Hello fellow barnbuddies, it’s your resident sheep expert Meagan here to answer a sheep-related Ask Miz Hennessy question!
How do I know that my ram has bred with my ewes? And how do you know if they’re pregnant? This is my first year I have 4 Shetlands and 1 Border Cheviot. Please write back.
From your question I assume your ewes are the Shetlands and your ram is the Border Cheviot. I also assume that you have left the ram in with the ewes year-round, as us with small flocks often do.
The first thing to consider when determining whether your sheep are pregnant or not is whether they are a primitive breed or an improved breeds. Shetlands are a primitive breed, which means the ewes only become fertile during the fall, around October or so here in Canada. Improved breeds are generally fertile year-round. Another fact to consider is that Shetlands lamb 145 days after being impregnated.
The simple and surefire way to know if your ram has bred with your ewes is to watch him do the job! The best way for this to work is to keep your ram apart from your ewes year-round except for the mating week, or for those of us with primitive breeds, we can keep our ram in with the ewes until late August. For a small flock like yours this is very hard to do, in fact I did not do this during my first year as I only had one field set up. However this option is something to consider before getting a flock of sheep, as you will end up with rams and boys and you will want to divide your field eventually, might as well do it at the start so that you gain full control over lambing as well!
Another way to know when your ram is mating your ewes is to use a ram harness and colored ram marker crayons, available online or from your local sheep supply store. You attach this device to your ram and put a colored crayon in, and he will leave a smudge on the ewe’s back when he mates them. By changing the crayon color every week you will know exactly when your ewes will lamb. One benefit from this method is you will also be able to see any problem ewes you have – if the ewe keep changing color that means the ram keeps breeding her but she’s not conceiving, so there’s a problem with either the ram or the ewe.
Given that it’s the middle of November now, assuming your ram has been with your ewes all this time, your ewes are most likely pregnant. There is no real casual/easy way to know whether they have been mated or not simply by feeling or looking at them, as during the winter months the baby lamb is very small. It is only during the last month or two of the 5 months of pregnancy that the sheep and lamb really start putting on weight and the mother starts producing milk, making her udder swell and get warm. Apparently there are blood/urine tests you can perform around Day 50-60 as well as having an ultrasound done, but I have never done any of those nor would I – these tests cost money and I’m more of a “take it or leave it” kinda gal, if they’re pregnant, they’re pregnant, if not, oh well!
Since it’s too late this year to determine with 100% certainty if they are pregnant or when they will lamb, start thinking now about how you will accomplish this goal for next year.
And one more piece of unsolicited advice from a fellow first-year shepherd – start thinking of your plans for your 2011 ram lambs now, of which you will likely have anywhere from 3-5. You can’t leave them intact (non-castrated) with their moms past August or else uncontrolled inbreeding will happen which increases the risks of future genetic deformities. Ethical castration, via either elastractor or crimping, should only occur during the first month of the lamb’s life, preferably ASAP. If you are raising your boys for meat then I still recommend castrating them – it gives them a better temperament and might make them grow faster/tastier meat. Also you might consider keeping the finest looking and best tempered ram lamb as a backup for your Border Cheviot ram (accidents happen after all) or for your 2012/2013 breeding season. Personally I found dealing with my ram lambs to be the toughest choice I’ve had to make about my sheep, so I give this advice to you in hopes that you have an easier time making your choice than I did!