News from the Farm | March 2, 2015

 Lambing Time

The trick is to be extremely quiet. Don’t slam the truck door, don’t make a squeak as you squeeze through the gate and don’t, whatever you do, turn on your flashlight yet! The night check is all about listening first – your ears alone will tell you right away what your check has in store for you. There might be a ewe cooing to her freshly born lamb over here, while another ewe is maahh-ing desperately over there – has she lost sight of her lambs in the orchard, is there a predator nearby, or is she about to go into labor? Sometimes one ewe will give birth to three lambs and another ewe is absolutely sure those three lambs belong to her, and at 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s up to you to figure out which ewe they actually belong to. Sometimes there are two ewes that have obviously given birth, four lambs around their legs, and you witness all four lambs nursing from both ewes. Sometimes there are a few fresh lambs in one corner and no ewes taking ownership of them. Sometimes there is deafening silence, which means you can head right back to bed. (That one doesn’t happen very often!) I’m talking about lambing season, folks, and for the animal team here at the farm, this season’s almost over.

Farming animals is quite different from farming vegetables. For example, a farmer can plant a seed, water it, weed around it a few times, and then let Mother Nature take the reigns for a while until it comes time to harvest. His carrots won’t die if he takes a day off. On the other hand, a farmer who keeps animals has many mouths to feed other than his own, every single day. And it doesn’t stop at food – they need clean cool water, fresh straw for nest boxes, clean coops. The cow has to get milked at dawn and dusk, the eggs need to be collected in the morning and afternoon, and everyone needs to be moved to new pasture every couple of days. It’s a rather demanding trade, this animal husbandry. 

As you may know, we farm both animals and vegetables here at Full Belly Farm, which makes for year-round excitement. Summer is chock-full o’ fruits and veggies – by July, we all have melons, tomatoes, peaches, and sweet corn coming out our ears, right? Winter isn’t so brimming with produce as much as it is with babies. This past fall and winter has been especially fruitful on the babe front. Arlo Muller and Teo Ochoa made their autumn debuts; Flax, our newest calf, was born one chilly January night; Blueberry, our sow, birthed eleven wiggling piglets mid-February; and since February 4th, our flock of 80 ewes has produced over 160 baby lambs.

There are many ways for a farmer to approach lambing. Some will simply let their ewes lamb out on pasture and never step in for any reason. This method tends to result in about an 80% survival rate, which is not bad. However, our method, though very labor intensive, results in about a 90% survival rate. I’ll try to paint for you a little picture of what the lambing scene looks like at Full Belly Farm…

With temporary electric fencing, we split our old almond orchard into four sections – the still-pregnant ewes on one end, “headquarters” in the middle, “kindergarten” on the other end, and a small “preschool” off to the side. This is how it works: when a ewe gives birth out in the orchard, we make sure her lambs are moving about and if she’s a good mom, she’ll immediately get up and lick them off. She could have anywhere from one to four lambs – or in our case this year, one ewe had five! It only takes a healthy lamb about ten minutes to acclimate to life on earth before it’s up walking around and, hopefully, finding one of its mama’s teats to nurse from. If it’s a nice day, we like to give the ewe and her babies at least an hour to relax and get to know each other before we bring them into headquarters.


Headquarters is basically an open-ended greenhouse that we built in the orchard, next to a small barn filled with yummy alfalfa hay. In the greenhouse, there are nine pens – or jugs – each equipped with a feeder and a water trough and enough space for a ewe and her brand new lambs to really bond to one another. Getting them in the jug is actually quite easy, despite the skittish nature of sheep. Unless she’s a particularly nervous mom, a ewe will always go where her babies go. So, all we do is pick up her lambs, walk slowly backwards (so she can see them) into a jug, lay them down in the straw, and she hastily joins them. A flake of alfalfa from the barn and a scoop of organic grain for post-partum energy, and they’re all good!

We jug for several reasons – to make sure they really get bonded is a big one, so we can be confident in the ewe’s ability and desire to protect and provide for her lambs once we let them back out onto pasture. Jugging also allows us to check her udder to make sure she has plenty of milk. It makes it easy to catch her for trimming hooves and tagging, which is a quick shear of just the rear-end to keep her clean. In inclement weather, jugging keeps the new lambs cozy and warm. Finally, it gives any unhealthy or very small lambs easy access to their mom’s milk in the first couple of days, and therefore a much greater chance of thriving.

After two to three days in a jug, we trim, tag, and assess each little sheep family and decide whether or not they’re ready for preschool. Preschool is a much larger pen – about ten times the size of a jug – where we join six or seven of the sheep families together so the ewes and their lambs can get used to finding each other in a crowd. After one or two days in preschool, they’re ready for kindergarten. Pretty soon after that, they go out onto one of our lush winter cover crops to graze vetch, rye grass, and peas. 

Jugging is a lot of work. It requires someone to be there, checking the orchard and the greenhouse every two to three hours. And yes, that includes all through the night. Luckily, we have a fantastic crop of interns with us at the moment, all of who have put a lot of time and energy into making this a smooth and slightly-less-tiring-than-years-past lambing season. Between the four of them, Dru, and I, we alternate night checks so we can all get at least one uninterrupted night of sleep per week. 

With 162 lambs born and only eight moms left to give birth, it’s been a fast, intense, and super fun lambing season! The best part of the whole process is watching a pack of happy, healthy lambs at sunset, running back and forth across the pasture, a furry blur while their moms stand by, contentedly chewing their cud. It’s delighting in a mom nuzzling her baby lamb’s bum while it learns how to nurse. It’s hearing little Rowan exclaim how “so very cute!” all the lambs are while they suck and nibble on his tiny fingers. All of these things make the more challenging aspects totally worth it. Lambing is awfully exhausting and at times, incredibly depressing. But it is also a truly rewarding and most miraculous thing. Such is the life of a farmer, I suppose, and I love every darn minute of it. 

— Becca von Trapp

Becca is our chief animal husbandry expert. She is a Vermont transplant and we are never letting her leave!