THE STOCKDOG AT LAMBING TIME: AN INVALUABLE PARTNER
by George Rogerson
(editor’s note: Mr. Rodgerson works Border Collies, but his advice about lambing is just as applicable to Aussies. The photos are not those which originally accompanied the article)
There are few things that can improve the profitability and pleasure of your sheep operation than lambing on pasture. A good dog is indispensable in pasture lambing and the special skills and attitude required of a lambing dog will make a better dog in all aspects of work including competition. This article will describe how we lamb on pasture and the ways which we use dogs during lambing.
Here in east central Minnesota we start lambing on May 10th. By this time the danger of snowstorms has passed but cold rains require that lambs be of a hardy, weather resistant breed having plenty of wool, thick skin, and good backfat. Additionally, May lambing insures that the grass will be plentiful and, if managed well, high quality at the time of the ewe’s peak lactation. With rotational grazing, we have good quality grass from mid-April to mid-December and feed no supplements to ewes or lambs during most of this time. Our land is divided into paddocks using four strands of 16 gauge hi-tensile wire, then further subdivided with temporary fence according to the rate of grass growth. These fences do not limit the dogs’ movement since they can easily be taught to go under, through or over the hot wires.
Before taking a dog out among lambing ewes, there are several things to consider. A young dog can get the education of a lifetime during his first lambing season, but
he must have the right temperament and have received good basic training before he is allowed to help in this special work. A hotheaded, reckless or unpredictable dog has no place on the lambing fields. The dog must be under control at all times. Control means more than just a good heel and a good lie down, although these are essential.
The dog must also understand the concepts of “get out” and pacing. The dog must be willing to work ewes with lambs while staying well back and moving slowly. A ewe’s fight or flight zone changes when she has lambs at her side. Ewes will not turn their backs on a dog and move easy unless they know the dog will not harm their lambs. Dogs may have to take a few steps backwards and lie down before the ewe will turn. Lambing dogs should have a wide, quiet gather, know their flanking commands, be able to drive, and understand the principle of shedding or sorting.
When a ewe lambs on pasture, she will pick a private, sheltered spot and bond with that spot. It is important to not disturb her to the point that she leaves her birth spot since this can interfere with her labor or with the bonding between her and her lambs. When I walk into the lambing field, I make sure my dog is walking quietly behind my right leg, as a dog in front will startle the ewes. I lie him down well away from any ewe who is lambing or has recently lambed.
If a ewe and/or her lambs have a problem, the dog can help hold her steady while they are caught. Any flanking by the dog should be done quietly and calmly with
the dog working well off. When training a dog to flank, teach him to give ground as he starts his turn. This “square flank” is essential especially if the sheep are flighty or sensitive.
If you are bringing the family back to a hospital area where they can be watched, carry the lamb so the ewe can see it at all times and thinks it is walking, using the dog to keep her from returning to her birth spot. A good lambing dog does not put fear in a ewe. Fear can cause a ewe to fight and this is not what we want. The dog should be so confident in his control that he does not need to instill fear. If the ewe charges, ask the dog to give ground then try a different approach. Giving ground to ewes with baby lambs is not a sign of weakness, but shows the dog’s good stock sense.
A dog can help to get first-time-lambing ewes who have strayed from their lambs to better mother up. The presence of a dog intensifies maternal protectiveness, although if ewes are selected and fed properly, this should not be much of a problem. If stock density is too high the lambing ewes may try to steal other lambs from their mothers and lambs may get confused. A management practice called “drift lambing” can minimize this problem. Once a day, ewes who have not lambed are moved to a fresh paddock. A few weeks of drift lambing can greatly sharpen a dog’s shedding skills.
As lambing proceeds and the ewes are rotated, families with seven to ten day old lambs are consolidated into larger groups. Moving these families requires a patient and steady dog. He must put enough pressure to keep
the group moving while -taking care not to upset the mothers. It is often necessary to lie the dog down to take the pressure off so the sheep feel safe enough to continue moving rather than continually turning to defend their lambs.
Lambs will sometimes stop to play or curiously examine the dog. The dog should on no account bite. The best of lambing dogs will push these stragglers along with their noses. Penning ewes with baby lambs is especially difficult, but can be done if dog and handler are extremely patient. It doesn’t pay to hurry in this situation.
If we need to catch a lamb in the field a special sheepdog skill is necessary. Lambs that are more than forty-eight hours old can move quite quickly and leg crooks don’t always hold them. Catching a baby lamb and holding it is an extension of singling but it must be done by a gentle, soft-mouthed dog. Get to the caught lamb quickly so it isn’t hurt while struggling. If you are catching a lamb who is a twin, it is necessary in some instances for a dog to hold the ewe with her other lamb close by so the pair are not separated. Wide, smooth flanks are again necessary for this.
Our Lincoln-Dorset ewes are mild-mannered and well accustomed to being handled with a dog. My wife shepherds a flock of 400 ewes which were brought from Wyoming and South Dakota to a 2000 acre ranch near here. These sheep presented special problems for the dogs as they weren’t used to people or dogs (except coyotes) and were extremely flighty. They were used to being driven by people on horseback or more likely a four-wheeler and didn’t respond to being gathered towards a person on foot. They had a strong flocking instinct and when the dog approached them they would bunch up and swirl like a giant whirlwind. If at all upset, some would leave their lambs and fly off into the hills. One ewe developed the habit of jumping into one of the many lakes on the ranch and swimming across whenever she saw a dog.
It took a lot of time, patience, and gentle, diplomatic dog work to teach these ewes that moving away from a dog towards the shepherd meant fresh grass. Teaching these ewes trust took an older, slower, very wise dog who knew how to read not only their movements, but their minds as well.
Not all dogs will succeed at lambing work. The dogs may be too impulsive, put too much fear into the sheep, or it may not be a good shedding dog. I had one dog I was quite pleased with until I took her lambing. I soon discovered that she refused to see lambs which weighed less than twenty pounds. I don’t exactly know why she wouldn’t see them, but it made her useless.
Power is also an issue. It should be based on the ewe knowing that she is safe but that she must do the dog’s bidding. Flying into a ewe at the slightest provocation is not power and is counter-productive. Incidentally, my two toughest cattle dogs are also my best lambing dogs. They will take on a cow and use their teeth if necessary, but they always use their brains first. Biting a ewe with lambs or a cow with a calf never works. It only intensifies the maternal protective instinct, and breaks down trust, so that the cow or ewe will never turn and move away from the dog.
The special qualities that make for a good lambing dog are also qualities that make for a good trial dog. Control and adjustable pacing, square flanks, good stock sense, and the ability to put sheep at ease while at the same time being completely in charge. All of these factors make for successful runs at trials. British shepherds have lambed on pasture with dogs by their sides for centuries. I believe that the British shepherds’ need for a good lambing dog contributes to their renown on the trial field.
Intensive rotational grazing and spring pasture lambing are two of the best management practices we have adopted. Our profitability has increased and it is possible to run greater numbers of sheep with less labor. Instead of killing ourselves at lambing time, my family and I relax and enjoy the sight of the fields filled with hundreds of baby lambs. A big part of that enjoyment is the pleasure I get from using my dogs and knowing how much lambing work can improve and enrich their day to day work and performance at trials.
this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine April/May 1996