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Dorset Fall Lambs: The Natural Way

How often have you purchased a fall born ewe lamb expecting her to carry on the 'fall lambing' trait and been disappointed?

In our early days breeding Dorsets, we found falls to be almost impossible to breed for ourselves.  Time after time we purchased falls and almost without fail they would lamb in the spring each and every year.  It wasn't until we did much research on natural fall lambing that we finally got the hang of things.

There is more to breeding and raising "natural born" fall lambs successfully than you might expect.  Certainly here in Bakersfield, CA we have a very hostile climate during the summer months, but our Springtime although short, is mild and ideal for exposing ewes to the ram for falls.  If you live in the west and determine it is too hot out here to get those fall lambs naturally, you're not being fair to yourself or your Dorsets.  Dorsets that are bred right will lamb in the fall in any climate.

Modern technology and medicine offer other alternatives to natural fall breeding such as numerous types of hormone treatments to induce cycling in ewes.  Much of this therapy is costly and not foolproof.  Too much hormone treatment over time can render your ewes barren if not done with careful caution.  Although there may be some circumstances where artificially inducing your ewes may be helpful, it can be detrimental to those ewes that when given half a chance will do this on their own.

One of the most wonderful characteristics of the Dorset breed is its ability to lamb out of season.  This was the primary reason we were drawn to breeding Dorsets having raised Suffolk sheep most of our life.

Fall Lambing Success

The Sire

Stepping aside from the females for a moment, the ram you choose to expose to your ewes plays a large part of successful natural fall lambing.  If you have decided on a ram purchase, a natural born fall ram is helpful to add those fall lambing traits to his offspring.  Be sure and ask the rams' breeder if he was a "natural born" fall.  A hormone induced fall ram will not infuse fall genetics into his progeny like that of one born naturally.

Use Him Young - Young ram lambs typically are very fertile and aggressive.  A young ram will get your lambs on the ground early.  We have successfully used 6-month-old ram lambs with great success.

Acclimatizing Your Ram - Moving sheep from West to East or visa versa may hinder fertility.  If your ram comes from a distance he may not work well on your ewes for upwards to a year.  We know of some breeders that will wait many months before using a new ram from out of the area.  If this is not an option for you, a homegrown ram lamb is best for breeding right away.  Perhaps a neighbor with excellent breeding stock may also be able to supply a new ram lamb to you if need be.  Use a young ram whenever possible and you will see great results!

Keep Him Cool - Weather permitting, shear your breeding ram prior to exposure to the ewes.  If you are in a hot climate, you may wish to house your ram away from the ewes during the day and take him to the ewes only at night.  This process can be a pain in the backside if you have an unfriendly ram, so do what works best for you.  We like to leave the ram in full time, but have noted most breeding activity during cooler evening hours.

Have the Ram in Good Physical Condition - Rams in good flesh will be better breeders than those that are too thin.  Over condition is just as detrimental as under condition, so be sure he's not overweight.  Shearing a few weeks prior to turning the ram in will give you an excellent idea of his condition and allow you to make feed adjustments as necessary.

Semen Test - If you can, it is a wise investment to check the sperm motility of your breeding ram(s).  We do this each breeding season, but at least prior to using a new ram is highly recommended.  I can't tell you how many horror stories from others we have heard about losing an entire lamb crop from the use of an unsuspected sterile ram.  Not every ram is a born breeder ~ Better to be safe than sorry.

One Final Note Regarding Your Dorset Breeding Ram - A very wise man named Joseph E. Wing of Ohio was the Continental Dorset Clubs' very first Secretary from 1898 to 1915.  He wrote and published several great books.  One of my favorites is "The Winter Lamb" from the early 1900's.  This book is strictly about the Dorset breed.  In it, Joseph Wing states; "The sire is half the herd; if he is a poor one he is all of it.  Don't quibble about the price, but be a stickler for quality.  If he is not right you will regret it all your life, maybe, for it takes ten year's weeding to undo one year's bad breeding."

Purchasing Dorset Females

If you are determined to have a Dorset breeding program that includes lambing in the fall, pick your females well.  It is a known fact that your best chances of breeding for fall lambs will come from using ewes that are natural bred falls themselves or come from ewe families strong in fall lambing capabilities.  Do your homework ahead of time and ascertain breeders best suited for offering these kinds of females.
Whether you acquire your Dorset ewes through sales or privately, be sure and ask the breeder the manner in which his lambs are born.  Your best chances of breeding fall lambs in your own flock will be to stick with Naturally born fall ewes when you can get them.

Exposing Your Ewes - There are pros and cons about breeding young ewe lambs.  If you purchase lambs, you may wish to wait until their Yearling year to expose them to a ram.  Breeding ewe lambs can be successful, however, but much care has to be taken while feeding a bred ewe lamb.  Overfeeding these young bred lambs may result in large lambs difficult to deliver or a worse case scenario, uterine prolapse.  Mothering instinct is excellent in most all Dorsets, so young mothers should not present a problem there.  How old your females are at the time they are exposed to a ram is truly a personal preference, but sometimes it is best to wait until they are more mature to keep down your work in the lambing barn.

