Our Lambing Jug Flag System ~ Reduce Your Lamb Losses For Pennies


Running Rideau ewes means lots of multiple births. This is a big advantage, but you have to be prepared to manage the extra lambs. Everyone on the farm needs to be on the same page, knowing which lambs need extra attention. 

We’ve developed a system to monitor lambs that is very effective and very simple. All it requires is some carabiners, two different colors of flag tape and livestock marking paint. 


Here’s our protocol:
RULE ONE – Any ewe with triplets or more receives a pink flag on her jug. Put the flag on the fourth rung down on the panel. (You’ll have to adjust this step if you have different style panels.) Each lamb in these pens is supplemented with colostrum at this point.


RULE TWO – Feed colostrum to lambs in flagged pens every three hours. The goal is to have the lambs fed four times within the first twelve hours of life. Move the flag up one rung after each feeding. This way everybody knows what stage each pen is at. 


RULE THREE – At some point during the first twelve hours use the marking paint to mark the lamb or lambs that you select to be fostered onto milk replacer. (I usually look for the lamb that is the oddball ie. larger or smaller than the siblings. However, sometimes it makes more sense to choose the lambs that take the bottle most easily) Focus most of your colostrum feeding attention on the lambs selected for fostering. If a lambs belly looks full and the lamb refuses the bottle, don’t worry about forcing colostrum the lamb is doing fine. 


RULE FOUR – Any ewe who has poor milk is flagged with an orange flag. If she has no milk, we give her two orange flags. Lambs in these pens must be given a very high level of attention in order to get a healthy start. Follow the same colostrum feeding protocol in these pens. If you think the ewe will be able to handle one lamb, you can leave one on her. After the remainder are fostered, keep a very close eye on the one you have left behind for at least 24 hours. Mark these ewes down for culling. 


RULE FIVE – Once the first twelve hours are complete, the flag will be on the top rung and you can foster selected lambs into your milk feeding pen. It’s much easier to foster lambs before they are 24 hours old. Their suck reflex is much stronger. 


And that’s basically it. This system has reduced our lamb mortality significantly. It gives an instantaneous reference for each person who comes into the barn. It eliminates the need for checking paper records to find lambs that need help. And when things get really busy, it’s an excellent visual reminder not to forget about these pens. 


If you have any suggestions for how you would implement a protocol like this, or any questions, please share. 

An Inside Perspective: Ultrasound Pregnancy Scanning of Sheep


We have shared a little in the past about ultrasound pregnancy scanning our sheep. We were doing a group of 280 ewes last month and I wanted to post a little more information about it here. My goal is to share a little of my experience with you in the form of a few practical tips. If you are interested in learning to preg-check your own sheep, hopefully this is helpful to you.


Just a note on the situation here in Alberta to give context. In Alberta, only veterinarians can diagnose pregnancy in sheep professionally. However, because of the relatively small number of sheep in this part of the world, few vets are available to perform this service, and their fees would usually be too expensive. I have also never heard of a vet that can count fetuses. The result is that most sheep farms that are large enough are purchasing their own entry level ultrasound machines and simply checking for open ewes. That’s what I will be talking about in this post.


Though it would be great to be able to count lambs, there is significant enough benefit in preg checking alone to be worth the work and investment. For example, you have the benefit of being able to pull open ewes out of the group before expensive late gestation rations start. If you do multiple lambing groups you may be able to try re-breeding open ewes for a later lambing. It may also allow you to make a culling decision a few months earlier than you may have otherwise. It can be especially valuable in groups of ewe lambs which typically have lower conception rates.


Now for the practical tips.

1- Make sure the ewes are off feed 24 hours before scanning. A full gut makes it more difficult to see.


2- Your arm will be right between their back legs, so you’ll want some protective gear. A vet showed me this trick. OB glove for coverage with a latex glove overtop to make it easier to use your fingers.



3- Put your ultrasound gel into a dish. This way you can dip your probe rather than having to squirt some on the probe every time. This is much quicker and less wasteful. It doesn’t necessarily require much gel, so use it sparingly. Too much just makes a slippery mess.

