Its lambing time for us after a 3 month break and, I have to say, I approach this time of the year with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Most people think of lambing as mums feeding cute and cuddly healthy lambs with ease. The majority of the time this is true, but nature can be cruel as well as kind and we must deal the smooth and the rough. I’d like to devote this blog to a transparent, open, warts and all account of how we deal with lambs here at Pecora Dairy. It is one our most frequently asked questions. The Ethical Treatment of Animals is something we are very serious about and we never mind being quizzed about our systems at Pecora Dairy.
The Process of Share Milking
The time between lambing to weaning is by far the busiest of the year so we try to use the most efficient yet best practise possible. We use a method called share milking for the first 21 to 30 days of lamb’s life. Put simply, we take the day milk, the lambs take the night milk. We believe that this reduces the stress on lamb and ewe, and dramatically minimises mortalities. There is a sacrifice, we lose a significant volume of milk to the lambs but the reward is beautiful strong healthy lambs and calm relaxed mums in the dairy. Our philosophy is to be efficient whilst always putting the health of the flock first. We have a long term view of our business and are working for sustainable management practises.
Believe it or not, some East Friesian flocks can average 2.75 lambs per birth. So the whole process requires a keen watchful eye as triplets and quads are all too often accompanied by low birth weights and birthing complications. As luck would have it, the first Ewe to give birth this year, 1st week of July, presented with a difficult breach birth which required my assistance. Vigilance, and obstetric gel, are essential ingredients.
When a ewe lambs, she will have her babies with her constantly for the first week. The milk is largely colostrum during this period which is not suitable for cheese, but is essential for the healthy growth of lambs. After this first week, her lambs will go into the nursery during the day. Our woolshed was designed with this extra job in mind. They sit in the sun on the ramp during the day and have unlimited access to water, hay and pellets. East Friesian’s are precocious, nibbling at grass, copying their mums at 5 or so days old.
With the lambs in day-care, the milking ewes graze the paddocks during the day and come in to be milked in the afternoon. In fact, we rarely have to coax a ewe into the dairy, they happily leave their lambs to come into the stalls. This is because they trust us.
Sharing The Milk
After milking we let the lambs out of the nursery and back to their mums. It’s an absolute racket, mums and lambs calling to each other. Imagine over 150 bleating lambs tearing around like crazed pillocks trying to find which one of the 80 odd ewes is their mother. It always amazes me how quickly they find each other. Then its lights out and bed time for all in the warm shed safe from the cold, rain, wind and importantly foxes.
Morning is an early start as we open the shed into the holding yards. The task here is to separate/draft-off the big lambs again so they can go back up to the shearing shed/nursery for the day again.
As the days progress during lambing, we spend some time up in the nursery watching the lambs. When a lamb is vigorously eating pellets and drinking water, it is clear that it can fend for itself. It will be put into a larger pen and weaned from its mum. This is usually at between 3-4 weeks of age. The weaning process, takes about a week. The lambs need to stay out of sight of their mothers so the bond can be broken. The lamb will join friends of a similar age in a small paddock away from the milking ewes with specially grown lush pasture and extra goodies to promote strong growth.
One or two ram lambs are kept for stud stock and the rest are raised to 12-15kgs and sold off as beautifully lean, pink fleshed milk fed lamb direct to restaurants.
It is extraordinary how quickly they grow. When a lamb is born, it is a matter of minutes before it is up on its wobbly little feet trying to find a teat. It takes human babies about a year to be up on their feet… At 2 weeks twins can launch a ewe’s back legs off the ground as they rocket in for a feed.
The Agony of Loss
On the other hand, we get lambs who are too weak to survive. The law of nature is that if a female has a weak offspring slowing her down, she becomes a target. Ewe’s will walk away from a weak lamb and in traditional farming operations these would be taken by foxes.
The heartbreaking reality of it all is that by saving every weak runty lamb, we risk weakening the long term health our flock. Indiscriminate breeding will increase lambing problems and the need to medicate ill thrifty adults. Therefore, occasionally, we have to humanely euthanase weak lambs. Sadly, the industry standard amongst Merino sheep farmers is to achieve better than a 70% survival rate for twin births. We pride ourselves on achieving much better than that, but it gives you an idea of how precarious lambing can be. This year, at the time of writing, we are happily doing better than a 90% survival rate – but we know that early life remains fragile.
Sadly, mothers will also perish from time to time. Trips and quads take an enormous toll on the ewe’s body. Thankfully, this year, there have been no ceasarians, no retained lambs, prolapses or other vet call-outs. We haven’t always been so lucky.
Congenitally weak lambs are quite different to ones who are simply tiny just because they got less of the food going around whilst growing in mum. A ewe will sometimes have a huge first lamb and small second or third. These little fighters will be brought in and hand raised on the bottle. Sometimes they will need stomach tubing with colostrum to get them over the first 24-48 hours. There will typically be 5 – 10 bottle fed lambs per season that inevitably find themselves around the house with Rosie, our maremma dog, as their foster mother. She kind of looks a bit like a sheep actually.
All our healthy ewe lambs are raised to maturity ready to go into the dairy given we are still building our flock of milkers. In time, we will sell excess East Friesian ewes through our stud. The very best ram lambs we will keep, grow out and sell as stud East Friesian rams.
I believe I am a steward of these beautiful animals and therefore it is my responsibility to sometimes make hard decisions. Michael and I do our utmost to farm this patch of dirt, over which we have jurisdiction for this lifetime, sustainably and ethically. However, often, unlimited short term compassion and ethical farming for the long term, do not go hand in hand.
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