Shearing - Like the breeding ram, it is helpful to expose your Dorset Ewes to the ram after being shorn.  Shearing cools down the ewe and can help promote earlier cycling.  Note the condition of your ewe.  An overweight Dorset ewe can present an obstacle when it comes to breeding.  On occasion, we have found our overweight girls to cycle late in the season, or perhaps go open and not get bred at all.  Those that do get bred are candidates for carrying Single lambs.  Good Dorsets are "easy keepers" and easily pack on the pounds if overfed.  Separate over conditioned ewes and put them on a lower nutrition diet to remove some weight before turning them in with the ram if the time allows.  Your best probabilities for multiple lambs will be from your lesser conditioned ewes, (not rail thin) but with adequate cover.

Feeding the Flock During Fall Breeding

One of the most important points about breeding sheep is how they are fed the first 30 days of gestation.  Our early failures with the Dorsets included an awful experience with tiny weak lambs ~ Lots of them!
Many may argue that the only vital feeding period is the Last Trimester of the pregnancy.  The rising plane of nutrition in the last 4-6 weeks is certainly vital to the health of the ewe and growth of the lambs to be sure.  However, if the ewe is not properly fed during her EARLY tenure with the breeding ram, no amount of correction, in the end, will be helpful to increase the size and strength of the newborn lambs if she was poorly fed while being bred. Pouring feed to ewes carrying small lambs will only move more weight to the ewes own body and little to the lambs she is carrying.  We watched that scenario in our own flock many years ago and fought overweight brood ewes for years!

It has been our experience that if the ewe was maintained on a low-quality feeding program 30 days after being bred, the cotyledons or attachments to the uterine wall will be much smaller in size and not adequate enough to support good sized, strapping healthy lambs.  Ultra sounding your prospective bred females can give you a window into the general health of the lambs they are carrying.  Cotyledons are the donut-shaped objects visible during an ultrasound.  Depending upon how far along the pregnancy is, the larger the cotyledon size, the more vigorous and healthy your lambs will tend to be.  Early GOOD NUTRITION during mating is vital to a successful breeding program.

Feeding Supplements

To help raise the rate of nutrition in the flock during breeding we have found protein licks or blocks most helpful.  Many are molasses based and some have lots of salt and needed minerals.  A 12-14% Free Choice supplement is ideal during the time of breeding and throughout the entire five-month gestation period.  If you use supplements faithfully, you will find your lambs will be thriftier and birth weights increased.  Incidences of pregnancy toxemia will also be lessened if the supplement block is introduced into the breeding flock during mating.

Getting Fall Lambs

For Early Fall born September lambs, your ram should be exposed to your ewes approximately early April.  Leave the ram in as long as needed to be sure he has every opportunity to cover those ewes that cycle for fall breeding.  Sometimes it only takes one (1) ewe to cycle and get the rest of the girls to begin the process.  Marking your breeding ram each night with paint or using a harness will also let you know who has been bred.

Added Bonus Falls

Not only can you expose your dry, open ewes, but don't be afraid to turn your recently weaned ewes into the breeding group as well.  We victoriously do this each Spring with our weaned Dorset Spring lambing ewes.

The moment the lambs are weaned (since most of our Springs hit the ground beginning late January), the freshly weaned ewe is shorn, wormed, feet trimmed and out with the breeding ram she goes!  As long as you have a CLEAN, DRY environment our ewes have not encountered any udder problems using this method.  Pasture is ideal for this, but if feeding your fall breeding flock on dry lot, check for any sharp objects and wet mucky areas where bacteria can breed.  Remove any dangers to the udder and you will be pleasantly surprised to see how many of your spring lambing ewes will double back for falls.

Many ewes will lamb for you 3 times in 2 years using this method.  Typically you will have a 7-14 day window for breeding once the lambs are weaned and removed from the ewe.  Each year we have as many as 30 to 40% of our weaned ewes lamb again 5 months after giving us Spring lambs earlier.  It Works!

Helpful Natural Fertility Therapy

Out of desperation, one can come across some interesting information on Natural Remedies.  After being inundated with two years of nothing but ram lambs we decided to take a horse-woman's advice and introduce Apple Cider Vinegar into our breeding regimen.  We were told not only did it increase fertility it was commonly used to produce more female offspring.  Now, before you say "That's a bunch of hooey" we have tried it with terrific results.

The vinegar is added to the breeding flocks' drinking water each day without fail.  Not only did we see a marked improvement in the number of ewe lambs born, our multiple births went through the roof!

The Dorset Breed is renown for its' mothering, milking and fall lambing ability.  Having lambs in the fall doesn't have to be messy, costly and a whole lot of trouble.  Choose your breeding stock wisely, maintain them properly and watch your pocketbook grow with ALWAYS IN DEMAND Natural Fall Lambs!!

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