I’m almost done with lambing for another year, and this has been my most successful year yet. Ironically, it is also the year I told myself I was going to take a more hands-off approach (which I have said before)…and then actually did it (which I have NOT done before.) Turns out when you let nature take its course, things work out almost as if that’s the way nature intended it.
Around here, most folks either lamb during early spring in barns, keeping a close eye on everyone, or later spring out on the pasture. Lambing in the barn is labor intensive but you can control for a lot of variables that way, like ensuring the babies are getting enough milk and are properly bonded with their mom before they go out on the grass. The downside is it’s easier for infections and other bacteria-related problems to manifest.
Lambing in the pasture offers more privacy, better nutrition, and more opportunity for the ewes to get exercise right up until they give birth, which I’ve found leads to fewer lambs trying to come out in wonky positions. But obviously, it also means it’s more difficult to intervene in a calculated and timely fashion if someone is having a problem or if the weather isn’t ideal, and the lambs are more vulnerable to predation.
We don’t have a well-equipped lambing barn, and we don’t run enough sheep to justify investing in one. We do have a lovely, little pasture close to our house and a hardworking livestock guard dog, which should make the decision about pasture versus barn lambing simple. I am impervious to common sense though, so for the past five years, I have attempted to hedge my bets by trailing ewes into the corral when I thought they were close to giving birth to keep a closer eye on them. Consequently, instead of being born on soft, new grass, lambs usually arrived earthside into the dry dirt of the barnyard–not ideal circumstances. Worse yet, for some of my shetland ewes, a “primitive” breed that channels their feral ancestors, lambing in confinement was stressful.
I KNEW this, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was constantly checking and rechecking and fretting and over-intervening. Every time something went wrong and I had a bad outcome I blamed myself, and yet, I somehow simultaneously believed that my constant presence and endless vigilance was the only solution.
Last year, I had two different sets of twins born to mothers who eventually rejected them. One twin in each set ended up dying of scours, the word we use to describe severe diarrhea in livestock, often caused by bacterial infections. I’ll never know for sure, but I couldn’t shirk the reality that things might have gone differently if I’d followed my own advice and left them in the pasture. I knew I had to make a change for my own sanity if nothing else.
This year I had one stillborn lamb, and I had to pull one lamb who tried to make her exit with one front leg extended back behind her. The rest of the births were, I assume, seamless. I say ‘I assume’ because I wasn’t there for most of them. More often than not, when I came out to walk through the flock, I found moms with happy newborns, their curly fleeces already licked clean and their bellies already full of warm milk, with only the fresh spring wind as a witness.
We were also blessed with near-perfect weather for lambing, and most of my ewes are experienced mothers, but also young and very healthy. In other words, ideal conditions that may not be repeated in years to come. Still, I can’t help comparing this year to years past, and thinking there are some pretty epic life lessons here. Namely, Mother Nature really is here to help us if we let her, and I am not as important as I think I am.
Eliza Blue lives on a ranch in northwest South Dakota. She’s a musician, mom, author, and shepherd. She writes a column for newspapers in her region and produces audio commentary for South Dakota Public Radio. You can learn more about Eliza on her website.