Opa’s Believe It or Not!

Here’s how it happened. I was working in the barn with Alyssa’s dad (Opa to our kids). We were installing some new water bowls in our lambing jugs. Lambing was already busy, and as new lambs were born we would put away the ewe with her new lambs in a jug. Towards the end of the day Opa was working near one of the lambing pens where one ewe had a nice little set of triplets. He brought her out of the pen, down the alley and into her 4×4 jug. We checked her milk, marked her down on the chart and, after finishing up our work, headed in for the night. 

Later that night, I came back to check ewes. From some distance away I could see the ewe with triplets. It looked like there were more than three lambs in her pen. It’s not unusual for a ewe to drop another lamb after a delay of a couple hours if she gets interrupted in the process. So, I went to check her. The closer I got the more lambs I saw. Four, five, six! Nope SEVEN! I couldn’t believe it! Seven healthy active lambs. A new record for us! We have seen six in the past, but they are rarely strong and healthy. These lambs were certainly below our normal birth weight but, considering that she had about 3 times as many lambs as our average ewe, the lambs looked amazing. She had them all up and drinking and she wasn’t rejecting any of them. 

The interesting thing is that if she had lambed out in the group pen I would have assumed that she was stealing some lambs from another ewe, but since she had the last 4 of them in an individual pen I knew they had to be hers. 

I put her out into a makeshift pen in the alley so that she would have enough room for all her lambs. In keeping with our protocol for large sets of multiples I fed colostrum to all the lambs to ease the competition pressure among the lambs and to make sure that all of them received adequate antibodies. In this case I had to put a blue spot on the lambs as I fed them to make sure that I didn’t miss one. 

The next morning she was still beautifully mothering all her lambs and everybody came out to have a look. What an exciting event. It made me think that if every ewe could manage this many lambs so well it would be great to have seven all the time, but it’s probably better if this is just an occasional surprise.

  

First Lambing Group 2016

As we catch up here between lambings I wanted to share a couple highlights from our first lambing group. 

Our first group of ewes was slated to start January 20. That was based on 145 day ewe gestation length. Most resources will tell you that a ewe’s gestation ranges from 147 to 149 days. The reason I use 145 days to calculate our lambing is so that we are prepared for the arrival of the first lambs.

I charted the number of ewes lambed out on each day of lambing. When ewes go into heat in the fall they tend to self synchronize to one degree or another. Heat will happen in cycles 17 days apart. So when I made my chart at the beginning of lambing I circled my ‘due date’ Jan 20 which was 145 days from when the rams went in. I also circled Feb 6 and 23. These were the 17 day spacings.

Lambing started out slow and although there wasn’t much of a bump on the graph it was pretty clear that the peak of the first cycle was around 147 to 149 days. With such a slow start we knew that there would likely be some pretty busy days ahead. Sure enough, things started to pick up significantly around Feb 4th and kept increasing until our peak on Feb 10 at 55 ewes in 24 hrs. All together about 75% (300hd) of the ewes lambed in the second cycle over a period of 14 days. The majority of those ewes lambed in a 7 day period (250hd).

Interestingly the lambing zeroed out on Feb 19 before a very small third and final cycle. The lambing had also dropped to one ewe in 24 hours between the first and second cycle. So we definitely saw a very strong synchronization effect from this breeding. We had flushed the ewes with barley, but no teaser rams were used. I suspect that, because the majority of the ewes lambed in the second cycle, the ram introduction at breeding caused an effect similar to what a teaser ram would cause. Some of the ewes cycled immediately and where bred while most had a non fertile heat and then a fertile heat after a typical 17 day period. 

  

In any case it was an interesting thing to track our daily lambing numbers. I’m hoping to continue doing so. It helped me anticipate the busy days and focus my energy. 

I’d be interested to hear if anyone else tries charting their lambing progress. Share your experience and what you learn from it. 

– Miles 

2014 Highlights

Wow! It’s been just about a year since we have posted anything on here. Not to make excuses, but 2014 was a whirlwind of a year. Here’s a photo diary of some of the hightlights.

Our barn roof and service room got re-done after our little mishap last winter.

Our barn roof and service room got re-done after our little mishap last winter.

The unfortunate end of our old "stock trailer". Thankfully our two new rams were just fine.

The unfortunate end of our old “stock trailer”. Thankfully our two new rams were just fine.

Everybody was excited for a new stock trailer with four walls and a roof!

