Here Come the Lambs!

Lambing season is finally underway here at the farm. Our first new arrivals came a week ago, which is a bit on the late side; in most years, the ewes begin delivering in March. Given how long the wintry weather has been lingering here, though, I don’t mind the delay. Our sheep may be cold-hardy Icelandics, but every newborn does better when it’s a little warmer out.

I’m especially happy that the deliveries have been spaced out. There have been years when upwards of five ewes have all delivered on the same day — and chaos ensues. Imagine eight or nine little lambs, all running around and getting mixed up with each other, while the mothers try to track down and somehow bond with their own offspring. (My only real complaint about our barn is that we can’t separate the animals into individual stalls. Being able to do so would be a huge stress reliever at lambing time.)

As of yesterday afternoon, we’ve now had three ewes deliver a total of five lambs. Thankfully, all five are doing great.

One of our black polled ewes (no, we never got around to naming her or the one who looks virtually identical to her) kicked things off sometime late Tuesday night (April 3rd) or early Wednesday morning, with a beautiful set of twins. By chore time on Wednesday morning, she’d licked both of them dry.  Here they are, a few days later. The one on the left is a female; the one on the right is a solid moorit male. He’s gorgeous. Assuming he stays healthy, and his horns come in nice and wide, I think we already have a buyer who wants him as a breeder.

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Over the weekend, Fletcherbelle (see this post for the story of her name) gave birth to a mixed-gender set of twins of her own. It appears the solid black female will be polled; her brother will have horns. She had them up on their feet in no time, and busy getting their first meal.

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We’ve been making a point of going out to the barn several times a day, to keep abreast of any new deliveries. That vigilance paid off yesterday. Around lunchtime, I asked the 15 year old to do a check. He returned, and reported that our very oldest ewe, Pachelbelle, was right then in the process of giving birth. This was important news, because it’s the older ones who tend to have the most trouble; their uterine muscles can weaken to the point where they can’t push the lamb all the way out without some help. (Otherwise, our Icelandic sheep have had very few complications with deliveries — it’s one of the aspects of the breed that we most appreciate.)

I hurried to the sheep pen. Pachelbelle was lying alone in a corner, with a small black lamb head protruding from her backside. The lamb’s presentation looked generally correct, because a foot was sticking out alongside the head. And it moved its eyes enough for me to tell it was still alive.  However, at eleven years of age, poor Pachelbelle seemed in no hurry to start pushing again. Her eyes told me, “I’m getting too old for this.”

No problem. I gently inserted my hands into the birth canal, felt around for a secure hold, carefully drew the lamb the rest of the way out, and set him on the straw bedding.

This is the part when the ewe typically jumps up, turns around, and inspects the slimy wet bundle that she’s just delivered. But Pachelbelle was having none of it.

I made a quick decision: if she won’t go to the lamb, then the lamb needs to come to her. I picked the lamb back up, ran a finger through his mouth to ensure it was clear, and deposited him in front of his mother. She sniffed a couple of times, and then went right to work licking him off. He even began struggling to get to his feet – another excellent sign.

Wanting to give Pachelbelle a little more help, I jogged to the house and retrieved an old bath towel. Back at the barn, I gathered up the lamb, wrapped him in the towel, and spent a minute or two removing as much slime as possible. Once back in front of his mother, she again went to work licking him the rest of the way dry.

Sometime after lunch, I made a quick check on the pair. The lamb was on his feet and getting around (big relief), and so was Pachelbelle (even bigger relief). I was also relieved that she’d only had one lamb; at her age, twins or triplets would’ve been taken an awful lot out of her. Pachelbelle 04.10.18.jpg

I pulled the remaining afterbirth from her backside, and milked a couple of squirts of colostrum from each teat (to ensure everything was clear). I also massaged her udder a bit, confirming she was going to have plenty of milk for the lamb.

It’s a bit poignant, watching her do this for what will almost certainly be the last time. We’ve had terrible luck trying to over-winter sheep that get to age eleven, and have more or less resolved to butcher (in the fall) any that reach that age. This last winter was tough on her, even with exempting her from last fall’s shearing so she could keep her warm fleece. I really don’t want to put her through another Michigan winter.

