Jacob Sheep On Our Farm
by Zach Miller of Davis City, IA
photos by Stephanie Smith
My breath condenses, then turns to ice on my mustache and eyebrows, as I walk through the latest three inches of snow up to the sheep barn. Our group of 37 bred ewes are comfortable in their barn even though it is -6 degrees F. Now out of the bitter cold wind, I wipe the ice from my face and grab a pitchfork.
“Good morning, Ladies. Good sheep sheep.” I call to them. They bleat in unison to the sound of my familiar voice, asking for their breakfast.
I’m careful not to sprinkle the ewes with the orchard alfalfa hay as I refill their feeders. I want them to be clean for shearing time.
Our Jacob sheep look warm in their winter coats. Like black and white blimps on legs, I muse, pouring a scoop of Thervin kelp into their rubber tub. This will provide, along with salt, vitamins & minerals necessary for them and their growing lambs.
Rooster and Angel, our two livestock guardian dogs, wait patiently as I fill their dog bowls. In this cold weather they sleep in the barn on their warm dog beds. They protect the flock from coyotes and are eager to get their breakfast on this cold morning. So goes my daily winter routine caring for our sheep.
Jacob sheep are an old heritage breed that came to the U.S. from the United Kingdom in the early 20th century. Because of their unique black and white coloring and striking horns, they were originally imported to the U.S. for game parks and zoos. They are now increasing in numbers on farms across the country.
Jacobs have an amazing characteristic of being able to have two, four, six or even (rarely) eight horns, caused by their polycerate gene. Both rams and ewes are horned. A well balanced four horned Jacob ram is the most spectacular example of this breed.
Because Jacob sheep have not undergone selective breeding to meet the commercial market they have retained some of their original primitive qualities. Overall they are hardy, show good resistance to internal parasites and foot problems, and have excellent mothering instincts. Jacob ewes lamb easily, usually with little or no help from the shepherd.
With help from the American Minor Breeds Conservancy the Jacob Sheep Breeders Association was formed in 1988. Its mission is to record and preserve this magnificent breed of sheep. Once a rare breed, Jacob sheep are becoming more common across the country. For those who might want more information about this breed see www.jsba.org.
Our farm’s story with Jacob sheep began with the purchase of two ewes and a ram; Craft’s Princess Perfect, Craft’s Greta Garbo and Craft’s Maxwell from Bob & Marianne Craft Norton of Bluffton, IA. Since this original purchase in the early 90’s they have grazed our farm in varying numbers ever since.
Jacob sheep serve a vital role on our farm. They provide wool, meat, sheep skins and farm income. Lambs go to market, quality breeding stock is sold to other Jacob breeders, and wool is taken to a fiber mill. To add to the value they bring in and the products they provide, our Jacobs also bring grace and beauty to our farm. I have cared for our flock for seven years now, and have come to know their seasons.
The original purpose of Jacob sheep on our farm was to provide high quality natural color wool. And indeed, today, care is taken in the selection of new rams to slowly improve the flocks fleece quality.
Jacobs have soft, open, low lanolin wool that is well suited to process at home. My wife, friends and neighbors are quick to pick up certain ewe’s fleece that they particularly like to take home. The wool is washed, picked, carded, spun, and made into warm socks, hats, scarves, and sweaters.
Shearing day is done on a warm dry day in February or March. The ewes are heavy with lamb at this point so they are handled very carefully. Each sheep is brought out of the barn onto a clean dry surface to be shorn.
Shearing is back breaking work and I don’t think the sheep enjoy it any more than I do. The difference after being shorn is amazing – from a 3-4 inch thick wool coat down to a buzz cut. It is funny to watch them after being shorn. They shake and go smell one another, as surprised, I think, by the outcome as I am.
A freshly shorn fleece is spread out flat like a blanket, clipped side up. Short fiber on the edge close to the belly is removed, as well as coarse or overly soiled wool around the back legs. Then it is folded in half and rolled up like a sleeping bag. Each fleece is bagged, labeled with the year, sheep’s name, and wool quality. It works well to trim their hooves at this time.
I wake to the sound of a newborn lamb bleat, and quickly sit up on my cot and put on my shoes. Sure enough, in the lanterns soft glow there is a newborn lamb already being licked clean by his mother. My first thought is to ensure his face is clear of mucus so he can breathe. This lamb’s face is clear and he is breathing well.
Occasionally, when a lamb’s air passages need to be cleared, such as in a breech birth, I will grab them by the back legs, head down, and swing them hard in an arch. The centrifugal force pushes the fluid out of their lungs enabling them to gasp in that first breath. This has to be done quickly to save the new lamb’s life. Care also has to be taken to not lose your grip on their slippery wet legs and to ensure there are no objects in the way of the swinging lamb. Two or three swings are usually sufficient to clear their lungs and they are set gently down back in the bedding for mom to do the rest.