Everybody was excited for a new stock trailer with four walls and a roof!

Not too unusual, but still a really nice set of quintuplet lambs.

Not too unusual, but still a really nice set of quintuplet lambs.

This is one of the proto-types for our self-weaning creep gate. The final version is working fairly well for us now.

This is one of the proto-types for our self-weaning creep gate. The final version is working fairly well for us now.

80 of our lambs participated in a special research project at Olds College.

80 of our lambs participated in a special research project at Olds College.

It was a very, very wet summer. Found this sink-hole by accident one day.

It was a very, very wet summer. Found this sink-hole by accident one day.

Spent a lot of time this summer cutting up concrete cattle feed bunks to haul home and convert over to sheep. It probably ended up being more work than it was worth but they'll make some really nice sheep feed bunks.

Spent a lot of time this summer cutting up concrete cattle feed bunks to haul home and convert over to sheep. It probably ended up being more work than it was worth but they’ll make some really nice sheep feed bunks.

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It was an excellent summer for pasture this year. We were able to keep the ewes out at pasture much longer than most years before we brought them back to our farm.

It was an excellent summer for pasture this year. We were able to keep the ewes out at pasture much longer than most years before we brought them back to our farm.

We are now the proud owners of a cute little miniature horse. We decided to sell our full size horse, Kenya,  this year because she just wasn't getting the attention she needed and then we were thrilled to find out that our neighbor was selling a miniature horse. For this stage in our lives, with so many young children, we figured this would be a much better fit for our family.

We are now the proud owners of a cute little miniature horse. We decided to sell our full size horse, Kenya, this year because she just wasn’t getting the attention she needed and then we were thrilled to find out that our neighbor was selling a miniature horse. For this stage in our lives, with so many young children, we figured this would be a much better fit for our family.

Our youngest, Henry, and Miles enjoying the new horse.

Our youngest, Henry, and Miles enjoying the new horse.

Bringing the ewes back from pasture before the snow came.

Bringing the ewes back from pasture before the snow came.

We found a good used feed wagon so now we can mix TMR feed for the sheep. This allowed us to make the switch to silage feeding this year.

We found a good used feed wagon so now we can mix TMR feed for the sheep. This allowed us to make the switch to silage feeding this year.

We're excited to announce that we will be launching our very own line of ALYSHEEP wool products. The last couple of months last year were filled with planning out this new aspect of our farm.

We’re excited to announce that we will be launching our very own line of ALYSHEEP wool products. The last couple of months last year were filled with planning out this new aspect of our farm.

All four of our kids grew so much this year and we are so thankful and blessed for the many hours we had to enjoy playing with, working alongside and teaching these four little munchkins. Our oldest, Timothy, started kindergarten this year so we've enjoyed our time teaching him to read, write and do some basic math at home. Home schooling has some challenges but it also has many many benefits! We look forward to another great year this year!

All four of our kids grew so much this year and we are so thankful and blessed for the many hours we had to enjoy playing with, working alongside and teaching these four little munchkins. Our oldest, Timothy, started kindergarten this year so we’ve enjoyed our time teaching him to read, write and do some basic math at home. Home schooling has some challenges but it also has many many benefits! We look forward to another great year this year!

Lamb Coffee!?!

Lamb coffee and my coffee... don't want to confuse these at 2am!

Lamb coffee and my coffee… don’t want to confuse these at 2am!

Yeah I know it sounds crazy. But we were looking for something this year to help our lambs really get up and go. We wanted to make sure that they had the best possible start and got up to eat well right away. At first, we researched into some of the available lamb formulas (Nutri-Drench, Kick Start, Survive!, etc). They all make some pretty incredible claims, which I think have to be seen partly as marketing. But at the same time, they’re not a complete hoax. The ingredients in them would certainly provide some good energy and vitamins for the lambs. Most of them are made up of either molasses or vegetable oil and they all have a certain level of vitamins. So we started looking at the cost of giving each of our lambs a dose at birth to ensure adequate energy to get up and feed well (since mama’s colostrum is the real ‘magic formula’). As our research progressed, we realized that we could easily make most of those concoctions ourselves. So, after talking to our vet we decided to do a little bit of an experiment this year. At first, we were leaning towards a vegetable oil mixture, but our vet didn’t think the lambs would be able to metabolize the fat very well. So we opted for a molasses based mixture. Molasses is about 50% sugar and lambs seem to like the taste, so it makes a good energy supplement.