What makes the decision more difficult is that Pachelbelle is the very last surviving animal who made the move with us from Illinois in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels.” (She was about eight months old at the time.) When she goes, the books won’t just be closing on her life. The books will be closing on a whole chapter of our life.

Fortunately, the fall is still many months off. Lambing is just getting started, and we’re grateful that Pachelbelle has blessed us with another little one. I know we’re going to enjoy watching her raise him this summer, with much gratitude for all eleven years of her life.

 

Single Day Difference

Yes, I know it’s a cliche. But I’m going to say it anyhow: What a difference a single day can make.

About seven miles up the road from us, a big operation called Pregitzer Farm Market sells all kinds of wonderful produce. It’s the kind of place where you can take the kids to a corn maze, let them pet some sheep and goats, and come home with a bundle of fresh vegetables and eggs.

They also have one of the biggest pumpkin patches I’ve ever seen. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s easily five acres or more. Throughout October, you can go out to that field and pick your own pumpkin; this year, I think they were charging five bucks in the days leading up to Halloween.

But it’s not Halloween anymore. Who wants to spend five bucks for a pumpkin on November 1st? What’s a farm market to do with that many acres of leftover produce?

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Simple: they open it up to anyone who wants to pack their own truckload of pumpkins. Price per truckload? Ten Bucks. In other words, one of the best deals ever. You just need some kind of use for those pumpkins.

And we do. Our sheep and goats love pumpkins. The chickens and turkeys peck at the leftovers all day long, too.

Our truck isn’t currently road worthy, but Pregitzer’s isn’t picky about the type of vehicle you use — or how full you load it. They just want the pumpkins out of there. I decided to take all the back seats out of our minivan, and load it to the gills.

And I do mean to the gills:

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I bet you didn’t think a person could fit that many pumpkins into a Dodge Caravan. Here’s a view from the front:

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I made a total of four trips, sometimes with a kid. The almost-eight-year-old boy thought this was especially great fun. My biggest challenge was convincing him to leave the huge pumpkins alone, and to focus on gathering the smaller ones. (Naturally, he went straight for the ones that probably weigh as much as he does.)

If you’re a kid, how many times do you see the family minivan transformed this way? And get to ride in it? He had an absolute blast. The biggest challenge for me was driving slowly and carefully back to our farm. To say that the van’s handling characteristics were a bit more sloppy than usual, and that increased stopping distance was required, would be gross understatements.

Once home, we tossed several pumpkins to the goats. They came running, and went right to work chowing the things down.

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We also gave several pumpkins to the sheep, out in the pasture. We will continue to feed a few of these to each group of livestock, every day.

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I got every available kid to help unload the van into the upstairs portion of the barn.  This wasn’t nearly as much fun as making the trip to the pumpkin patch, but many hands made light work.

As I said, I made a total of four trips over the last week. Even so, and even with other people getting their own loads, the pumpkin patch looks barely dented. My understanding is that Pregitzer’s people will soon be running a disc over the whole field, plowing the remaining pumpkins under in preparation for next spring. Kind of sad, and I hate seeing a single pumpkin go to waste, but the weather’s turning nasty (and I really don’t have time to get over there again, anyway).

Besides, the supply we do have should last us a good long time:

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I must say: finding these kinds of surplus produce deals, and putting to good use something that would otherwise be wasted, is one of the things I especially enjoy about having livestock. There’s an apple orchard a few miles from us, and every fall our oldest daughter runs over there and gets boxes of damaged windfall fruit that otherwise would’ve ended up in a compost pile. Instead, thanks to our daughter, these apples become a wonderful treat for the sheep and goats.

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And hopefully, in just under seven weeks, we’ll again be loading up the van with unsold fresh Christmas trees!

Shearing Time

We celebrated another autumnal milestone this weekend: sheep shearing day. Making the event especially memorable, we welcomed back our original shearer (Lisa) after an absence of a few years. She’d serviced our flock for many years, both in Illinois and after our move to Michigan, but had retired from shearing to focus on other pursuits.

