Our ewes are having lots of lambs, but is more better?
Without even trying, we are averaging over two lambs per ewe this spring which means more triplets than usual. (The “sunbathers” in the accompanying photo are part of them.) Triplets are rare in our little flock of twenty ewes but this year we had five sets of them so far. (For those of you who might not appreciate the numbers involved, a ewe has only two working teats.) All the other ewes have had twins, which is also most unusual.
I’d say it was just a fluke of good luck (or perhaps bad luck as I shall try to explain) but our two neighboring shepherds also experienced more multiple births than usual. One neighbor even had two sets of quads (!) and these are not Polypay ewes or any other breed that is genetically disposed to have three or more lambs. Nor did we use the same ram. So what gives?
I have a theory. I am hoping that others reading this might have theories to pass on too. In sheep husbandry, the traditional idea of “flushing” is still honored and followed, although personally I have thought until now that the practice was more folklore than science. Right ahead of breeding time, shepherds “flush” their ewes, that is turn them on particularly lush pasture, or in some cases feeding grain. The idea is that the extra nutrition of the flushing diet effects the fecundity of the ewe positively, so that they conceive more twins and triplets.
If that belief is true, and most shepherds seem to think so, then here’s what might have happened. Last summer was extremely dry here, the pasture turning almost completely dormant. Now, according to scientific analysis, if and when good rains come in early fall after bad summer drought, the grass rebounds with great vigor and is particularly rich in nutrients. It is nature’s way of making up for the summer loss, I suppose. If flushing ewes for multiple births is correct theory, then it would seem to me that ewes in our neighborhood got flushed very well indeed, and that could account for so many twins, triplets, and even quads. Does anybody think that could be true?
We are tempted to rejoice at all these lambs, except that we know from experience that more is not necessarily better. Like many other veteran shepherds, I don’t like triplets. Those glowing articles you read about trying to get a 300% lamb crop (all triplets) are mostly written in magazines where sheep supply businesses advertise. For them, the more lambs, the more money they make. That is seldom true for the shepherd.
If you “gear up” (a favorite agribusiness verb) for triplets, you will spend more time and money trying to make it happen, and narrow your profit margin. Often the shepherd finds himself or herself kneeling out in the manure at midnight with an arm up inside the ewe, straining to pull the lambs that won’t deliver naturally. This is part of the job, but shepherds who have to do too much of this because of a craze for triplets soon become non-shepherds or wise up.
Triplets never prosper as well as singles. One of them becomes the runt of the litter, not profitable even if it lives, and in the meantime taking milk that the other two lambs would otherwise benefit from and so none of the three lambs puts on enough profitable weight to make it all worthwhile. Undernourished lambs will find all sorts of imaginative ways to die. Often a ewe will reject one of the triplets and the shepherd finds himself in the bottle-feeding or bucket-feeding business. Bottle-fed lambs never grow as efficiently as ewe-nursed lambs and with the very high price of artificial milk now, the lambs drink up the profit.
But let us say you work and spend yourself to a frazzle and have a 250% lamb crop (average of 2.5 lambs per ewe) when in fact you have only enough pasture and hay for a 180% lamb crop (average 1.8 lambs per ewe). That means you will have to buy hay, the price of which is going sky high along with grain prices. Then, when all the shepherds who strive for triplets take their lambs to market, the increase drives the price down.
Even twins are not always more profitable than singles. A ewe who more often abandons or rejects one of her twins, rarely does so with a single. That means more bottle lambs. A single always grows faster. As a commercial shepherd I know well likes to say, “give me one big healthy lamb per ewe any day.”
All of which reminds me of a study released recently by The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology, with some 400 scientists from 60 countries signing on. The report concludes that in farming, more is not necessarily better and that modern chemicalized and transgenic crops can’t feed the world as well as organic crops and traditional farming can. There is much more to feeding the world’s poor than simply increasing the quantity of expensive farm products. The big companies that produce and sell genetically-modified seed rejected the study in a real huff, declaring that their methods are the only way we can “feed the world” as populations burgeon.
I was amused as representatives of big companies of genetically modified seed like Monsanto and Syngenta protested the results of this study, insisting that the only hope for mankind is increasing crop production by synthetic gene manipulation and other expensive artificial bio-technologies. But the reporters did not ask them the right question, seems to me. The greatest triumph of genetic modification so far has been Roundup Ready soybeans and other crops. But Roundup Ready crops haven’t yielded any better than regular ones and sometimes not as well. Stacking genes artificially onto plants or cloning animals has not resulted in any increase in affordable food for poor people. Just more profit for agribusiness.
Evidence of that conclusion is staring us right in the face. These “advanced” agribusiness companies have had front and center stage now for at least twenty five years, coddled, praised and funded directly and indirectly by government. How can they claim any success when under their aegis we are now facing grain shortages unprecedented in modern times?
I rather think that these white-gowned scientists in their laboratories don’t understand that the mentality that strives for triplets is not the best way to feed the world or to make farming sustainable.
Photo Credit: Gene Logsdon
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land) and The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life