RARE QUINTUPLETS — Bob and Penny Leder each hold two of the five lambs born to this ewe. One of the lambs was later grafted to a ewe that gave birth to just one lamb.
Photo By Dan Hansen
Pasture-season lambing key to success of Leders' sheep operation
The hectic pace of the past four weeks has slowed to a more normal, manageable level at the Bear Creek Sheep Station in northeastern Waupaca County.
For Dr. Bob and Penny Leder, who own and operate the sheep enterprise on 80 acres southwest of Clintonville, April 6 marked the beginning of their busy spring lambing season, during which time most of their 90 ewes gave birth to more than 200 lambs.
SHEEP FIELD DAY
Right in the middle of all the activity, the Leders hosted a lambing barn tour and field day that drew more than 50 people from throughout Wisconsin.
Attendees included adults and youth eager to learn about the couple's synchronized lambing season that coincides with the availability of grass in their intensively managed grazing operation.
Since 1987, they have developed a pasture-based, prolific lambing system. The field day featured a tour of their lambing facilities, and included valuable information about how they graft lambs and manage large litters.
Leder is a practicing large animal veterinarian and a founding member of the Ovine Progressive Pneumonia Sheep Breeders Society.
He has served several terms on the Wisconsin Scrapie Board, chaired the field day committee for the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative and served on the state's Veterinary Medical Association executive board.
"From a profitability standpoint, the single-most important decision you can make is when to lamb. That's because the costliest animal to feed is the lactating ewe but high-quality, well-managed grass can feed that ewe really well," Leder emphasized.
"What's great about sheep is they have only a 60- to 120-day lactation, and you can lay that right over your grass growth. That's the reason we lamb when we do," he explained. "We want our lambing to be completing just as the grass is ready to go."
Along with lower feed costs, their later lambing schedule also increases birth rate among the ewes.
"Delaying breeding until the middle of the breeding season will result in a 5- to 10-percent increase in lamb drop," Leder pointed out. "It also improves lamb survival because lambs don't freeze nearly as fast in April as they do in January."
GENETICS, CROSS BREEDING
To improve prolificacy in their flock, the Leders introduced the booroola F+ gene that increases the ovulation rate of ewes.
"If a ewe carries the gene you can expect her to produce one extra lamb," he said. "Now 30- to 40-percent of our ewes carry this gene, so we have a lot of ewes with triplets and a handful of quads."
Coupled with the booroola gene is a complimentary crossbreeding program that can increase total pounds of lamb weened per ewe by up to 18 percent over the base breeds, according to Leder. "By selecting breeds that are genetically different, but complimentary to one another, we get the best of both worlds."
The Leders employ a modified three-breed rotation that features a black-faced down breed for growth, good muscle development and large size. "We started with Oxfords, then used Hampshires but most recently we've been using Shropshires," he noted.
Dorsets, the second breed in the cross, produce ewes that are quiet and good mothers. The third breed in their rotation is the East Friesian, known for its excellent milk production. "We've used half East Friesian rams to get 25 percent blood in our ewes," Leder explained. "Those ewes are capable of nursing triplets, and we expect our mature ewes to handle triplets."
Recently, they've also acquired a South African Meat Merino (SAMM) ram. "He's like a black-face down breed in that he gives us good growth and size but also some really good wool," Leder commented.
LAMBING SEASON MANAGEMENT
Preparation for lambing begins about a month before the first lambs are born when the ewes are vaccinated for over-eaters disease and tetanus, commonly known as CDT.
"We do that to get the ewes to have good antibodies in their colostrum, and we don't vaccinate the lambs until we begin deworming in the summer," Leder pointed out.
Ewes are sheared by a team of contracted shearers 2.5 to 3 weeks prior to lambing. "The sheared ewes take up less space in the barn and it's easier for us to observe any changes in their udder, vulva and hip ligaments," he said.
Leder added, "They perceive the world the same as the lambs who are born with short fleece, and the ewe will seek a comfort zone that's also going to be comfortable for the lambs."
During late gestation flock sorting occurs based on nutritional needs, litter size and due date.
"All ewes receive an ultrasound scan so we know how many lambs they're carrying," Leder noted. "Large-litter ewes (those carrying four lambs) are fed up to 1.5 pounds of whole-grain barley each day, the main flock receives .5 pounds and the late-lambing ewes get .3 pounds."
During lambing season Penny continually checks ewes throughout the day and checking is also done at 10 p.m. 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. "This is done to make sure lambs end up with the right ewes and to prevent dystocia," he related.
Once lambing takes place, the ewe and her lambs are placed in 5-foot pens along the perimeter of the barn, known as lambing jugs, for 1 to 5 days.
"These are really bonding pens, not birthing pens, because what we want to happen in the lambs' first couple days of life is for the mother and the babies to imprint on each other what they sound and smell like so they can find each other later and stay together as a family."
Lactating ewes are fed up to 2 pounds of barley per day, which is less expensive than corn and is higher in protein.
Lambs and lactating ewes are moved from the jugs to mixing pens and then are given access to pasture. Grain is no longer fed when the ewes are slow coming off pasture in the evening.
Tail docking and castration are accomplished using elastrator bands within the first 6 to 24 hours after birth and following a full feeding of colostrum. Lidocaine, a local anesthetic is administered to reduce pain and harmful lamb movement.
Color-coded, small plastic lamb tags (not official I.D. tags) are attached.
Family units also are numbered and color-coded with Sprayline aerosol spray paint. Green is applied to single lambs and their mothers, red is used for twins, blue for triplets and orange for quads. "This eliminates a lot of post-lambing problems," Leder affirmed.
Managing large litters requires extra care. "We'll often hold back strong lambs to give the smaller, weaker ones the opportunity for a positive nursing experience," Leder noted.
Grafting is also a tool used in raising healthy lambs. "This involves taking a lamb from a large litter, say four, and giving it to a ewe that had a single," he said. The Leders often use slime and stanchion grafting.
"Slime grafting often occurs when two ewes are giving birth near the same time when it's easiest to switch a lamb from one ewe to another by covering the grafted lamb with mucus from the ewe," he explained.
He adds, "A stanchion graft takes place when a ewe loses her lambs; you put her in a stanchion, let a lamb nurse on her and over 2 to 7 days she will often accept it as her own."
If a graft fails or isn't available, some lambs are raised as orphans, fed with nipple buckets. "We keep our orphans with our quad groups so they learn how to be sheep," Leder said. "They also have access to creep feed in a portable shed and remain in a stable environment over the summer, which has worked out really well for us."
Summing up the success of the Leders' sheep enterprise, he said, "The net effect of our genetics and management effort is that we wean a 200 percent lamb crop at 75-80 pounds in August."