Fortunately, that retirement proved to be only temporary.  We were pleased with the job our local shearer did in her absence, but we were also very happy she was able to make the long drive up from Indiana, and again demonstrate her skill at removing fleeces from the flock. Lisa specializes in shearing high-quality wool flocks, and she works carefully to maximize the usefulness of the fleece.

My daughter and I set up a table in the garage, and “skirted” each fleece immediately after Lisa finished shearing it. Skirting involves laying the fleece out on a table, and removing any mats or vegetable material (especially burdock, strands of hay, etc.). This is essential for things to go smoothly at the fiber mill, when the raw wool is carded and processed into rovings or yarn. Fiber mills hate having to deal with poorly-skirted fleeces, so we err on the side of removing anything that might cause a problem. As you can see, we removed an awful lot of junk wool (and this isn’t even all of it):

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Lisa’s pace of work turned out to be perfect for my daughter and me. Just as we finished skirting each fleece, Lisa would have a new one ready for us. We never got backed up, and we never really had to wait for a fleece.

Although skirting fleeces isn’t the most thrilling work, I very much enjoyed spending a few hours doing it. My daughter and I got the chance to hang out together, working on this joint project, and were able to chat about all kinds of things. It’s the sort of natural human / family connectivity that used to be so much more common, before the ubiquity of electronic distractions.

One especially interesting aspect of Icelandic sheep is the dizzying variety of colors and patterns that’s possible in a single flock. Ours are black, morrit (brown), gray, and white. Most of our individual sheep have mixes of different colors; while we do our best to pack the fleeces separately by color, so the fiber mill can produce different naturally colored sets of rovings for us, the separation isn’t perfect.

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We collected 24 fleeces from our flock of 26. We decided to leave the two oldest sheep unshorn, so they’ll have an easier time staying warm this winter. Dilemma, our oldest ram, will be butchered after this breeding season — just short of his tenth birthday. Pachelbelle, the last animal on our farm to have made the move from Illinois, (ten years ago this month!) turns eleven in the spring. That will be her last shot at lambing; we will take her to the butcher late next summer if she has a lamb, and late next spring if she does not.

After shearing was complete, we turned the whole flock loose in the back yard. It’s some of the best grass left on the property (and they soon discovered the windfall pears in the side yard as well).

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Well … we turned almost the whole flock loose immediately after shearing. Our younger ram remained behind, because he needed some additional work: his horns were growing against his face, and needed to be trimmed. Lisa secured him with two halters (much like securing a motorcycle in the back of a pickup truck), and then we used PVC-cutting wire to saw through each horn. The wire not only allows access to a tight space that’s impossible to reach with a saw, it can also generate enough friction heat to cauterize at least some of the blood flow. (There are no nerves in the horns, so this is a painless process for the sheep.)

As it turns out, his right side had no blood flow at all. The left side had some blood, which we quickly got bandaged. He’s the huge, mostly-black sheep on the far left. If you look closely at the left horn, you’ll notice we secured the bandage with duct tape. Yes indeed … duct tape really is the farmer’s best friend.

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This afternoon, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer made the drive up to the fiber mill; it’s about two hours north of here. She took all of this fall’s wool, and picked up the processed rovings from last year’s fleeces.

She got home this evening with the back of our minivan full of bags of different color rovings. The bags are tied closed, but I managed to pull out a small sample of black, so you can see what it looks like.

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And so the cycle continues …

Almost Made It

She gave it her very best shot, but she didn’t quite make it.

A couple of months ago, I put up a post about our oldest ewe, Licorice. She turned twelve this spring, which is quite old for a sheep. Despite her wavering health, we were hoping she’d make it through to fall butchering. The plan was to take her in with the lambs, the first week of November or so.

Unfortunately, she came up about six weeks short. This afternoon was the end of the line.

She’d seemed to have been holding her own until very recently – which is pretty surprising, given the effects age was having on her. She’d gone almost completely blind, and was finding her food by smell and feel. However, there was an even bigger problem (and one we didn’t fully appreciate at the time of the previous post): she had lost all her teeth. Every single one. I don’t know how she was managing to chew the grain we gave her, or the windfall apples she enjoyed so much.

