Spring brings a new crops: lambs

Published 10:47 am Thursday, April 11, 2013

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — The sun is just peeking over the horizon when Joan and Dave Ellison pull on boots and warm clothes and walk across the frozen yard to the barn on their small farm.

The Ellisons, both 65, make the trek every three hours, round the clock, to experience a yearly ritual: the birth of a new crop of lambs, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

Joan enjoys the early morning; Dave, an emergency room physician, generally takes the 3 a.m. shift.

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The Ellisons, who have 40 ewes, say it’s important to check the sheep often. Mothers usually find a warm pile of straw in the barn to have their baby, but sometimes nature needs a little help. New mothers will sometimes give birth on the run.

“It’s just amazing,” Joan Ellison said. “We had a ewe that lambed on the top of the manure pile and all of her babies rolled off of the manure pile and she stayed there and finished lambing.”

Minnesota has 3,000 sheep farms and more than 130,000 sheep according to the state Board of Animal Health.

So far, the Ellisons have welcomed about three dozen new lambs this year. By the end of April, they will have 60 to 70 lambs.

“That’s partly because we have so many triplets,” Joan Ellison said.

Some genetic lines of sheep have more multiple births. The Ellisons even have a set of rare quadruplets this year.

On the Ellison farm, new lambs are kept in a small pen with their mother for about a day.

“We purposely put them in a small enclosure like that so that they learn what each other smells like,” Dave Ellison said. “The moms pick it up really quick. They lick them off as soon as they’re born and then they’ll recognize that baby.”

Mother and lambs have numbered ear tags in case they are separated. On one recent morning, the couple moved some of the lambs and mothers to a larger pen so they could learn to get along in a larger flock. That made for some noisy reunions.

“This is trying to sort each other out: ‘Are you my mom? No! Are you my mom? No!’ ” Jane Ellison described. “The moms won’t let them nurse if it’s not their baby.”

One of the smaller lambs stood alone, looking miserable.

“I’m going to go back in and make some milk up for little number three,” she said. “See how he’s standing kind of hunched over? That means he’s cold. He’s not getting enough milk from his mom.”

Every year a couple of lambs are rejected by their mother, or are too small to compete for a spot at the udder. To survive, they need to be fed with a bottle, every three hours around the clock.

When Ellison returned with a bottle of warm lamb formula, she knelt in the straw, cradled the lamb in her lap and slipped the nipple into his mouth. “There you go.”

“It could be he’s not as good a sucker as the others,” she said. “And mom tends to walk away when he sucks because it hurts a little bit. Or it could be just because he’s the littlest one in the family.”

This year marks the 30th lambing season for Joan Ellison.

“When we started there were probably five people in the area within five or 10 miles of Pelican who raised sheep,” she said. “As far as I know we’re the only ones left.”

Lambing usually lasts about a month and by the end, Joan Ellison said, she’s exhausted. Still, it’s a time of year she looks forward to — as the recent birth of quadruplets reminded her.

“I found myself sitting on the floor in that pen just petting one of the babies, and I thought, ‘Oh, I obviously really enjoy this.’ Because it can be a hard time, but it can also be an incredible time,” she said. “Sometimes I think that you’re more aware of being alive when you come out in the barn and there’s a new baby and it’s doing well, it’s just this tremendous rush of emotion. It’s a really good feeling.”

The Ellisons primarily raise sheep for their wool. Joan sells wool to knitters and spins her own yarn.

Late this summer, they will sell most of the lambs as meat to Bosnian immigrants in Pelican Rapids.

Next spring the cycle will begin again.