Weather presenting perfect conditions for lambing
ELKTON, S.D. -- Spring lambing in 2017 has been a shepherd's paradise, at least where the weather is concerned. While the first few weeks of January were frigid, Mother Nature has smiled on South Dakota sheep producers for the majority of the spr...
ELKTON, S.D. - Spring lambing in 2017 has been a shepherd’s paradise, at least where the weather is concerned. While the first few weeks of January were frigid, Mother Nature has smiled on South Dakota sheep producers for the majority of the spring lambing season.
“It’s been a pretty decent winter for lambing,” Rufus DeZeeuw said. “In February, I’m opening the doors to keep things from getting too hot.”
DeZeeuw raises Suffolk and Hampshire sheep as well as cattle near Elkton. DeZeeuw staggers his spring work by starting lambing in January. By the time the last week of March rolls around with calving season, ewes have finished dropping lambs.
DeZeeuw admits that he is fortunate to have good facilities to bring the ewes in for lambing. DeZeeuw has been at his current location for 30 years, and in that time he’s swapped out the old outbuildings for cattle working and lambing facilities. Lambing indoors is crucial for DeZeeuw, especially if the ground gets muddy.
“Mud is hard on little lambs,” DeZeeuw said.
Even without the mud, lambing indoors provides its own set of challenges. Keeping the bedding dry is important to prevent dampness and the onset of pneumonia. Proper ventilation is also vital to ensure that ammonia levels don’t become a problem.
While DeZeeuw initially designed his lambing barn to feed sheep with a tractor, he quickly saw that valuable barn space would be lost. Opening a big door to provide tractor access during the winter would also allow cold air to waft into the barn. DeZeeuw decided to make better use of space and has lambing pens in the center of the barn instead of a driving alley. Although this requires that he feed square bales, he believes the trade-off is worth it.
The 2016 lambing season was marked with a set of quadruplets, but DeZeeuw hasn’t had any ewes drop that many lambs this spring. While twins are ideal, he occasionally grafts a lamb from an ewe with triplets to an ewe who lost a lamb or had a single lamb.
“I’m OK with not getting lots of triplets,” DeZeeuw said. “It’s an extra burden on the ewes.”
For DeZeeuw, lambing time is more stressful than calving. His priority is to be nearby whenever an ewe is lambing and assist as needed.
“Most of the time Mother Nature’s got it figured out,” DeZeeuw said.
Although lambing can be a demanding time of the year, DeZeeuw prefers working with the ewes when lambs need help suckling. He finds ewes much easier to work with compared to cows, which can be aggressive towards intruders around newborn calves.
“That’s the good thing about an ewe,” DeZeeuw said. “You can go in the pen and help the lamb nurse without getting hurt.”
DeZeeuw believes sheep are great projects for teaching kids how to handle and care for livestock, thanks to their manageable size. DeZeeuw has also seen many women successfully manage sheep operations, allowing their husbands to manage other farming endeavors.
“A lot of women are shepherds,” DeZeeuw said. “They tend to be more patient and have more of a feel for birthing than guys do.”
‘A peaceful time of year’ Dawn Stephens hadn’t planned on raising sheep, especially with her full-time job in Sioux Falls. But when her husband took on sheep, she decided to help him with the operation, eventually taking over the management of about 75 head north of Colman. Their turn-of-the-century barn was used as a lambing shed during February and March each spring.
“I liked working with the ewes and the babies,” Stephens said. “They were small enough I could handle it by myself.”
Stephens found that grafting lambs could be difficult, especially if the ewe refused to claim the lamb. An incidence of one ewe dropping a lamb on an ice pile outside of the barn required that Stephens bring the lamb indoors to warm it up in a sink of water. While she saved the lamb’s life, the ewe would not claim her second lamb. Stephens placed unclaimed lambs on a bottle feeder.
“There’s always challenges with lambing, because ewes can be obstinate,” Stephens said.
While Stephens enjoyed her time raising sheep, the winter of 1996 – 1997 posed several problems. Daily blizzards made it challenging to keep the feedlot clean. With deer wreaking havoc in the hayshed and coyotes taking out 12 lambs that spring, Stephens decided it was best to sell the flock.
Even with its challenges and frustrations, Stephens enjoyed lambing season.
“I always thought lambing was a peaceful time of year,” Stephens said. “I’d get up at three in the morning, walk across the yard with the dog, hear the owls and see the snow on the ground. I’d walk into the shed and hear who’s lambing.”