My dad always told me to believe about half of what I see and even less of what I hear. Obviously, things are not always as they appear, and these days everyone seems to be an expert about everything that has an opinion attached to it. Dad also taught me that if you need advice about something, go to someone who has been not only doing it for a long time, but is also successful at it, before taking their advice.
Mike and I do not know everything there is to know, but we have been breeding and raising Blackbelly sheep since 1996, we are pretty successful at it, and we are willing to share the knowledge that we have. There is a lot of confusing, incorrect information circulating about the Barados Blackbelly sheep. We keep a flock of about seventy sheep at all times and sometimes more. We, therefore, feel qualified to offer some advice about what we have actually experienced while breeding and raising them, in order to help you with your own flock.
HOW YOU CAN TELL IF YOUR EWE IS IN ESTRUS
Generally, when ewes are housed together, they begin to cycle together. They can become testy with each other over food, space and any imaginable detail. You will see them butting heads just like the rams do. They will paw the ground, back up a few paces and then charge one another, much more gently, but just like the boys. They may stand head to head for awhile. Usually, the next clue, is that they will mount each other. Put her with the ram at that time. After the ewe has been driven by the ram for awhile, she will stand still for the ram to mount her.
AT WHAT AGE CAN A RAM BE BRED
Now, that is the question! Rams can, will and do breed at four months of age. Make no mistake about it. Secure your ram weanlings with good fencing or you will have a huge surprise in five months. If a ram lamb breaks through a fence and your reasoning is that you are sure he didn't breed any ewes because he was only in there a minute, think again. It takes a ram approximately fifteen seconds to breed a ewe. Some naive folks assume that a ram won't breed his own mother. That information is false. If a ram can breed one ewe in fifteen seconds, then in one minute, he could have bred his mother, his grandmother, his sister and his aunt. SECURE YOUR RAMS!
AT WHAT AGE CAN A EWE BE ACCIDENTALLY BRED
Our experience is that a ewe comes into estrus for the first time as young as four months of age, but usually five or six months of age is the rule of thumb. We never take a chance on that. We always remove weanling ewes from exposure to rams by or before four months so we don't have to deal with a baby having a baby and then Reenie (that's me), or Popo (that's Mike) have to bottle feed it. Mike and I are way too busy to do that. We have to hire someone to bottle feed, which cuts into our profit, so unless it is a lamb out of a bloodline we have to have, we just don't want to do it. Plus, we are firm believers in the fact that a bottle fed ram should be castrated before he reaches puberty. Once that fear of humans is lost by being bottle fed, rams can become very demanding and dangerous if you don't comply with their whims. That also cuts his chances of being a breeding animal. Of course, there is always that exception to the rule, but we believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
WHAT DO WE RECOMMEND AS A GOOD AGE TO BREED EWES
Now that's more like it. Our rule of thumb is this: if your ewe will be a year old before the lamb is born, that is probably a good time to breed her, provided she has grown sufficiently to carry lambs to full term and then care for them. Again, Reenie and Popo Mike are very busy. If she is so immature that she still looks like a lamb instead of a ewe, I would recommend waiting until she is a little older.
HOW LONG IS A EWE PREGNANT
The normal gestation for a ewe is 144 to 152 days. That is kind of complicated, so if you figure five months, that will get you pretty close to due date. Figure five months and be prepared a week earlier than that and be willing to wait the long week after the due date, if you planned for her to be early. Although, we have found that if you are not prepared, she will deliver early in most cases.
MY RAM WON'T BREED
It is surprising how many times I have heard this statement. It may not be a matter of seeing him breed, but rather are there lambs born five months later. Somebody is doing something if the lambs show up. We have rams here at Lone Star Farm that we have never witnessed breeding a ewe, yet they continue to produce lambs year after year. If you are in a hot climate as we are, they are usually smart enough to breed at night when the temperature is cooler.
We usually run large numbers of rams together, but there are ways of moving them in and out of the flock so it is safe for all the rams. The rams left behind, not getting to breed this season, can take exceptions to the ones who do. There are several ways to reintroduce them after a leave of absence with the ewes. We'll talk more about that later. Something important to know about rams is the fact that they need a buddy when they are not with the ewes. Left to their own devices, rams will either get into trouble, or possibly panic when they can't find their friends. Fences can at times suffer. You might want to keep a whether (castrated ram) with him for company.
REINTRODUCING A RAM INTO THE RAM PASTURE AFTER BREEDING
This can get a little tricky and dangerous if you are not careful. The other rams will know what the breeding ram has been up to by his scent. I don't know if they are actually capable of being resentful that he got to breed ewes and they didn't, or if they just don't recognize him because of his scent after being with the ladies. Nevertheless, the first rule of thumb is never put a breeding ram back into a pasture with more than one ram in it. You will need to gradually introduce him to the group to keep him, or them, from being injured. Trust me on this, they will fight. If you have a small paddock, or even a stall to put him in with another ram, that will work. The smaller the better, as they will have less room to backup and run at one another. I have known of brothers who grew up together come back together and almost kill one another over this, so please pay close attention. You cannot put a breeding ram back into a pasture with a multitude of other rams. They will all gang up on him. They will butt him head on, from the rear and from both sides simultaneously. He won't have a chance. Put the breeding ram in a neutral pen (or paddock) first, then bring one of your other rams into the pen with him. We want the second ram to be a little unsure of himself by bringing him into a neutral area that is not so familiar to him. Let's have him off guard a little bit, then all of his attention won't be focused on the breeding ram. They will sniff each other like they have never known each other before today. Ridiculous, I know, but that's how they are. After they are settled with each other, which may take up to a few days, but usually only a few hours, bring in another ram from the ram pasture. Now you have three in the pen. Since the second ram has buddied up with the breeding ram, that will leave the third ram wondering just whose side he is on. Keep them guessing and give them plenty of hay to distract them. Note I said hay, not grain. We don't want to give them something that is so yummy that it will cause a fight. Think of calling three five-year-old children in for lunch. If you set a sandwich in front of them, they will usually eat without incident, but if you throw twenty pieces of candy onto the table, the fight is on. Just offer hay, please. Let the three rams become acquainted again. Then, bring in three more rams from the pasture. Let those six get reacquainted. Now you have six rams who more or less know each other. You can now take your gang of six rams and put them back into the ram pasture with the rest of the houligans. Now, if they are determined to fight, you have leveled the playing field and their game is more even. Keep any eye on them for awhile just to be sure things are working out.