What I wasn’t expecting our vet to suggest was to try coffee! She told us that she had tried instant coffee mixed into milk for calves, and that it really perked them up. So, we added instant coffee to our grocery list.

 

We mixed up our recipe and put it in a bottle with a squirt cap like a soap dispenser. The first batch was a little thin and runny, so the next batch had a little more molasses to thicken it up. So far we have given the mixture to every lamb born as soon as we put them in the jug. I can’t say that I have noticed the lambs perk up when the caffeine hits their system the way I do, but it is seeming like we have less weak lambs who run out of energy before they get a good feeding in. Maybe some day we can do a more objective analysis of how well the stuff actually works. But for now it is a really inexpensive way to make sure our lambs get up and suck on their own. It sure beat milking and bottle feeding.

Lamb Drinking Lamb Coffee

 

I don’t know if anyone else out there has tried feeding coffee to livestock, but if you have I’d really like to know what your recipe is and how it works for you. I’ll share ours below and you can give your critique. Remember it’s always a good idea to talk to a vet before feeding something like this to your livestock, but the nice thing is, that it is completely made out of edible ingredients that you have in your own kitchen. So you know it’s a safe feed. As a ‘foodie’ would say, “I like it, cause I know what’s in it!”

 

We also included Selenium and vitamins E, A, and D. However I’m not going to include those in the recipe as Selenium can be potentially toxic to sheep if incorrectly dosed (though sheep also die without it). These ingredients you would definitely want to talk to your vet about and make sure they are properly dosed and administered.

Let us know what you think, crazy good idea or just plain crazy.

– Miles

Lamb Coffee Recipe

Eighty-Five Down… Three Hundred to Go

Yikes, where did January go?  I had intended on making a few more posts before lambing. I wanted to write a little bit about some of the unique things we’re trying out this year. Instead, what we’ll have to do is make a few posts as lambing goes along.

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January started off with a bang… literally. Our barn was one of the many in this area that had it’s roof collapse. Thankfully the main part of the barn was unaffected. Only the service room on the south end was damaged. Still, it set us back quite a bit in our preparations for lambing. We were extremely blessed to have lots of help getting things cleaned up and keeping the farm running at the same time. A huge thank you to all of our family, as well as the Pearson boys, who came to help out. All the wreckage is cleaned up and utilities are connected so that the barn functions as normally as possible.  photo

In the end, we were able to get everything set up in the barn, and lambing started pretty much right on schedule.


As of right now, we have about 85 ewes done lambing and things are going quite well. This is one of the first times that I have managed this many ewes lambing at once. We have nearly 400 ewes in this group. We have done groups this size in the past, but we always had at least one person hired to help out. So far, this year we are keeping up, and I have to attribute it to how much Alyssa has been able to help out. She has been coming out about twice a day with the kids and helping with getting jugs watered and grain fed. Timmy is really keen on learning the ropes and really enjoys using the garden hose to water jugs. All the kids enjoy coming to the barn, even Henry who likes to sleep in his car seat.


We have a few new things that we’re trying out this lambing season and we’re going to try to share those with you as things progress.

Take care
-Miles

Away in a Feed Bunk

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feed bunkI was blessed to spend a little time in the barn this morning doing the feedings.  Come Christmas time, I am always reminded of the manner in which our Savior entered the world.   So often, we forget to even consider the birth of Jesus this time of year.  In our best moments, we think about the baby wrapped up in swaddling clothes lying in a manger, but as I look at the nativity sets all around, I think that we have missed something of the reality of what Christ came into.

As I hurried my way through the barn this morning, hundreds of noisy ewes bellowed at me in their greedy quest to fill their stomachs.  They jostled and pushed their way through the straw and manure to find a place at the feed bunk.  I’ve always been quite happy with our feed bunks as far as feeding sheep goes, but Christmas morning the feed bunks take on a new appearance.  They look dirtier and dustier, the bottoms are caked with old bits of feed and manure and dozens of drooly sheep mouths plunge into the barley that I’m busy pouring.

I stopped to think about the feed bunk.  You see, when I ask my kids about the Christmas story I always ask them where the baby Jesus was laid.  They usually answer, “The manger.”  To which I quickly respond, “But, what is a manger?”  Now, even a lot of farm kids might have a hard time answering this.  Manger is a bit of an out of date word.  My kids have learned the right answer though, “A manger is a feed bunk!”