We’d never had a sheep lose all her teeth to old age, so this was new territory for us. It’s something we’re going to need to be keeping a close eye on with our next-oldest sheep, Pachelbelle. She’s now the last remaining animal we brought with us in the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois at the end of 2007; she was born in the spring of that year, so made the trip as a lamb. I think we’ll let her go one more winter, at the most. It’s looking like letting these sheep go all the way to twelve is just asking for trouble.

Back to Licorice: this morning, she was very unsteady on her feet. The rest of the flock was actually starting to trample her. I managed to get her up, and lead her out to the back yard, but it was clear she didn’t have the energy or fight left to keep going much longer. I made her comfortable under the apple tree, with some grain and a water bucket. She did gladly eat the grain, and took some water. Later, she even got on her feet and walked around a bit. The Yeoman Farm Children cut up an apple for her, and fed it to her in pieces.

Thinking about her toothless mouth, I suggested we try feeding applesauce. That was a flop. She didn’t like it.

As the afternoon wore on, we got busy with other things. At around 3:30 or so, one of the kids found me and reported that it looked like Licorice had died. I jogged out to the apple tree, and confirmed it.

This evening, a couple of the kids helped me dig a grave for her out in the pasture. As the sun settled on the horizon, we brought her back out through the barn, and through the pasture gate, and into the pasture one last time. Then, at the graveside, immediately before laying her to rest, we used a saw to remove her horns. These we will dry, and keep as a reminder until we eventually sell them on Etsy.

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You’ll notice that one of the horns is slightly longer than the other. That’s because, several years back, one of the horns was growing in a dangerous direction and threatening her eye. We used a set of bolt cutters to trim that a bit, and the two sides were never again the same.

It was of course sad to lose our oldest sheep, and one of the final remaining ties to our original farm. I’ll say this, though: at least we saw it coming, and weren’t surprised. And I’m especially glad we were able to give her one last beautiful, sunny, almost-fall day with the family, under the apple tree in the back yard.

I don’t know if there’s a Rainbow Bridge for livestock, but if there is … I hope she crossed it. And is enjoying a grassy orchard of apple trees on the other side tonight.

Burdock Time

What’s a weed, and what’s a resource? On our property, we have a plant that’s both: burdock. It grows everywhere around here. Through most of the spring, it develops lots of broad leaves and just looks kind of ugly.

It’s not until the arrival of summer that burdock becomes more of a problem: as it goes to seed, it develops lots of burs. Toward the end of summer, as the reproductive cycle completes itself, these burs get quite large and dry and pull off the plant easily. They cling to anything, especially any article of clothing, that even brushes against them.

The sheep and goats love eating burdock leaves — but god forbid the sheep get into a patch of mature burdock toward the end of summer. Their wool will be jammed full of burs, all of which will have to be removed before the wool can be processed. Something similar happens to the goats: their “beards” will get so loaded with burs, it can become one solid mass (not to mention the stray burs that cling to the rest of their coats).

This isn’t usually an issue. The sheep and goats instantly mow down any burdock plants that might sprout in their pasture; the tender young leaves are among their favorite treats. So, we never get mature burdock out in the pasture. However, there are lots of burdock plants growing elsewhere in the yard — especially behind my office, or along the edge of the hay field. If the sheep or goats happen to get loose in the yard, or if we want to turn them loose in the yard (supervised) to eat weeds, disaster can easily ensue.

The burdock seed heads are just now beginning to develop, which has gotten me thinking about this issue. It’s also led me to get out the pruning shears, and go on a massive burdock hunt. Over the last week or two, I’ve taken down several large stands of the stuff. The sheep see me lugging armloads of it toward the pasture, and word spreads quickly. They come running, and soon the whole flock is feasting as I toss the cut plants over the fence.

I got most of the big stands right before the seed heads began showing. In the last few days, as the nascent burs are beginning to become evident, my burdock hunt has taken on a greater urgency.

