Sheep

Lambing to order!

Tim Tyne describes ways to take control of  the breeding of sheep

While many sheep keepers may see controlled breeding techniques as useful tools to help achieve better management of their stock, for other flock owners, the thought of tinkering with the breeding cycle of their animals is just too much. Maybe they feel, like Miriam in Stella Gibbons’ classic Cold Comfort Farm, that “Tes wickedness! Tes flying in the face of nature!” (though, of course, it was a different kind of birth control she and Flora were discussing), and perhaps it smacks just a little of intensive agriculture.

Unfortunately, the words ‘extensive’ and ‘smallholding’ don’t go together. Extensive farming, often seen as a greener method, requires by its very nature a large acreage to be successful, and large acreages are what smallholdings, by their very nature, don’t have! For anyone aiming to make their smallholding their principal occupation, a fairly high level of output per acre or per animal will need to be maintained, and perhaps the production of early or out of season lamb would be a suitable high output enterprise. 

Usually, the manipulation of the breeding cycle of sheep is carried out by sponging – the insertion of a progesterone-impregnated sponge into the vagina of the ewe – although there are, of course, breeds such as the Dorset Horn or Polled Dorset that will naturally breed out of season. Commercial farmers will weigh up the costs associated with the process, the purchase of sponges etc, against the benefits of out of season or condensed lambing, such as more effective use of paid labour or higher price of early born lamb. Perhaps, for pedigree breeders, the extra period of growth gained by lambing two months before rival flocks may make all the difference to prices at the autumn shows and sales. 

But these are all financial considerations. For many smaller flock owners, the financial element is secondary to the pleasure of keeping sheep, and provided they’re not ridiculously out of pocket and there’s a regular supply of good quality lamb for the freezer or fleeces for spinning, they will be quite content. So let’s put money matters aside and take a look at this subject from the point of view of good shepherding, which for all of us is the most important factor whether we intend our flock to contribute to overall income or not. 

Spending the time

Many smaller flock owners will be part timers and, while it’s possible to carry out most of the routine flock tasks and general shepherding in the evenings and at weekends,  it’s a different story during lambing time. Supervising the lambing of a flock of ewes, no matter how small, isn’t something that can be carried out satisfactorily on a part time basis. No matter how carefully you tend your charges in your spare time, an awful lot can go wrong between 9 and 5 when you’re otherwise engaged. Ok, so perhaps you can ask a neighbour to pop in and have a look around from time to time during the day. Well, that’s a start, but to my mind there’s no substitute for a 24 hour round the clock vigil. This has been our policy for several years now and the results speak for themselves – mortality rates have been reduced to a level described by one vet as unheard of. It’s not that we need to intervene very often – typically, only three or four ewes out of every 100 will need any significant level of assistance to give birth – but the fact that we’re on hand to sort out any minor muddles or mishaps as they occur makes all the difference. We feel we owe it to the sheep to be there. It is, after all, due to our intervention that the ewes are being bred from in the first place. It was us that opened the gate and let the ram in five months previously, so we have a duty of care to see the job through. Given the chance, I’m sure most ewes would gladly drop motherhood from the annual routine! 

 
This is all very well of course, for us lucky enough to work more or less full time on our holding but not so easy for others. Even in small flocks, lambing may typically be spread over six or more weeks, and no employer, however sympathetic to the cause, is likely to allow that much time off work. How about then, if lambing time could be so arranged and condensed to coincide with a pre-booked period of (paid?) holiday? If that idea appeals to you, perhaps you should consider sponging. 

 
And finally...


My intention here has been to consider ways in which the needs of a livestock enterprise can be tailored to fit in around other (off farm) commitments. I also hope that it will prompt some readers to consider ways in which they could improve the output and efficiency of their holdings. If the ultimate dream of giving up the day job is ever to be fully realised, smallholdings need to be profitable as well as productive. No matter how well practised you are in the art of self sufficiency, there are some bills that simply don’t go away, and neither can they be settled by barter. Try persuading your bank manager to accept pots of yoghurt or pumpkin chutney in lieu of mortgage repayments and you’ll see what I mean!

This article is from the June 2006 issue of Country Smallholding magazine.
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