4- Some kind of working chute is preferable for more than a few ewes. I’ve worked in a chute where I had to climb in behind each ewe and kneel in the chute. It worked, but it was hard on the knees, back and shoulder. Our Racewell sheep handler is ideal. It holds the ewe elevated above floor height, so that, when I’m sitting in a chair alongside, the ewe’s belly is right at a comfortable height. You’ll see in the photos how I catch the sheep far enough back in the squeeze so that her back end is exposed. I’ve seen some chutes were the technician has a space where they can reach through the side of the chute.



5- Place the probe on the ewes belly where you find the bare skin inside the left hind leg and beside the udder. I generally point the probe toward the spine and angled a bit forward. You’ll get the feel for where you need to be with a little practice.


6- Pregnancy is usually very easy to detect. Take a look at some of these screen shots to see what you are looking for. If you’re not getting a clear image try using a little extra gel. Sometimes there is a bit of buildup on the ewe’s skin that needs to be cleaned off first.


There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll leave it at that for now. If you have any questions just ask.

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

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

 

What Separates the Boys from the Men?

We almost didn’t hire any help for lambing this spring. Anyone who is familiar with what lamb prices have been over the last year and a half will know why. We were fully prepared to make the big push through lambing on our own, but were a little worried about whether we could keep up with everything. Thankfully we didn’t have to.

It was sometime toward the tail end of our fall lambing last year when Alyssa invited some new friends from church out to see our lambs. The Pearson family came with all the enthusiasm we’ve come to expect from them. Of course any family with 11 children is bound to bring excitement just about anywhere they go! Towards the end of the farm visit I offered to show the kids how we shear our sheep. They watched with interest, and when I asked if anyone wanted to try their hand at running the clippers I was surprised by the number of takers. I’ve come to realize that this is the way the Pearson family operates, enthusiasm to learn something new and tackle challenges with piles of energy and a big smile.
So when I asked the two oldest Pearson boys, Connor and Brayden (14 and 13) if they could come help out for shearing this year, I was very happy when they said yes.

Shearing was more fun than usual with Connor and Brayden here. Connor must have exhausted every muscle in his body learning to shear, determined to get done as many as he could. Brayden picked up the duties of managing the shearing floor and wool. Both of them worked hard and had a great attitude the whole time. I was excited when they asked if we needed any help during our upcoming lambing. Even though we hadn’t planned on hiring anyone, I knew this was a great opportunity and wanted to make it work.

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The boys came every Friday through the busiest portion of lambing. They took responsibility for almost all of the daily feedings and duties that take up so much time every day. This gave me valuable hours to catch up on the many other jobs that are pressing during lambing like tagging and putting in new lambs.

By the second week here, the boys already had the routine down and before I knew it, they would be through the daily chores and asking what they could take care of next. We got tons accomplished in the few days that they were here, and it always seemed like they were finished a job almost as soon as I gave it to them.

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So, as we wrap up lambing for this spring, we’re going to miss Connor and Brayden working around here. In thinking about our experience with them over the last five weeks I realized how unusual it is these days to come across two young guys with so much character. They always showed a great work ethic for any job I assigned, and took initiative to take care of something that needed to be done even if I hadn’t noticed it. They were able to solve problems on their own, but were honest and forthcoming when things didn’t go the way they planned, like a quad stuck in the mud :). And something that I realized was really unusual was the respect they addressed me with (Mr. Driedger).

At the ages of 13 and 14, I realize that our world considers Connor and Brayden immature and fully expects them to act as such. It seems like the culture of our time expects young people to spend most of their time watching TV and playing video games, rebelling against authority and getting themselves into trouble. But, as I watched Connor and Brayden working, I realized that these boys were acting as was the norm for those their age in past centuries. I realized that they were acting as much more than what our world would expect from them. They were stepping up to their God given role in life – to be a responsible and creative ruler of the earth, creating something valuable with the work of their hands. And this is the dividing line between the boys and the men. Those who take that responsibility by the horns and own it, and those who refuse to. That’s why Connor and Brayden are, at least in my books, men. We’ll miss them around here.

I sure hope they can come back next year!