Lambing is an exciting but exhausting time for sheep farmers. A typical breeding cycle with natural service over two heat cycles usually results in well over two weeks of late nights, early mornings, and intense work. To manage the labour load (pun intended), some farmers have adopted a synchronization and induction program to tighten the lambing window to just two days.
Chris and Jen Vervoort are first-generation farmers running over 400 ewes and a veal calf venture, plus a hoof trimming business and a full-time off-farm job. The couple is also raising three kids under the age of seven.
With those demands on their time, running themselves ragged over two or three weeks several times a year wasn’t feasible with all they have on their plate, so they decided to adopt an lambing induction protocol, hire an employee to help get set up, and grow from there.
On their farm it looks like this: working in groups of about 100, on day one CIDRs (small, progesterone plastic inserts) are inserted in ewes. The CIDR acts like birth control and stops the ewe from cycling. In 14 days, the CIDRs are removed and the ewes are given a dose of PMSG to induce ovulation. Within 24 hours, rams are introduced to the ewes (in six hour increments, usually in a 1:5 ratio) and remain with the ewes for four days, after which time the rams are removed. Ewes are scanned for pregnancies and multiples around day 50 to 60 and open ewes are moved to the next breeding group. Then, on day 143 (around 8 to 9 pm on a Thursday for Vervoort’s system) ewes receive an injection of dexamthasone 5. Saturday morning (day 145) around 5 am, the lambing begins and is usually done by Saturday night.
“Day 145, Saturday, is lambing day, and that is all we do that day,” Chris says.
Vervoorts say that there are several benefits to managing lambing this way. Yes, there is an added cost — about $15 in supplies, plus labour — but it means that Jen can continue to work off-farm while they build their farm business. It means that they can access extra help during lambing. It means two sleepless nights per lambing cycle (they lamb six groups a year) vs 12 or more, and, perhaps most importantly, they can better care for their ewes and lambs.
“Animal welfare is definitely important to us. We can be there for our ewes if they need us, and we can be there for those new lambs when they need it,” Chris says. They consider anything above 5% mortality of lambs a management problem and aim to keep their losses to 4%. Zero death loss is achievable, he says.
Using a fully-housed system, Vervoorts move ewes and lambs into claiming pens as they lamb. This keeps the barn organized and has significantly decreased mis-mothering. Because all the ewes are lambing at once, they’ve had good success fostering lambs on to another ewe when necessary. Within the first 24 hours, lambs are numbered (to match their dam, and colour-coded for multiples), tagged, and tails are docked on replacement ewe lambs. By Monday morning, ewes and lambs are all back loose in the barn, ready to grow.
Vervoorts say that a strong relationship with your nutritionist and vet are essential to making this system work. From fine-tuning protocols, and on to maintaining ewes and rams in top condition, these professionals work closely with Vervoorts to keep their flock productive.
It’s also incredibly important that they have similar interests and goals as a couple working together, Chris says. This protocol has helped them get through that No Man’s Land of too much work and not enough time or cash to do it all, and Chris says they are willing to evolve and change the protocol as the farm grows.
As for the larger question of achieving success as a first-generation farmer or deciding on where to invest in infrastructure to expand the business, Chris says, “Value your time. No one expects you to write yourself a cheque, but your time is worth something and should be factored in when making decisions.”