Bradford Township farm family up to its ears in lambs
BRADFORD TOWNSHIP If you think you’re running ragged trying to take care of your children, think how Jackie Jackson must feel caring for 400 young lambs.
She’ll say she feels better than she did in February, when those lambs were being born at a furious pace.
Late winter and early spring typically are the busiest times of year for lamb producers. Ewes normally get pregnant in late summer and have babies in the cold winter months.
The last week in January, as many as 20 lambs were born daily on the Jackson farm north of Clinton.
“I can’t even tell you what happened to the month of February,” Jackson said.
Jackson and her family raise crossbred sheep and lots of other animals on the Bradford Township farm where Jackson’s family has farmed for generations.
The flock consists of 300 ewes, three rams and—this time of year, anyway—at least 400 lambs. The Jacksons direct-market their lambs to local customers, and much of the meat is processed locally.
The flock is one of only a handful of commercial sheep flocks in Rock County. The majority of Rock County’s sheep live on hobby farms or small farms where the animals are raised as 4-H projects or for personal consumption.
The flood of lambs on the Jackson farm has slowed to a trickle, although other farm animals are doing their best to pick up the slack. A mother hen fusses around a tiny, oh-so-fuzzy spring chick. Cindy, a curly-haired border collie, is happy to let a couple humans occupy her busy puppies while she takes a break in the sun.
One mother goat delivers a set of twins, and a second mother does the same hours later.
“That’s the thing with goats,” said Jackie’s husband, Glenn. “One gives birth, and it’s a chain reaction.”
The goats, poultry and horses are current and former 4-H projects for the Jackson kids and others. The dogs and sheep, however, are bred for business.
The Jacksons’ sheep are primarily Dorsets and Polypays. The breeds are productive when it comes to making meat, wool and babies, Jackie said. Unlike many breeds, Dorsets and Polypays can and do deliver lambs twice per year.
The likelihood of fertility is somewhat dependent on the weather. A few cool nights this time of year could spark many ewes to cycle even though they are nursing young lambs, Jackson said. About 30 percent of the ewes in late summer will deliver a second time, said Sonja Jackson, 22. She and her sister Marlina are students at UW-Platteville and are set to graduate with degrees in animal science and ag education.
The Jacksons’ lambs look different than the market lambs that win classes at the Rock County 4-H Fair, Jackie said. Rather than breeding “showy” sheep, which are tall, long and leggy, the Jacksons breed their sheep to be compact, strong and built to have babies.
Jackson said her sheep go to market at a more efficient weight—about 60 to 80 pounds—as opposed to fair lambs that market at more than 100 pounds.
The Jacksons’ sheep typically do well in carcass classes where judges consider only the meat after processing as opposed to the live lamb, Jackie said.
Each year, the Jacksons keep the best young ewes to replenish the flock. Others get sold as breeding stock. Male lambs as well as female lambs with undesirable genetic traits are sold to market.
Jackie tries to breed for sheep that deliver twins as opposed to one, three or four lambs at time. She also takes maternal instinct into consideration in her breeding plan.
Ewes have reputations as flighty mothers, although Dorsets tend away from that characteristic, Jackson said.
When a ewe won’t nurse her lamb, it means the producer is left bottle feeding tiny lambs. It’s a time-consuming task with unpredictable results, Jackie said.
“It takes more time to feed two bottle lambs that 200 sheep,” Jackie said.
Bottle lambs don’t thrive and don’t blend well with the rest of the flock, Jackson said. They tend to be aggressive and unresponsive to working dogs.
Jackson tries to keep ewes born to good mothers in order to keep the trait going. However, she has found she has some help with rejected or orphaned lambs. Many of the mature ewes in her flock will adopt orphan lambs with little or no coaxing from Jackson. Jackson thinks that is in part a result of the fact that her sheep grow up together in a flock with their relatives. Mothers and grandmothers are often nearby when a ewe delivers for the first time and seem willing to take over if necessary.
The ewes will even adopt orphaned goats, Jackie said.
Jackson tries to get her ewes to deliver indoors, especially in the cold winter months. She keeps the lambs and ewes indoors for a day or two so they can be observed, vaccinated and have their tails docked, she said. However, as soon as it’s clear the mother and lambs have bonded, Jackson sends them out to pasture with the rest of the flock.
Once per day, no matter the weather, Jackson and her dogs bring the flock in from one of four managed pastures.
The sheep are like a gray river that pours from the pasture into a holding pen. The collies are black and white streaks against the river of running sheep.
Jackson observes the sheep’s health while they run and stand in a holding pen. From there, they dash to a feedlot where they jostle for their share of a vegetable byproduct that Jackson buys directly from a canning factory.
Older lambs crawl through creep feeders in order to eat grain and minerals. The feeders are designed so the lambs can crawl through the gate but the adult sheep can’t. The lambs get grain as a supplement to nursing. The Jacksons don’t wean their lambs before they go to market.
A few big lambs can be seen outside the feedlot on top of a huge, green pile of ground vegetables. Since they’ve learned to crawl through creep feeders, they try to crawl through every gate they see, Jackie said.
Often, they succeed.
“They’re just like teenagers,” Glenn said about the big lambs. “As they get bigger, their circle of familiarity gets bigger and bigger, and they start rebelling.”