Let's say you are breeding three rams to three separate groups of ewes. When breeding time is over, put those three rams together in the pen. Let them settle, then bring in a group of three more from the pasture. It shouldn't take but a day or so for them to buddy up again. The small paddock is used to keep them from backing up fifty feet then charging each other with the intent to do bodily harm. Also, we have found that if you start this procedure in the evening, by dark they will go to sleep. When they wake up, having spent the night together, everyone's scent has mingled. Now we are one big happy family of rams again. We have kept as many as twenty-five rams together like this with only minor incidents.
Lone Star Farm | Barbados Blackbelly Sheep
NO LAMBS! NOW WHAT?
So, you were expecting thirty-six lambs and only had sixteen. Now What? That certainly is a problem. Its one that pinches the pocketbook and boggles the mind. Do you blame the ram, or the ewe, or yourself. How do you find the culprit? Begin by analyzing what took place back at the breeding clipboard. You do have one, don't you? You didn't just throw a ram in with your ewes and hope for the best, did you? There needs to be some planning here so you can step backwards in time and figure out what happened. Bet you'll have a clipboard the next time you breed, or will at the very least, have marked dates on your calendar. You are now going to see why those dates are important to know.
First of all, how long was the ram in with the ewes? If you say less than six weeks THAT could be the problem. Ewes come into estrus every eighteen to twenty-one days. If you only left them with the ram for a month, he could only have covered one cycle which might not be enough. If you leave your ram in for a total of six weeks, he gets two tries with each ewe. Maybe you only bred them for a month out of convenience for yourself. Its okay to admit that, just don't blame the ram or ewe for that one.
Expecting thirty-six lambs, how many ewes were you breeding and to how many rams? If you got sixteen lambs out of it, who missed. You say you used three rams on three groups of ewes. Did one ram miss all of his ewes? He could be sterile. Or did each ram have some misses? In that case, he impregnated some, so he can't be considered the culprit. What about the ewes, did only first time mothers-to-be miss? Again, maybe they weren't with the ram long enough. You say that some were seasoned ewes that missed? Well now, the plot thickens. How long had it been since the seasoned ewes were bred previously? If they were being bred back after just delivering lambs, you may have put them with the ram too soon. They should have been receptive to the ram after weaning their lambs, or approximately eight weeks after delivery. You say that doesn't apply? Hmmm. What if you had given your ewes a well deserved rest, for say one year? Could be they have needed to be stimulated by having a ram in an adjacent pasture for a month to bring them into a receptive estrus. Old wives tale? Maybe. I must be one of those old wives.
Okay, let's say your rams and ewes are healthy and well fed, free from an overload of parasites, they just didn't get pregnant this time. Ask yourself, are you breeding in an off season? Some breeds, especially Barbados Blackbellies should breed year round. If they don't, maybe you should question whether they are living up to the breed standards as they ought to be producing. Go ahead and breed them right away and see if they lamb in the spring. If they do, breed them back again to see if they will lamb again in the fall, or if they miss. If they miss twice and don't produce fall lambs, I would consider eliminating them from my flock.
Alright, let's say that none of the above happened, but you did notice that your ewes were a little on the thin side, not bad, just off a little. Maybe you should evaluate what you are feeding. May be they are lacking something in their diets. Do you furnish minerals and salt? You say you've had them on grass alone? Has your grass or soil been analyzed lately? or ever? Maybe its time you took a sample over to your county agriculture agent to be tested.
If all else fails, you may want to consult your local veterinarian. Unless you are short of cash because you didn't produce those other twenty lambs you were looking forward to having. In that case, I would breed the ewes right back and see what happens. Sometimes, farmers are more than just farmers. They are doctors, psychologists, mathmeticians, mechanics, troubleshooters, veterinarians, and sometimes even writers. Whichever you are, I hope this has helped to figure out your problem. Good shepherding and may God bless you with lambs next time!
If you have more questions, you may call me, Becky, at (936) 372-3332. I will be happy to answer your questions to the best of my ability.
Frequently Asked Questions
The key to any breeding practice is to keep accurate records.
WHAT CAN BE DONE WITH BLACKBELLY WOOL
Not much of anything. The Blackbelly sheds its wool in clumps. Sometimes it comes out like dreadlocks. The wool is too short to weave or make into yarn, plus it has a lot of hair in it which is not conducive to making something to wear. It would be awfully scratchy because the hair is so coarse. See below.