Sheep producers typically have their sheep bred in the fall for a spring lambing. This is the easiest as lambs are born at the beginning of the growing season, thereby reducing the amount of feeding a producer must do. Also it is the most natural as the fall is when the ewes go into estrus, or their time of being receptive to the ram and able to conceive. Some breeds of sheep may be bred at any time of the year enabling a producer to have market lambs year round if they wish. The normal gestation period for a ewe is five months.
Selecting Breeding Animals
Determine the goal of your breeding program. If your desire is to produce market (meat) lambs, breeding purebred sheep may not be a consideration. However if the goal is to produce show quality animals to be sold as breeding stock, then selecting top quality, registered, purebred, animals to start off with is key. Disregard any animals with poor legs, poor mouths, or substandard qualities for the breed. Purchase quality animals from a reputable breeder. Select animals only from disease free farms.
You will want to research further the various sheep breeds as some are more for wool production, some more for meat production, and some for both. Consider what the market demands are in your area.
Preparing the Ewe
A wool sheep ewe in the fall.
The earliest a ewe should be bred is so that she is to give birth at one year of age. She should weigh at least 70% of the mature weight for that breed of sheep. Because of the increased risk to a young ewe, some producers prefer to wait until a ewe is two years of age before her first lambing date. This is especially true in hair sheep who mature slower than wool sheep. A single lamb is always preferred for a yearling mother, rather than twins or triplets. If breeding a young ewe her feed ration must be increased to allow for the fact that she, herself, is still growing while pregnant.
Most producers allow sheep to pasture breed, prior to doing so the ewes should be checked for general health conditions. Ewes in poor condition should be culled or have their feed increased prior to breeding. Consult a veterinarian two months prior to breeding to see if any vaccinations are required or suggested in your area.
Preparing the Ram
The Authors nearly 1 year old Katahdin Ram.
Some producers keep their own rams while others rent a ram or buy one just before breeding season. Because rams are easily exhausted while breeding ewes, care must be taken to ensure they are eating well. Increasing their grain intake at this time is a good strategy. A producer may wish to have a veterinarian test the ram for semen production and quality, which can decline after a hot summer. This is important in older rams. When introducing a foreign ram, care should be taken that he comes from a disease free flock. Some rams become very aggressive during the breeding season and should not be trusted.
A variety of ewes and a Barbado Ram.
In the fall the ram is typically turned out with the ewes. The ewes go into heat (estrus) every 17 days and will accept a ram at that time. They remain in heat for about 30 hours and may be rebred during that time. To ensure all ewes are impregnated the ram should be left with them for at least two months. On average one ram to thirty or forty ewes is a good ratio.
Only one ram should be in a pen with the ewes. If you want to use two rams you need to separate the ewes into different pens, with one ram in each. If the rams are together they will waste time and energy fighting each other. Also you will want to know which ram was bred to which ewe for record keeping.
Occasionally producers, especially of sheep that will not be used for wool, will put a device on the ram that leaves a mark on the ewes after he has covered or bred them.
Artificial insemination, or AI, is generally not done in sheep, not only because pasture breeding is very effective, but Artificial Insemination in sheep is trickier than most livestock. This is because of the shape of the ewes cervix which is curved, unlike in cattle and horses.
Breeding at Other Times of the Year
For producers who wish to have lambs at other times of the year, they can encourage a ewe to come into season by reducing the amount of light she receives, as such she would need to be confined in a barn for part of the day. Otherwise breeds can be selected who cycle year round.
Authors newborn Kathadin lambs, born March 6, 2010, photographed at 2 hours old.
Pregnant ewes will start to get larger and develop udders as early as four to six weeks before lambing. Plans should be made to ensure that ewes have a safe place to lamb. In areas where predators are common, or temperatures are cold, this should always be indoors.
While many ewes will lamb overnight, this is certainly not always the case. As such at lambing time ewes should be checked every four hours. Problems are more common in younger ewes, ewes bred to much larger rams, and ewes with multiple lambs. The normal delivery is two front feet and a head first. Ideally a ewe should be left to lamb on her own, but watched in case of complications.
Once born the lambs should be watched to make sure they can stand and nurse on their own and that the ewe is not rejecting them. It should be noted if the placenta was shed. Their umbilical cord will usually break on its own when they stand, or can be trimmed to about an inch long and dipped in iodine. Sometimes you may have to bottle feed a rejected lamb.
At this time a ewe and her lambs may be kept in a small pen, ideally where she can see other sheep. After a few days to allow bonding, she and her lambs can be in a larger area with other lambs and ewes. This is about when tail docking (in wool breeds only) and wethering, make take place.
Sheep breeding can be very fun and rewarding, but it is not always as easy as it looks. Especially at lambing time it is important for a producer to be aware of, and prepared for problems. No hesitation should be made when calling for a veterinarian. With any luck, and a little bit of good planing, a cute crop of new lambs will soon await you.
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