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Yesterday, and into this morning, I’ve been lopping off every last burdock plant I can find. It’s not necessary to take down the entire plant — just the primary, central portion. I don’t mind if some of the leaves growing from the bottom portion of the stalk remain. When we turn the sheep loose in the yard next week, the flock will gladly finish these leaves off.

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While I was at it, I took down a few other leafy weeds. Before long, I had a nice pile of fresh green stuff for the sheep and goats. Given how picked-over their pastures have become, they mobbed me as I came with this enormous armload.

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It’s may be a cliche to say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But here on the farm, it’s true beyond a doubt that one man’s weeds are a ruminant’s feast.

Passages

Spring is always a time of new beginnings on the farm, and that’s certainly been true this year. In early March, before Spring even officially got here, we had over a dozen goat kids born. It’d actually been a long drought; the kids were way overdue. We woke up the morning of March 6th, still with zero kids. By the evening of March 7th, we had SEVEN. Two sets of twins, and our first-ever set of triplets. Over the course of the next week, the rest of our goats delivered. They ended on the evening of March 13th, with another set of triplets. Here they were, trying to warm up in my office, the morning of March 14th:

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One of the males was very strong and went right back out to his mother. The female unfortunately had been born in very poor shape, and she didn’t make it past the first day. The other male was in-between; he was in poor shape, but just strong enough to pull himself to his feet, stand, and take a few steps at a time. He stayed in my office for several days, hanging out with the dogs. I actually grew adept at bottle-feeding him at my desk, while checking email. (The Yeoman Farm Children were bottle-feeding a couple of others, out in the barn.)

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To say we had our hands full was an understatement. We certainly didn’t need a dozen goat kids; what we really wanted was the milk, and a few females to keep as replacement milkers. One of our goats in particular, Button, was getting really old (she was our last surviving goat to have made the move from Illinois nine years ago), and had been looking especially worn out after this most recent kidding.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer got in contact with the woman who serves as the goat coordinator for our county’s 4-H program, to see if they had any interest in our males. (The Yeoman Farm Children themselves haven’t participated in 4-H; we think it’s a fine organization, but we’ve simply had too many other things going on.) The goat coordinator was delighted and relieved to hear from us. As it turns out, they’d been unable to get kids this year from the large goat producer who usually supplies them. With the weird weather last fall, it seems everyone’s goats had gone into heat late. That meant kids were late this year. She had a long list of 4-H children who were wanting goat kids to raise; MYF’s call had come just in time.

All our goat kids are mixed dairy breeds, which is fine for our purposes, but it means the males don’t get especially large – and they’re not especially valuable as breeders. So, we let seven of the males go for ten bucks each. We gave away the frail one for free. And we even threw in what was left of the milk replacer that we’d bought.

All told, financially, we barely broke even (the 22# bag of milk replacer alone cost over $50) — but that wasn’t our goal. We wanted those bucklings gone, and we wanted to help out some local children. Above all, we wanted the milk. And are we ever getting milk: at least six quarts at each milking. That’s twelve or thirteen quarts a day. (Yes, that’s more than three gallons.)

Our eldest daughter, who’s taking a year off after graduating a year early from high school, has basically turned the kitchen into a cheese factory. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer has been assisting, especially with the hard cheeses; her press has been running more or less non-stop.

As if that weren’t enough, March decided to truly go out as a lamb: on the very last day of the month, we had our very first ones of the year born. FletcherBelle delivered a healthy set of twins (a male and a female), and has been doing an excellent job raising them.

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We had another set of twins born two days ago; in fact, they arrived while I was out in the barn taking care of early-morning chores. The female was very strong, and immediately thriving. The male was barely alive, and looked like he hadn’t fully developed in utero (his eyes, in particular, were badly deformed). I wrapped that one in a towel, took him to my office, and made him comfortable in a box near the furnace. I also held him in my lap from time to time. We knew he wasn’t going to make it, but got some satisfaction from knowing his few hours with us weren’t spent abandoned on the floor of the barn.

