|Drawing by Toki Oshima.
By Tom Settlemire, professor emeritus, Bowdoin College, and sheep producer, Brunswick, Maine
Dr. Charles Parker, a good friend of many of us in the sheep industry, has a simple but very important guiding concept: We should be breeding sheep that are working for us; we should not be working for the sheep. In part this means we need to be selecting productive ewes that can produce and raise lambs with little or no intervention from us shepherds.
Production records are the best way to help us select these animals. The National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP) and Lamb Plan are two invaluable tools to help us select sheep with the production potential we need.
In addition I found the use of a “Ewe Scorecard” to help identify sheep with behavior and other traits valuable in creating a productive, healthy and “shepherd friendly” sheep flock. The scorecard is a tool to rate ease of lambing, mothering ability and milk available at lambing. I know these traits influence the factors used in production record systems, but I have found scoring the above three traits at lambing time to be very useful.
In the 1980s the following protocol was put together. I used the scorecard as one tool in selecting breeding stock. In 2005, the sheep flock was moved to Crystal Spring Community Farm in Brunswick, Maine, and Seth Kroeck, the farmer at Crystal Spring, and I began to manage Crystal Spring Katahdin sheep. The scorecard is used to rate every ewe at lambing.
I suspect many of us have experienced having a ewe come into labor, fail to dilate, and the birth of the lamb(s) happened (or didn’t) only because we were there and became the “midwife.” To top it off, after the lambs were born, the ewe said, “Hey, my job is done, I really don’t want to be a mother” – and she ignored the new lambs. So we began convincing her to take her responsibilities seriously – and then she didn’t have any milk.
Maybe our problem ewes don’t have all these faults, but often in the flock of sheep our family had in the early ‘80s, one or more of the above happened with a ewe at lambing time. I decided I didn’t want to deal with three big problems at lambing time: ewes that had difficulty lambing, or were poor mothers and/or at the time they lambed, they had no milk.
To move forward, I wanted a simple, user-friendly scorecard for each ewe at lambing time with information I could use in selecting breeding stock.
The theory behind this is that there is a genetic base to ease of lambing, mothering skills and available milk at lambing. If we recorded information about what was happening at lambing time and used that information to select only those who got high marks for the above, life in the sheep barn would be better. So I created a scorecard that has been used for more than 20 years, and the results have been rewarding.
The scorecard has three components: lambing score, mothering score, and milk available at time of lambing.
At lambing time the ewe is given one of three scores:
A. She lambed normally (came into labor and in a reasonable time presented her lambs without intervention);
B. She lambed but required some assistance, but only because lambs were breech or multiple lambs were in the birth canal at the same time – but she had dilated and would have delivered a normal presentation without help;
C. The ewe went into labor, tried to deliver but had not dilated sufficiently to allow the delivery of a normal presentation. These ewes are for me automatic culls. I also scored any ewe with prolapse of any kind a “C” and placed her on the cull list. In addition none of her ram or ewe lambs would be kept or sold for breeding purposes.
This score is very important for me. Here I rank the ewe’s action to immediately care for her newborn by licking and talking/cooing to her new birth with total focus. A mature ewe is either a good mother or a cull – plain and simple.
Scores for this one are as follows:
1. She is a great mother, immediate to the task at hand of cleaning and caring for her new lamb with total focus. And when lamb number 2 or 3 arrived, she was able to change focus as needed and keep her new offspring in her complete care;
2. CULL. If the ewe did not take her responsibility seriously and did not clean, connect with and nurse her new lambs, this means more work for you, more dead lambs and less joy in the lambing barn. Some will give a little slack to young ewes, those lambing at 12 to 16 months of age; that decision needs to be one you make. Even here I would want the young ewe to become focused on mothering with very little intervention. In general, the more critical you are of “mothering skills,” the easier life in the lambing barn becomes over the years. “Mothering” has a genetic component, and if you identify the good mothers and remove those with poor mothering skills, you are on your way to a shepherd-friendly flock. Select for breeding stock only those ewe and ram lambs that come from dams that are the stars and earn a score of 1.
Milk Available at Time of Lambing
I. The ewe has a full udder, normal teat size and is ready for a lamb to nurse. If we are in the lambing barn when lambs are born, as one of the tasks we strip a little milk from each teat to remove the wax plug and make sure milk can flow. We love the girls with full udders, that are all set to get lambs off to a good start!
II. The ewe has some milk, but her milk production is not the full, distended udder we would like. Within a few hours she is in business, and full production is in place. Again, you can choose how critical to be on this trait – but we have observed a genetic component to milk production, and the more critical you are, the easier the work in the lambing barn becomes over the years.
III. Cull. The ewe has no milk, abnormal or misshaped teats, a hard udder, or for any reason a non-functioning mammary system.
The table below shows how this scorecard can be used at lambing time.
|birth wt. – pounds
The first ewe, number 1005, is a winner. She lambed normally (score of A), she was a great mother (score of 1), and she had a good milk supply for her lambs (score if I). You can’t get better than A-1-I!
The second ewe, number 1008, lambed easily (score of A), is a good mother (score of 1), but her full milk supply came in a few hours later (score of II). You need to decide how important this trait is for your program. This ewe might be a cull or may be given another chance.
The third ewe, 4034, lambed easily (score of A) but is not a good mother (score of 2) but did have a full udder at lambing (score of I). For me this ewe is a cull. Unless caught and made to identify with her lambs, they would more than likely die. This is an excellent example where keeping this ewe would mean more work next year. Just as important, keeping any of her lambs means keeping the genetics you don’t want. So both she and her lambs are meat animals. Mothering traits have a strong genetic base, and poor mothers one year means the same for years to come. One exception might be a 12- to 16-month-old ewe lambing for the first time – but even here I would want to see strong mothering instincts kick in with very little encouragement from the shepherd.
The last ewe, 2089, is an easy cull. She needed some assistance lambing (score of B), did not show good mothering instincts (score of 2 – a cull score), and she was late in coming into milk for her new lambs (score of II).
Most selection focus should use production records. The power of using production records and EPDs (Expected Progeny Differences – expected results from breeding two animals together) is important in breeding sheep that provide the base for successful sheep farming. Clearly the factors measured in the Ewe Scorecard are also reflected in lamb growth rates, factors that are evaluated in the NSIP and Lamb Plan indexing programs.
But I also thought there was a place for additional, easily measured information that can be collected at lambing time and then used to select breeding stock that can make lambing easier for the shepherd. Sheep are amazing animals with a wide assortment of genetics, and we can make our lives (and theirs) a lot easier and more productive by aggressively using all the selection tools available.
How has this ewe scorecard helped our flock? In the 2011 lambing season, we had 122 lambs born in Maine during January and February. We checked the barn at 10 p.m. and at 6 a.m., and off and on during the day. Only one lamb was lost at lambing time. For that to happen, you must have ewes that lamb easily, have strong mothering skills and have milk available to get their lambs off to a strong start.
Nothing will make our sheep world perfect, but the ewe scorecard may be a tool to consider to help create a productive, shepherd-friendly flock.