This is a stark truth when you are nose to nose with a two hundred pound panting drooling old ewe looking into her feed trough.  THIS is it! This is where the newborn baby Jesus was laid those many years ago.  This was his bassinet.

A fresh understanding of what it means that the Creator of the Universe stepped down into the form of a helpless baby to be born like any one of us.  The perfect God surrounded by the filth of a creation so utterly ruined by the sin of each one of us.  One has to ask the question why?  Why would he do that? It’s simple really.  It’s because he loves you!  It was all part of his masterful plan to redeem a world lost and without hope.  His plan to take our sin upon himself that each of us might have the opportunity to trust him and be saved from the consequences of our own sin!  What amazing love, what amazing grace!  And it started here, in a feed bunk.

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christmas

 

Fleecing the Flock!

Shearing week was a big success! With just about four hundred ewes to shear, I wasn’t sure that we would be able to get finished in the five days we had given ourselves. We were thankful to once again have Connor and Brayden Pearson come out to help for the week. I might be shearing still if it hadn’t been for them.

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We managed to get the shearing chute operational in time, which was also a major factor in our ability to get finished as quickly as we did. The chute provides the shearer with sheep close at hand unlike our old method of catching the sheep out of the pen and bringing them up to the shearer. The sheep move up the chute easily because the design of the chute holds one ewe at the front end taking advantage of the sheep’s following instinct.

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Monday started off well and each proceeding day got continually better with Connor and I both increasing our daily tallies. I’ve noticed a lot of progress in Connor’s second year shearing. His sheep are looking nice and clean and I can tell he’s focused on improving his time as well.

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Brayden also tried his hand at shearing this year. He started by shearing a few sheep from start to finish which is quite strenuous if you’ve never done it before. Later in the week, I tried a New Zealand approach which I have heard of where I would shear the first portion of the sheep giving instruction as I sheared, and then letting Brayden take over on the last side. The idea is that as a trainee progresses, they begin to take over earlier and earlier on the sheep until they can shear the entire sheep on their own. Though this sounds backwards, anyone who has learned to shear, knows that the last blows(passes with the shearing hand piece) are the easiest. Brayden is doing well and by next year he’ll have the shearing pattern figured out and will be working at becoming quicker.

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One of the biggest differences for me this year, was the addition of the back support which I had built into our shearing chute. I was very excited when by the end of the first day, my back wasn’t hurting at all. I thought that perhaps as the week continued I would begin to tire and feel it in my back, but, amazingly as the week went on, I never did have any pain and I think it’s safe to say that the back support was a big success. The design for the support was improvised based on what I have seen from others’.The chest strap is actually a weight lifting belt that I happened to find at Princess Auto. The long springs I had to hunt around for but eventually found them at Gregg Distributors. Having experienced the difference of shearing with and without, I can’t see myself going back to the old way.

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I always enjoy having Alyssa and the kids come out to visit and watch. One of the highlights for me was giving Timmy a chance to help hold the hand piece on the long blows. We won’t be shearing any ewes again until spring and these four hundred ewes won’t be lambing until the end of January. Before we get busy gearing up for that, we’re going to take a few days to slow down and enjoy some time with family this Christmas.

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Take care!

The Race is On!

Shearing is slated to start this Monday the 9th and there’s plenty to get ready before then. Things have fallen a little bit behind schedule due to the blizzard we received this past Monday.

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The better part of Monday and Tuesday were spent digging out and getting feed to all the different pens. Some of the drifts that blew up in the yard were a good 5 feet deep! In the field west of our house where we have straw bales stacked some of the drifts are two round bales high or about 10 feet deep!

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Not everything is completely dug out yet, but at least we are functioning somewhat normally again. The main task is getting a permanent shearing chute built. I’m designing the chute based on some pictures and what I remember from the chutes of shearers we have hired in the past. It’s a simple concept that keeps the sheep close at hand for the shearer as well as making it easier to seat the ewe down. While I’m building the chute I’m also trying to incorporate a back support system. After a back injury 3 years ago I get pretty tired and sore after shearing all day. I’ve seen something like this used once by one of our shearers as well as in several pictures. Hopefully it takes some of the strain out of shearing for us guys and helps the job to go more quickly and easily.

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Tonight I took a few minutes to get some combs and cutters sharpened up. It’s a skill that I haven’t quite perfected yet, but an important job to get right in order to make for easier shearing.

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Shearing in 5 days.
– Miles

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