The atmosphere on the ranch feels like spring as we begin the month of February, which is an unsettling feeling when we call North Dakota home. We have traded in the snow and ice, below-zero temperatures and wind chill for 40- and 50-degree days, sun and puddles of water. And, we are lambing.
We had 27 ewes due to lamb at the end of January and into February, and a little more than half of those ewes have had their lambs. We have more ewes due to lamb in April, which is a more typical time to lamb in North Dakota.
Have you ever wondered why springtime seems to be marked by baby animals, specifically lambs? Most breeds of sheep are seasonal polyestrous, meaning the breeding season for sheep is largely affected by the environment – the amount of sunlight, the day length. In our area, the breeding season for sheep occurs in the fall with a gestation around five months; hence, lambs are often due from March through May.
I have mentioned we raise Dorper sheep. Here’s an interesting fact about the breed: Dorper sheep are non-seasonal breeders, which means a Dorper ewe’s reproduction cycle is not significantly affected by the environment. In fact, a Dorper ewe can have three lamb crops every two years. The ewes having lambs now on our farm will become pregnant again in May and will lamb once more in October.
While the weather is abnormally warm this week, temperatures were unbearable in January. Some of our ewes lambed on the coldest nights of winter. A very small, wet newborn lamb needs help beyond what the ewe can provide when the wind chill makes the black of night bone chilling. On those nights, I woke up to bleating (the “baa” noise a sheep makes) from the basement only to find a lamb warming itself in a laundry basket by the fireplace. Doug checks in at the sheep barn all throughout the day and night to assure a safe delivery for the lambs and the ewes. And, he needs to confirm the newborn lambs have been able to begin nursing. Sometimes he has to intervene to help the lambs learn how to nurse, or he gives lambs colostrum and milk replacement in bottles if needed.
Behind the cute photos of lambs and calves, goats and foals, there are almost always cold, sleep-deprived ranchers caring for their livestock before they care for themselves.