It hasn’t all been joy and rebirth. Life is a cycle, and we’ve had some sad reminders of it lately (much sadder than the loss of a couple of newborns). A week ago Sunday (March 26th), we lost our very oldest animal, a sheep named Conundrum. She was nearly thirteen years old, and the last couple of winters had been difficult for her. She hadn’t produced a lamb in a while. In recent weeks, she was getting more unsteady on her feet. We really should’ve butchered her last fall, but none of us had the heart to do it — she’d just been with us so long, and was such a fixture in the flock.

Conundrum had the distinction of being our first lamb born to a ewe that’d been born on our property. She arrived on a Saturday morning: April 17, 2004. I was in California, on a business trip, when I got the call from Mrs Yeoman Farmer. I remember being so happy, and so proud, I wanted to pass out cigars to my clients at our meeting. I can’t find any pictures of her as a lamb, but this was her as a yearling:

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And this was her in the Spring of 2014, at the age of ten, with the last two lambs she produced (she had a premature stillbirth the next year, and did not lamb last year).

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She’d been especially unsteady on Saturday, despite the extra attention we’d been giving her. I checked on the flock late Saturday, before going to bed, and she’d seemed alright. Then, when I came out the next morning, I found that she’d left us sometime overnight. Hauling her body out of the barn was terribly sad, but I was grateful she hadn’t lingered in pain. And I did give thanks for all that she’d provided us over her nearly thirteen years.

We closed out that week by losing Button, our oldest goat. As I mentioned above, she’d been tired – and having twins had taken a lot out of her. She was still nursing her female, and we weren’t taking any additional milk from her; our idea was to keep this female as Button’s replacement, and build her as strong as we could by letting her take as much milk as she wanted. Button had seemed to be holding her own, despite being tired, but sometime in the early hours of Saturday … she wasn’t able to keep going.

I found her when I came to do chores that morning, and quickly moved her body from the barn. Our eldest daughter was very fond of Button, and I knew she wouldn’t want to find her like this. She’d want to remember her the way she was, like in this photo from nearly seven years ago (note the lopsided horns – Button was always getting herself stuck in fences, so we trimmed the right horn back to make it easier to free her):

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Disposing of the bodies of dead animals on the farm is always a challenge. Digging graves for mature sheep and goats is tough without a backhoe, so we prefer to give them a “Viking Sendoff” (minus the boat). Early last week, one of the Yeoman Farm Children and I built a large pile of logs and tree branches, and placed Conundrum atop it to incinerate her remains. This past Saturday, we did the same for Button.

It’s a bit sad: we’re down to exactly two animals, both of them sheep, which made the move with us from Illinois at the end of 2007. Soon there will be none. But that’s all part of the cycle of life on a farm, I suppose.

And it’s certainly something to contemplate as we bottle-feed Button’s beautiful little orphaned doe kid, and think ahead to when she’ll be producing kids — and milk — of her own.

Surprise Caboose

We’d thought lambing was done for the year. Most of them arrived in early to mid April, with one delivery in May. That’s usually about as long as lambing goes for us; any ewes who haven’t delivered by then, probably aren’t going to deliver at all. Icelandic ewes tend to come into heat in the Fall, not in the dead of winter.

Yesterday, we got a surprise. Pachelbelle, one of our older ewes (and one of the few remaining sheep that came with us on the “Noah’s Ark on Wheels” from Illinois) delivered a beautiful little ewe lamb.

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As you can see in the photos, the new lamb is very healthy and alert. She’s already following her mother out to pasture and back.

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Given the five month gestation period, Pachelbelle must’ve been bred the first week of January. What most likely happened is that she came into heat earlier, but was either (1) missed by one of the rams, because they were so preoccupied with breeding other members of the flock or (2) bred, but didn’t achieve a pregnancy, so came into heat again.

The absolute latest in the year we’ve had a  lamb born is August, when one of our very old ewes truly surprised us. In her case, extreme age seems to have thrown off her normal reproductive cycle; we thought she was past being able to lamb.

Our oldest current ewe, Conundrum, is now now the same age (twelve) as the one who made an August delivery a few years ago. Conundrum didn’t lamb this spring. So…who knows what surprises may still arrive this summer.