Just like human babies, lambs can be born at unexpected times.
Steve Spayd, who raises Shropshires at Hemlock Hollow Farm in Manheim, found that out during Pennsylvania Farm Show week when dozens of his ewes began lambing earlier than expected.
His wife, Brenda Spayd, was in Haiti on a missions trip, and his friends had just taken his show sheep to the Farm Show Complex. He was helping to get them settled in.
Then, that Wednesday, Jan. 8, the neighbor who periodically checks his sheep started calling him, reporting that lambs were being born left and right.
Spayd, a tractor-trailer driver for High Industries in Lancaster, had to make a decision. “I packed my bags, and I never showed,” he said.
He ended up with 48 lambs being born in 72 hours, including several sets of triplets.
Yes, “spring” lambing season is here, and it has been a particularly cold one.
Melanie Barkley recently delivered two sets of triplets while the temperature was 14 below zero on her Bedford County farm.
Barkley, a Penn State Extension educator and the president of the Pennsylvania Sheep and Wool Growers Association, said lambs generally can handle the cold if their mothers lick them dry right after birth.
Cold lambs may need human assistance in drying off, and they need to get colostrum in the fresh milk from their mothers, she said.
Of the six lambs in Barkley’s two sets of triplets, only one was slightly chilled, and two needed to be fed.
“Once they’re dry and have their bellies full, they do pretty well. The temperatures don’t bother them nearly as much,” she said.
“Now granted, I don’t like it this cold,” she said. Temperatures in the 20s and 30s are better.
Ideally, ewes are shorn in the fall. Too thick of a wool coat absorbs moisture, which makes the barn wetter, messier and dirtier. The wetness can also lead to mastitis in the ewes and pneumonia in the lambs, Barkley said.
Barkley did not get a chance to shear her Dorset, Tunis and Border Leicester sheep this fall. It is too cold to do that now, so she crutch-sheared the pregnant ewes around the rear and the udder prior to lambing.
If the wool is too long, the lambs will attempt to suckle on a strand of wool, mistaking it for a teat, she said.
Fortunately for Barkley, her family’s ewes usually give birth during the day. She checks them at 10:30 or 11 p.m. and then again when she gets up at 6:30 a.m.
“That is completely opposite of some producers. They may have lambs born all night long,” she said.
Barkley said she does not know what causes her sheep to lamb during the day.
Spring lambing may extend through May, depending on a producer’s goals, Barkley said. Producers decide when they want to market the lambs and count backward to choose the lambing date that will get the lambs to market weight at the right time.
Lambing has been going well despite the cold weather, said Clyde Brubaker, who raises Hampshire sheep and several breeds of beef cattle near Newmanstown with his wife, Dorothy Brubaker.
“If it gets too cold, we have a wash room in the barn” that can be kept around 45 degrees, Clyde Brubaker said.
The Brubakers have to watch that the ewes do not trample the lambs while trying to keep warm.
Lambs tend to be more comfortable in the cold than calves, and lamb births do not require as much human work. “Most of the time it’s a little easier than calving,” he said.
Predicting a lambing is all about observation. “We watch them pretty often. A good shepherd can usually tell when a ewe is getting close,” he said.
With colder-than-normal temperatures, this lambing season was the first in a long time that Spayd, the Manheim farmer, used heat lamps.
“We don’t like to use heat lamps,” he said. They pose a fire risk, and lambs who lay under them too long can forget to get up, putting them in danger of hypothermia.
Fortunately, Spayd’s barn is sealed well to avoid drafts, especially on the west end where a lot of the lambs are born.
He runs a closed-circuit television feed of the barn to his house to see when the ewes are ready to give birth.
“The biggest thing is just making sure the flock is in good condition,” Spayd said.
Breeding and feeding decisions minimize the number of medical issues Spayd’s flock has during lambing.
Spayd breeds his ewes to be broad across the hips and have extreme body capacity. Those structural qualities help make it easier for the ewes to carry the lambs and give birth, especially if the mother is carrying twins or triplets.
Spayd also selects rams with traits that make lambing easier, like a modestly sized head.
The ewes have been eating a lot more because of the cold, so Spayd has to make sure he has enough grain and quality alfalfa available.
As lambing season approached, Spayd grouped his 63 pregnant ewes based on the number of lambs shown in their sonogram. He mixed different feeds for each group to be nutritious but not produce lambs that are huge at birth.
An hour after birth, he feeds the lambs Baby Lamb Strength Oral, a fat- and vitamin-rich formula to help the newborns replenish the brown fat stores they have depleted in the cold air.
Spayd started breeding with a vasectomized Finn ram for three weeks at the end of July. He said the teaser buck helps bring the ewes into heat so that they are cycling by the time he puts the breeding rams in with them in the first week of August.
Spayd times his lambing to have the animals ready for the registered stock shows in the Midwest where he takes the bulk of his lambs each year.
A county 4-H leader for 10 years, Spayd is heavily involved in educating people about sheep. The first thing he asks a new breeder is “What do you want to do with your project?”
Commercial market lambs can be timed to hit the Easter market. Purebred sales start online in April and May, and they run through the summer. Spayd also sells to the ethnic market, which has its own times of high demand.
“The challenge is to get these lambs eating creep feed,” which is high in protein and palatable, Spayd said. “They nibble a lot at a young age.”
The transition to feed also relieves the wear and tear on their mothers’ udders, he said.
Spayd’s lambs will generally be on pasture by late April or early May, when winter is receding.
“There’s nothing like fresh air and plenty of room to run and play,” he said.
While warm weather may still be months away, Spayd said Maggie, one of his Great Pyrenees guard dogs, enjoys lambing time. “She likes to clean the ears out and nuzzle the lambs,” he said.
Lambing is also rewarding for Spayd.
“This is one of the most exciting times of the year, when you’re taking genetics and seeing what you’re going to get,” he said.