Counting Lambs Before They’re… Hatched?

Well, it’s now confirmed that about 400 ewes will be lambing here through February and March.  Yesterday was a full day of running our first breeding group through for ultrasound preg-checking.  We’ve been ultrasounding our own ewes now for a number of years and, though it is a big job, we find that it really pays off pretty quickly.  It allows us to identify our open ewes and, either give them another chance to breed, or identify cull ewes sooner than otherwise.  It also means that we aren’t feeding several open ewes all the way through late gestation and lambing rations, which is costly enough for pregnant ewes.

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We have been using a small portable ultrasound unit from Intriquip.  It’s about the perfect balance between cost and performance for our operation.  We use it simply to identify open and pregnant ewes.  As much as I would like to be able to count the number of lambs per ewe, it would require much more experience and training on my part and probably a more expensive ultrasound unit. IMG_8288[1]

 

IMG_8289[1]We were thankful to have Connor and Brayden Pearson join us for the day.  Once again they blew me away with their industriousness, and we managed to get through the whole group of a little over 400 ewes. IMG_8293[1]

 

Overall everything went very smoothly.  Brayden got to put our new alley system to the test while he ran the ewes up to us.  The night before last, I finished building and installing two guillotine gates in our curved lead up alley.  The idea was to be able to keep small groups of ewes moving up the alley in a way that they could always see sheep ahead of them.  To accomplish that, I used some pieces of overhead door panel for the bottom portion of the gates.  They are nice and light weight and don’t have spaces where sheep can stick a leg through and get injured.  The top portion of the gates is a panel made of galvanized steel rods.  The sheep can see through this part of the panel to the next pen ahead of them.  Sheep love to follow other sheep and it helps them move up the alley when they feel they are following rather than leading.  I ran cables up through a pulley and across the handling pen then through another pulley and across over top of the squeeze.  The plan was that the gates could be raised from either position.  It seems like the design worked, because Brayden didn’t seem to have much trouble keeping us supplied with ewes nonstop all day!  I’m thinking that the only change I will make is to add a counterweight to the lift cable so that the gates can be lifted a little bit more easily and quickly, but so far so good!IMG_8292[1]

 

IMG_8295[1]Meanwhile on the front end I was doing the ultrasound scanning while Connor recorded tag numbers and pregnancy status in the handheld.  We also decided to give these ewes their dewormer while we were handling them, and Connor took care of that while I was busy scanning.IMG_8290[1]

 

This is one job where I am extremely thankful for our Racewell Superhandler squeeze.  It works perfectly for ultrasounding.  What I do, is set the ‘eyes’ to catch the ewes early so their back end is hanging out of the squeeze nicely.  This gives me good access for scanning while keeping them restrained.  It is also very nice to have the ewes up off the ground so I can sit in a chair rather than squatting all day. IMG_8296[1]

 

Ultrasounding ewes is done externally between the left hind leg and the udder.  With a bit of practice most pregnant ewes are fairly quickly identified and the process moves along nicely.  Some ewes seem to require a little more probing around to determine.  The ones that I find most difficult are the open ewes.  Probably because it’s a difficult search when you’re looking for something that’s not there.  I usually spend a fair bit longer on ewes where nothing is immediately visible.  Sometimes it turns out that she is pregnant, sometimes my searching yields no results.  In that case she gets a pink mark and goes into a separate pen.  In our flock, I will wait a few days and re-scan the ‘open’ group of ewes just to make sure that they are all actually open.  At that point I can make a culling decision.  If a ewe is one of our lower producers and is now open, then it’s a good opportunity to ship her.  If she’s normally a good ewe and just didn’t take for some reason, then she will go in with the next breeding group and get another chance in a month or so. IMG_8297[1]

 

Ultrasounding sheep isn’t all that common in Alberta yet.  Likely because the vet association won’t allow technicians to offer the service, as it is technically a veterinary diagnosis.  If you are a mid to large sized flock owner it might be something that you want to look in to.  The cost of the equipment probably doesn’t make sense for anyone with a smaller flock, though several small producers might want to have joint ownership in a unit or some such arrangement.  If you are interested in learning more about ultrasound scanning sheep let me know and I can try to answer any other questions that you might have.

 

Next on the road to lambing will be shearing.  Stay tuned.

 

-Miles

 

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2 thoughts on “Counting Lambs Before They’re… Hatched?

  1. Hi,
    I really enjoyed reading about your ultrasounding and had a couple of questions for you. Firstly, I am the leader of a local 4-H multi club with 4 members doing the market lamb and/or breeding projects. I was wondering if it would be possible for the kids to visit a large operation like yours, maybe see a demo ultrasound, etcetera?
    Secondly, I was wondering if you have your ewes in the barn all winter or how it works to shear now?

    • Hey, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! We would love to have you bring your 4H group down to see our place. You can give me a call or e-mail to arrange the details!

      As for your second question, we keep our ewes in the barn after they are sheared until their lambs are weaned. That gives them a good warm climate and we aren’t scrambling to bring them into the barn when they start to lamb. Ewes can handle a fair bit of cold weather within a few days of shearing if need be. If shorn ewes are being kept outside in the winter it is best if they have good straw bedding and access to shelter for extreme weather, but if you’ve ever seen shorn ewes in the winter they are actually very comfortable being outside. In the past, Alyssa’s family ran their ewes outside in corrals and brought them inside when they had lambs or during storms. Their ewes were always shorn before lambing and it worked out quite well. The ewes always had access to the barn, but were usually happy outside on the straw.

      The benefits of having ewes shorn before lambing are certainly worthwhile if you can manage to provide good shelter. Long wool at lambing makes it a lot harder for newborn lambs to find a ewe’s milk. It also happens quite often that a ewe with long wool will lay down on her new lambs and not be able to feel them through all the wool. Not to mention that it is just plain messy at lambing!

      Hopefully that helps explain a little bit of why we shear in the winter before lambing and explains how it can work with different types of facilities. If you have any more questions just ask, or anyone else wants to share when they shear and why, please share it here!

      -Miles

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