Breeding Season Part II: SHEEP - A Post by Luke

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We're about to breed our sheep again, but this time around it's a little more complicated because we have two different breeds, three separate breeding groups, and over a dozen ewes of different ages.  We also have a ram we need to keep clear of his own offspring.

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Not that everybody worries about that last problem. I found the following comment on a sheep breeding message board:

Anonymous asks:  is it alright for the ram to mate with his mother or sister

I love the directness of this question so much.  No caps, no punctuation.  Just a raw, innocent query regarding a universal taboo.  Luckily this came back:

Answer from moderator:  No, it's not.

I laughed, but I think it highlights something about our role in this operation.  And that is: you're not really playing match maker as much as you are just limiting their options.

Right now, the funk coming off our ram pen could made Rick James faint.  Those guys are ready to get with anything.  So be wary of this fact and manage your groups accordingly.

At the moment we have three intact rams and eight wethers (castrated males).  This is way more males than is required.

 

Normally a flock this size would keep only one ram and maybe two wethers.  (Most of the year the ram is penned separately.  He needs a couple of poker buddies in there with him or he'll go insane).

That one ram & two wethers set up seems kind of cozy.  Kind of like buddies on a camping trip, that sort of dynamic.  That's not what we have.

We have three rams and eight wethers.  So think broken down minor league hockey tour bus, and everybody's drunk.  I'm pretty sure fanning them out a bit will do them some good.

Right now we have three sectioned off breeding groups: there's the Merino Teens, the Shetland Adults, and the Geriatric just-glad-you're-still-with-us's.

I think I like the Geriatrics the best.  The Shetland Adults are proven, so no big whoop, and the Merino Teens will take about .8 seconds to figure it out.  But the old timers...what are they thinking?  Tansy's on the later edge of her breeding range, and Gilderoy is such a grey beard he gets wheezy just shuffling up to the fence for food.  If they make this happen it'll be a real Christmas miracle.

Getting them all sorted out took some work.  We lured the old-timers with oats and they wandered behind us no problem.  Same for the Merino Teens, although they took a bit more wrangling.  But the Shetlands...man. Seriously Scotland, what gives.  Here's actual footage of us going in to sort out that part of the flock.

I know what you're thinking: not the most cooperative bunch, but wow, what hair.

We left the Shetlands until last knowing they'd be a real treat.  All we had to do was pull the ewe lambs out from the girl pen, open the gates to form a shunt toward the rams, then let the girls in with the boys.  Easy peas. At least that's how it looked on the napkin sketch.

To make this happen I had to bridge a gap in the gates with a sheet of plywood.  When they saw me walking up to the pasture carrying a blockade, the gig was up.

"It's that guy again!  It's that guy again!" Their thought bubbles were screaming.  "He's going to corner us!  He's going to corner us! ...Scatter!"

"Son of a..."  I said to Anna.  "They're losing it already!"

"It's because you're here," she told me.  "Just get the plywood into the pen and hang out behind the shelter. Don't let them see you..."

I got the plywood into position then tried to disappear.  How many times have I said that.

It's moments like this I kind of resent my working relationship with these animals.  I do the scary things in order to keep them healthy, then afterwards overcompensate and try to be really nice.  But I don't think it's working.  I don't know why I bother.  I'm pretty sure I'm like the IT clown to them.

Also, yes, I'm aware there are dogs specifically bred to help out in situations like this.  But we don't have any of those.  My wife and I have sheets of plywood and the shared understanding that we're each going to face plant several times trying to capture a bunch of tiny, darting animals whose entire evolutionary strength is based on the ability to execute explosive, evasive maneuvers.

So with those ground rules in place we organized our flock.

And I have to say, to our credit, after a year and a half of dealing with this we now had some moves of our own.  So it wasn't a total gong show.

We managed to block off all the ewe lambs except one.  Within the pack of breeding age sheep there was Claire, this tiny little black pom-pom bouncing around, desperately trying to keep hidden between a bunch of fully grown ewes.  We couldn't get in to grab her, so we just gambled and released them all in with the guys figuring we'd pluck her out later.

That worked out semi-alright.

I was in a constant panic thinking the rams would zero in on her.   So I kept crouching about, trying to position myself in case I had to break up any weirdness.  I'm happy to report that moment never came.

We'd also just thrown down two piles of hay thinking they'd all get distracted and go feed, but they weren't having it.  So it was chaos.  Too many factors were jumbled up now - horny rams, lots of accessible ewes, food, humans, and a little lost lamb.

It took about 20 minutes but finally we were in a spot where we could move in and scoop up Claire.  She was a bit panicked but no worse for wear.  We dropped her back into the main pasture with the rest of her generation (and the llamas), and that completed our flock re-organization for this year's breeding.

OK - now marvel with me on this:

Summer 2016 we had four sheep.  Three ewes and a wether.  After making a few moves, acquiring some new faces and doing a couple rounds of breeding we're now looking at the possibility of a 40+ headcount by time the snow melts in 2018.  That's crazy.  You'd think we were farming rabbits.

I know breeding animals is a standard aspect of farm life, but I wrestle with the enormity of it.  What can I say?  It kind of blows my mind.  The whole concept is weird.  I get to control the lineage of another species now?  Just by opening a few gates?  This a new gig for me.

Standing outside the fence, watching the girls mingle, Anna and I made some observations.

I'm starting to think one of our wethers wasn't fully castrated when he got here.  He does have a full set of horns (which are only produced by testosterone), and he is actively pursuing the ewes.  He's nothing like the other gelded dudes who just hang back all dulled out, chewing their food.

 Muddy the ram with Albus (the wether) in the background.

Muddy the ram with Albus (the wether) in the background.

 

So now I'm wondering...is he still viable?  Did he actually father a bunch of lambs last year?  Is he the secret father to like half our flock?

If so, that would explain his rivalry with our main ram.  And why one ram-lamb from last year had horns shaped exactly like his...

Man, what a soap opera.