From a distance I watch the ewe who just lambed, still vigorously licking her new lamb and calling to him. Then she lays back down, grinds her teeth as her side heaves with each contraction. Another lamb is on the way. Ten minutes later, another lamb, a ewe this time is born. Vienna stands up and begins licking and calling her two, perfect little lambs.
Now is my chance to go write down the date, sex of the lambs, and any other pertinent information for my records. I grab the lantern to find my way in the dark but calm barn. While I’m in back I grab a pair of scissors and spray bottle of Triodine, then return to Vienna and her new lambs.
I gently lift one lamb up and snip his umbilical to two inches long, and spray it with Triodine. The shortened cord is less likely to be stepped on or caught on something and the Triodine helps prevent infection in the vulnerable navel area. After both lambs are done, I pick one up in each hand and slowly walk backwards, carrying them low to the floor. If Vienna stops I stop, making sure she knows I have her lambs. She hesitantly follows me carrying her lambs, her mothering instincts stronger than her fear of me. Once inside a freshly bedded jug, I set down her lambs and step back. This small pen is where she will stay for the next couple days with her lambs: both learning each other’s smells and sounds while her lambs gain strength.1
With the lantern hung high on the wall I can watch the new family. The lambs struggle to get up then stand and take their first wobbly steps. Life is a miracle that never ceases to amaze me. One lamb thinks he will find his first meal in the corner of the jug. I gently point him in the right direction to find his momma’s teat and that ever so important golden colored first milk called colustrum. Soon the lambs find their way and I hear greedy little sucking noises as they fill their belly with their momma’s warm milk.
Satisfied that the lambs are off to a good start, I bring in a five gallon bucket of water and a leaf of alfalfa hay for the ewe. Then I’m off to bed to get some more rest before the night is over.
“Thank you Lord for another set of healthy lambs,” I pray. Still trying to warm up in my sleeping bag I can hear the ewes, some are munching hay, others milling around, Vienna in her jug is settling down after nursing her lambs.
Four hours later I open my eyes to see a bright sunny new day. After stirring myself, I want to go check the new lambs born in the night. I open the door to the first set of jugs and see the two lambs asleep side by side in the warm cozy straw. It is 28 degrees F. Chilly for the first of April.
Vienna, the ewe, stands when I enter and her small lambs stretch, indicating they are doing well and getting enough nourishment. I remove the two placentas the ewe passed in the night, then I’m off to do the rest of the sheep chores.
Falltime Lambing Prep
In my experience I have found that diligent care to detail in the management of the sheep to keep them happy, healthy and well nourished throughout the year makes all the difference at lambing. For me that means feeding oats and whole corn in the fall for about three weeks prior to breeding. After losing condition from nursing lambs the ewes need a little extra before they are bred back.
Grain fed to sheep should always begin with a very small amount, building up to the desired ration. Too much, too quickly, causes a lot of digestion problems. Also cracked corn, with all the fine dust, tends to be inhaled while it is eaten so whole corn is better, in my opinion. After three weeks graining daily, the rams are turned in and the grain is slowly tapered off.
One ram per breeding group keeps the rams from fighting. Jacob rams at breeding time can cause significant harm, sometimes even fatal harm to each other fighting over the ewes. After breeding season all the rams are penned up tightly in a very small pen. In this tight space there is no room for them to back up and crash heads with all their might. One week of being crowded together helps them calm down and get familiarized with each other to prevent fighting after being let out together as a bachelor group. They are kept in their own group separate from the ewes until next breeding season.
Nutrition for Pregnant Ewes
Nutrition for the five months of the ewe’s pregnancy is of vital importance. Good nutrition, I have found, has a profound effect on the ewe and her newborn lambs. Lack of adequate milk in the ewe, small and weak lambs, birthing complications as well as some diseases in the ewe and lambs can be prevented by sound nutrition throughout pregnancy.
I feed alfalfa orchard grass hay along with a mineral supplement and salt. If I am short on alfalfa, I save it for the last six weeks of pregnancy, for that is when the lambs grow the most and the ewes nutritional needs during pregnancy are highest.
Livestock Guardian Dogs
On a warm September evening my wife and I were walking over our rolling hills to close up our flock of Jacob sheep. The sun was still above the western horizon and we were in no hurry enjoying the evening. As we came over the hill our flock startled and ran toward their barn which is unusual behavior. Upon walking closer we found out why.
