed lambing calls for a lot of management, and a lot of labor, as the new moms and baby lambs are brought into the protection of sheds, and placed in “jugs” (little pens). In the past, we have lambed in sheds in March. We raise our own rams and for a number of years, we have shed lambed our farm flocks of Rambouillet and Hampshire ewes, who are the moms of the replacement bucks.
Most of our ewes “drop lamb.” Pregnant ewes are tended by herders. Each morning and evening, they ride through the sheep and “cut the drop.” This means that the ewes with brand-new lambs are “dropped” back, while the still pregnant ewes are moved ahead to fresh ground. This requires a large landscape, with the ewes scattered among sage and grass. In a few days, the ewes and their baby lambs have had a chance to “mother up” and are gathered into a bunch. When these flocks of ewes and lambs are put together, and the lambs are docked, they will trail on up to the Forest for the summer months.
The third way of lambing is open range lambing. Some producers with large tracts of private land build tight fences, concentrate on predator control, and let the ewes lamb without assistance.
Shed lambing saves the most lambs, due to one-on-one (or two, or three, or even four) attention. Drop lambing still involves a lot of labor, and has the advantage of keeping the sheep on clean ground. The herders ride through the sheep constantly and help any that require assistance. The disadvantage of drop lambing is vulnerability to bad weather, and increased exposure to predators, from coyotes to ravens. The weather has been more volatile the past few years, with spring storms killing hundreds and hundreds of lambs.
In an attempt to reduce our losses to weather, we have constructed a couple of large sheds in the last two years. The investment in infrastructure has been considerable, but our goal is to save lambs, and give ourselves, and the sheep, more protection against the vagaries of weather. This involves a lot of work for us and our employees.
On the range and in the sheds, our employees and family members are working to keep the ewes and lambs healthy. It has rained every day since we started lambing, and we are lambing in the wool, due to the shearing contractor not showing up. Even the ranch cook has helped out, after bringing hot lunches to the shed every day. Way to go, crew!
It’s the time of year when we pregnancy test and vaccinate the ewes in order to get everything organized for lambing. Gerri Parsons from Optimal Veterinary Services came with all her gear and informed us with her cries of “Single”, “Twins”, “Triplets” or the dreaded “Open”. Gerri’s magic with the ultrasound allows us to manage the ewes with mulitple lambs with more feed. We plan to lamb most of these through our new lambing sheds near Dixon. Last year, we were able to save extra lambs when a big spring storm hit, since it is often the twins who are lost to bad weather. The preg testing must be done mid-gestation, so Gerri, Meghan and our crew spent an intense several days studying, marking and handling the ewes.
We are in the midst of docking lambs. We have to hit the “sweet spot” after the lambs are big enough to dock without too much stress, before they get too big–which is stressful to the crew, and soon enough before we trail to the Forest to recover and be ready to follow their mothers. We also have to dodge stormy days, the schedule for artificially inseminating the cows, and the imminent arrival of the wool truck.
Our Peruvian sheepherders are glad to be through most of the lambing. Now their biggest worry, and ours, is the loss of the lambs they worked so hard to deliver, to coyotes. Yesterday, we lost 10 lambs altogether in the various bunches–and that was just one day.
Docking means that we have moved the portable corrals to the temporary site where we have set up the day before. The herder has the sheep staged to go into the corrals early in the morning. We hope to do this in an orderly manner without the lambs running back and scattering into the brush. Once the ewes and lambs are in the corral, we start bringing them up in small groups, dropping the lambs into the small front pen, and paint branding the ewes in the forward pen, counting, and turning them out. We keep bringing them up in small groups until the last lamb is docked and the last ewe is counted.
On the docking line, each lamb is earmarked with our distinctive earmark. Buck lambs are castrated and the lamb carriers carefully place them in the “Dinkum Docker”–a mechanical holder which restrains them as they are vaccinated and slowly slide down to the bottom. The “tailer” sits at the bottom and sears off the tails with a hot knife. This is the safest and most humane way to remove the tails, since it is quick and leaves a clean wound. Another crew member holds the back legs to ensure that the tailer does not get kicked in the face, and applies a gooey mix of creosote and pine tar. This has antiseptic qualities and keeps the flies away. Finally the tailer flips the lamb over on his lap so that the brander can stamp on the paint brand.
The brander is often a child. It is a skilled job, since the brand needs to be in the middle of back, and stamped on without too much wasted paint. The paint is formulated to be scourable after the wool is sheared off. Pat always tells the brander that the other lambs will make fun if the brand is off-center or incomplete.
Time flies when you’re having fun. It seems like only yesterday that we were hauling the rams out to the ewes, in order to expedite the birth of lambs in spring. After seven weeks with the ewes, it is time for the bucks to go back to a long stretch of bachelorhood. As Pepe told them as we loaded them into the trailer, “Hasta la vista…See you next year!”
October 1st is a day of transition for us. It is the off-date for the cows and sheep who have spent the summer grazing on our national forest permits. This year, it is also the date that the Farm Bill expired, and the government shutdown started for everyone except Congress, which continues to dither along. No budget, no Farm Bill, no Immigration Bill, no plan. After a dry spring and summer, we finally received blessed rains, a lot of our ponds and reservoirs have filled, and the springs are flowing. After foreseeing a dry fall, we have blessed water. The leaves are finally changing colors–the latest I can remember. The first freeze came on the day of the equinox. October 1st is Rhen’s first birthday. Last year, the trappers killed a bear who had been killing rams. We said, “Bear in the morning–baby in the afternoon!”