Thursday, January 15, 2015

Why in the World Do Sheep Have Their Lambs in the Bitter Cold?

newborn lamb - 2015
(TLWomack image)
As I struggled into my coveralls, coat, hat, gloves and boots for what seemed like the hundredth time that day to head out to check the sheep, braving the frigid temperatures and gale force winds, I couldn’t help but think of our customer-friend’s recent question.

WHY in the world DO sheep have their lambs in the bitter cold?

At first glance, it really doesn’t make much sense. The poor sheep! And, surely it would be easier if I didn’t have to put on 87 layers of clothing just to go outside.

Then I realized I’d never covered our personal reasons for wintertime lambs.  So, sheri b, this one’s for you!

First, it’s necessary to understand that sheep are seasonal breeders.  Unlike some animals who will reproduce no matter the season, a ewe’s estrus cycle is determined by photoperiod (length of daylight).  Most sheep are short-day, or late summer/fall breeders.  For more information you can visit  this site. Reading through the entire site, you may find out more about sheep breeding than you ever thought you'd want to know! (and I can assure you, there's a lot more!)

This seasonal breeding means that most lambs will  be born during one time of the year, generally from mid-winter to late spring. (there are some breeds that will procreate out of “season” but, our Suffolks are traditionalists…) This means that lambs are just naturally some of the first young animals born. Now you can understand why fresh lamb became part of the Easter celebration.

But, WHY would we knowingly choose January? Don’t the poor lambs get cold? Don’t WE get cold? I mean, it’s snowing out there right now!

We’ve thought long and hard about this...done our research...and learned a lot through trial and error. We’ve tried spring lambing.  We’ve tried field lambing. Both had disastrous results. The lure of the fresh green grass makes for inattentive ewes. (they forget about their babies)  The warm, damp weather can wreak havoc on the young lambs’ immune system. (the lambs get sick and die) …and then there’s the pressure of keeping up with our planting schedule and the Market season. (there are just not enough hours in the day)

In short, here on the hill...January lambing simply works best for ewes, lambs AND shepherds. 

ewes chillin' by the barn
During the winter months, the grass goes dormant.  The only thing for the sheep to eat is hay. So, they are hanging out at the barn, waiting for me to deliver their meals.  The close contact allows us to monitor the ewes’ health and assist in birthing if necessary.  By choosing to lamb while the ewes are at the barn, we have far more control of the situation than we would if they were out in the field. This is the best option for our ewes.

taking bottle lambs to the barn '14

Being a good shepherd requires a lot of close, personal contact. This is made much simpler when the sheep are at the barn. Believe me, traipsing through the fields in the dark of night looking for lambs or ewes in need of assistance is not fun. (not even a little bit)  Once lambing is over, the needs of the flock are fewer and by the time they go out on grass, we need only check them at chore time.

Since the ewes have their lambs in the barn, the lambs’ survival chances are excellent. The barn provides shelter from the wind and weather, and strategically placed heat lamps provide some warmth for newborns. (for the record…the barn is NOT heated...heat would indeed cause more health problems for the sheep)
checking out the newborn 

While the lambs are “ewwy, gooey wet” when they are born, the attentive ewes clean them quickly and most newborns are up and nursing within ten minutes of birth.  Within hours they are nibbling hay...and at just a week old, they are racing around the barnyard.

this lamb hasn't quite figured out the hay eating thing

barnyard lamb races
two week old lambs
snow just adds to the fun and games
two month old lambs

The lambs born in January will grow rapidly and weigh at least 50 pounds when the entire flock returns to grass in late March or early April.  Robust, hearty lambs have the ability to withstand the parasite pressure of the early spring.  All sorts of nasty little creatures make their homes in the moist grass of springtime. (there is a definite down-side to pasture-raised animals)  As the sheep graze, they ingest quantities of the oocysts from the earth that then make their homes in the sheeps’ intestines. Too many of these microscopic creatures and the lambs will die. (the issue of internal parasites is another subject for another time)  But, with a fairly good body mass, the animals can withstand the ill-effects of the blood-sucking parasites. (although careful monitoring is still necessary) But, this is only possible if the lambs are a couple of months old and have had time to grow prior to turning them out to pasture.  This is the best option for healthy lambs. And, a healthy flock is our ultimate goal as shepherds.
lambs on grass in Springtime