There on the ground lay a five month old ewe lamb; her throat was bloody and her entrails spilled all over the ground. The lamb was dead! Killed in broad daylight by coyotes not 30 minutes before we came to close them up in the barn for the night. It was heartbreaking. After caring for her as a lamb and watching her grow all summer to end like this.
At that moment I decided something was going to change. Coyotes were not going to be allowed to come into our sheep pastures and kill our sheep any more. Thus began our journey with livestock guardian dogs.
In November that year we purchased an 11 week old Great Pyrenees puppy we named Opal. I made a pen for her right next to the sheep so she could see and smell them, but not mix with them and accidentally get hurt. I read all I could find on LGDs. I learned it was important for them to bond with their flock, that they naturally had guarding instincts, but a mention was made of training them. I had a lot of hope in my dog, but unfortunately, there was a lot I had to learn yet.
Six months later Opal was a big dog. She loved the sheep. I would see her lay beside some she liked particularly well and lick them. I also found out that Great Pyrenees have a tendency to wander across large areas. I couldn’t seem to keep her in the sheep pastures, in spite of constant searching and patching any little hole I could find.
One day Opal, after getting out, came home limping on her front paw. It didn’t look good. Her paw curled backward so she walked on the top of her toes instead of the pad like normal. At the vet, I fought back tears when he told me that all four toes on her front paw were broken.
“She will either need her toes amputated or be put to sleep,” Dr. Smith said with sadness in his eyes.
I was devastated. Her toes were broken in a straight line across her paw, most likely her paw was caught in a foot trap on neighboring property. Not willing to put her down and unable to pay for amputation of her toes, I did the best thing I knew how to do. I gave Opal to an animal rescue. After surgery and recovery Opal went on to a new home as a pet.
After having learned some hard lessons I was back to square one. I called National Great Pyrenees who put me in contact with Jenny who worked with and trained LGDs. Jenny had a three year old Great Pyrenees Australian Shepherd cross who she thought would work good for my situation.
“Does he get out of fences?” I wanted to know. “We have forty-eight inch tall woven wire fences with a strand of barbed wire on top.”
“No. He has been trained to stay inside perimeter fences. He is not allowed to even touch the fence.” Jenny responded over the phone. “And he will attack any coyote that comes into the sheep pen,” she continued.
Training a LGD to know where his boundaries are and to respect fences was a new idea for me. I wanted to learn more. Part of his training I learned, was to walk the boundary fences daily with Jenny.
So on November 15, 2019, Rooster, as Jenny named him, came to the farm to protect our sheep. That first day Rooster came, Jenny let him go in the sheep pasture and told him to “go guard.” Rooster didn’t pay much attention to the sheep, but ran out and walked the entire perimeter fence; smelling carefully and marking his territory as he went.
Rooster is an excellent LGD, I have not lost one lamb to coyotes since I have had him. He is friendly to people he knows, and loves my children, but coyotes or any predators are not allowed to cross into his sheep pastures. I have come to learn that Rooster views the boundary fence as his line; everything inside is his domain. Rooster loves to protect his area.
This Spring Rooster was looking off at the far hill and barking. After several minutes of non-stop barking I decided to investigate. And there on the far hill stood two coyotes. Rooster was doing his job. The coyotes don’t dare come into the sheep pastures now.
I also learned it is important to work LGDs in groups of two or more, depending on the number of stock guarded and the terrain they are kept in. We now have Angel as well, a female Great Pyrenees Australian Shepherd cross who works with Rooster. They work good together and enjoy each other’s company.2
In bad weather they have their own area in the barn to stay. I also put in swinging doggie doors in the cattle panels dividing the sheep pastures so the dogs can guard all the sheep in each pasture without the sheep getting through.
It is May now. The grass is thick and lush, much to the delight of our hungry ewes. The 54 lambs born in March and April are growing quickly, little horns are beginning to show.
In the evening I have a few minutes to spend with the sheep. The lambs jump, and kick, and run across the pasture. At times 30-40 together race through the grass dodging their moms as they go. I can’t help but laugh when one frisky lamb manages to bound into the 24 inch tall water tub. Up to his back in water, he stands for a second in shock, then leaps out and runs away.
I make a mental note of several ewe lambs that might be added to the flock in the fall. Lucy’s twin ram lambs, both four-horned, have really good spacing on their horns. Kreutzer’s Cher has once again sired some really nice lambs.
I’m happy. The sun is setting in a beautiful glow as I make my way back home.
1 Raising Sheep the Modern Way by Paula Simmons p. 100
2 The Way of the Pack by Brenda M. Negri p. 111