lambing season apparel

Since winter is our “down-time”, we can adapt (somewhat) to the (sometimes) round-the-clock duties of the lamb barn. By charting the breed dates, we know with some accuracy when each ewe is due to lamb.  During the two to three week of lambing, I check the barn every four hours. (yes, even at night) I realize there may be other ways to check the lambs, but I feel confident with my totally hands-on approach. When it is very, very cold, or it looks like there may be some “action”, I will check every two hours. There have been times when I’ve spent long stretches of time in the barn (regardless of the time or weather)  Sleep deprivation is no stranger.  Since winter lacks the urgency of mid-summer, it doesn’t matter (quite so much) if I am tired and somewhat incoherent at times (although I try real hard not to be grumpy, too). By limiting our lambing season to a couple of weeks, my survival is pretty much assured.  This makes January lambing the best option for shepherds, too!

January’s weather doesn’t always cooperate with our plans.  Some years we catch a break and lambing occurs during the “January thaw”. Other years…well, Murphy’s law applies.  You know “if anything can go wrong, it will”. Thankfully, that isn’t often.  But, it’s important to note that the low pressure that accompanies precipitation seems to always bring the close-up ewes into labor as well. So, it’s not unusual to spend a snowy or rainy day (night) assisting births.

While the barn is not luxurious, it provides a great deal of shelter from the elements. The weather is actually more of an issue for the humans than for the lambs.  Once a lamb is born (and dried off) the best place for it is with its mother (and her life-giving milk) and its wool will insulate it against the winter winds.

And, there you have it. 

Our sheep lamb during the cold winter weather because it is actually the best solution for all involved. It’s our assurance of healthy ewes, hardy lambs and happy shepherds.

                                               ...and ultimately...very tasty lamb chops!

Want to read some more about sheep and lambs here on the hill?
Check these out.
The Miracle of Birth
Just Call Me Maaa-aa!


  1. Leighton sent a link to this post Barbara after sharing a video of a recent birth in which you played a supporting role... :-) What delight that you write about what happens on your farm even as Leighton documents it all with his camera. I have only the greatest respect for you both for the life you've chosen and deep appreciation that you share it with all of us. I'm going to pass this piece along to my friend Sue who also loves hearing about your "adventures." We'd both love to visit when we head east to see her family... perhaps that will happen. I count Leighton as a dear friend even though we've never met...

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Curtis! I truly appreciate them.
      I know he considers you a friend as well. Should you find yourself (and Sue) in our beautiful Valley, we will greet you with open arms.

  2. Ah-HA! You have enlightened me yet again. Keep going.
    :) m & jb (who, being perfect as she is, does not need enlightening. she says I can have her share.)

    1. Glad I could enlighten you. Thanks for commenting. :)
      and, to the perfect JB...keep on keeping on, kitty cat!

  3. Enjoyed reading this Barbara. Round here most of the farmers leave the breeding of the Swaledales until late March at the earliest. But those who rear cross breeds - Texel cross, Suffolk, Blue faced Leicester for example often start much earlier. One of our neighbours starts just after Christmas. And oh those nights when you have to get up every hour or two. Not for the faint hearted.

    1. Isn't it interesting how everyone does things just a little differently?

  4. Has Charlene had her baby(s) yet?? Just curious as to how many she had. :)

    1. We're STILL waiting, Bobbi!
      Unbelievably, she's doing quite well, giving the fact she hasn't stood up in over a week. The lambs are due this Sunday, so I fully expect to see something happen very soon.
      We have never had anything quite like this happen before. And, we have no idea how it will turn out.
      We'll keep you posted! Thanks for your concern.

    2. ok, she has to have had them by now! She is a WEEK late, lolol. Right? Maybe I missed it? I feel like her godmother or something, lol.

    3. I guess you did miss it, Bobbi.
      Sorry, I can't make it link. But,that's the story of our Saturday.
      Long story, short. I'm so sorry to report Charlene didn't make it, but she has two fine sons who now think I am their mother!
      While I truly hate to be the bearer of bad news...THANK YOU so much for your concern!