By Caroline Owens – Lambing-time preparations on our farm have a unique twist. We do stock up on the traditional sheep gestation support products such as milk replacer, calcium gluconate, CDT vaccine, etc., for our flock of 100 ewes. But gallons of spaghetti sauce and pounds of pancake powder also pile into our shopping cart, along with massive quantities of human support essentials like coffee and hot chocolate.
That’s because lambing season on Owens Farm also means Lambing-Time Slumber Parties: Groups of adventurous guests aged seven to 70 will join us during that magical time of year when sheep gestation ends and lambs are popping out left and right.
A lambing-time slumber party is an overnight event for groups of 10 to 16 people. The guests arrive in time for evening chores on the first day. We start right in the lambing barn, processing newborns. The guests help weigh, ear-tag, give BoSe shots, check teeth and eyelids and determine the sex of the new lambs.
We tour the lambing pens, pointing out which ewes and lambs are doing fine, and which need assistance. Sheep gestation, nursing behavior, temperature, colostrum, mothering instinct: These topics are discussed in depth.
We walk through the paddock containing the older lambs and still-pregnant ewes, stressing the importance of quiet voices and calm movements.
The guests learn that we keep two breeds of sheep: Coopworths and Katahdins, under different sheep gestation management protocols. The Coopworths lamb in a paddock adjacent to a central barn with access to traditional lambing pens. The Katahdins are in more of a pasture-based situation, with shelter and restraint as needed.
Then it’s time to meet the rest of the animals.
With the animals taken care of and dinner underway, the guests bring in their luggage and get settled. They stay in a carpeted and heated overnight lodging facility just steps away from the lambing barn. By the time everyone has laid out their sleeping bags and checked their e-mail, a hearty spaghetti dinner is on the table.
With dessert comes a discussion of “What to Expect When Your Sheep is Expecting.” We study posters of lambing problems like dystocia and how we would save the lamb. We paw through the lambing equipment box and explain the purpose of every item from iodine dip to shoulder-length gloves. The number of emergency supplies really drives home the point of why it’s important to pay close attention at lambing. The last step before bedtime is, of course, to check the barn again. The group is a bit more serious at this point, having a deeper understanding of what can go wrong with sheep giving birth.
The evening entertainment is “Shaun the Sheep,” those clever “claymation” movie shorts that cross all generation gaps. I excuse myself at that point to grab some sleep, with promises to wake everyone in the middle of the night.
There’s a dreamlike quality to the midnight barn check. I flick on the lights, and the guests follow me sleepily downstairs. Boots and coats are pulled on over pajamas and we head out the door. I ask the group to follow me quietly and in single file among the sleeping sheep.
We beam our flashlights on hidden corners and behind hayracks, where ewes may be in labor or in trouble. Lambs or no lambs, it’s an unforgettable experience to crunch through the snow, under a veil of stars and a bright winter moon, watching the ewes and lambs snuggle together in contented coziness.
First light finds us back in the barn. Dawn is my flock’s favorite time to drop lambs, so we often see newborns. Once all time-sensitive tasks are taken care of, we enjoy a pancake breakfast and swap stories. The last step for the guests is processing any new lambs, and feeding the other livestock.
Adventure-Seekers Ages 7 To 70
We offer two sheep gestation Slumber Party formats: Public and Private.
The public events are set dates, for which guests can sign up individually. A private date requires a minimum of 10 people. The ages and interests vary widely.
For the Adopt-A-Sheep families (a subject to be covered in a future issue of Sheep!), lambing is the highlight of their “Sheep Year.”
Home-school families use the lambing experience as a rich unit study on Sheep Gestation and Farming, Reproductive Physiology, and Animal Science career exploration.
We often also host adults who plan to raise sheep in the future and want the full experience.
A Lambing Slumber Party also makes a great trip for Girl Scouts and Cub/Boy Scouts.
We have had church youth groups focus the entire event around Psalm 23. One year, we were honored to be the chosen destination of an adult group that specializes in finding unusual adventures.
In The Beginning
It was our Adopt-A-Sheep families who gave us the idea for the Slumber Parties.
Through letters and e-mails, they experienced the preparations for sheep gestation and lambing: They read our stories of lives lost, lives saved, lucky breaks and silly sheep behavior. They saw photos of 150 young lambs playing together.
“We wish we could see this,” they sighed. “We wish we could go on those midnight barn checks.”
It finally dawned on us that this might be one of those crazy ideas worth running up the flagpole.
Hosting an event was familiar ground for us. We are well known for our summer Sheep Camp for Kids. We also hold educational programs for farmers and consumer events to showcase our meats. Reaching potential customers is easy with our website and e-mail newsletters.
The Lambing-Time Slumber Parties were an instant hit. We gave our Adopt-A-Sheep families a priority registration period, then opened it up to the general public. Every date sold out, and requests poured in for private dates. Needless to say, these events are now a standard offering on our calendar and somewhat of a cult among our customer base.
There is one factor that sets the Lambing Slumber Party apart from any other event: I can’t plan every detail. And that’s exactly what lends unparalleled authenticity to this program. Cold lambs are revived and fed. Tangled triplets are sorted out and pulled. The apparently lifeless lamb is rubbed and swung until it sneezes and “baas.” (And the children cheer!) And yes, occasionally there is death.
I have found that if we’re honest and transparent about the sheep gestation losses, the guests take it in stride. They understand that we’re doing our best to keep everyone alive, but sometimes our best is simply not good enough.
We’ve certainly shared dramatic events over the years.
I remember leading the midnight check one frigid night, with sleepy children asking what we were looking for.
As we swung a flashlight beam across the barnyard, something struck me as odd: A set of eyes was in the wrong place.
It turned out to be a laboring ewe stuck on her back. With one guest holding her head and another handing me towels, we rolled her over and delivered a set of triplets.
No one asked again why we braved the midnight cold.
Saving Timmy: This lamb was revived from a “lamb popsicle” (too cold to register on a thermometer) to a vigorous bottle baby during a Slumber Party.
Another unforgettable night was the bedtime convoy to the vet.
A laboring ewe had a problem I couldn’t solve. I am blessed to have a vet who lives just six miles away and raises sheep herself. I drove the ewe to Jackie’s house, followed by three mini-vans. The ewe turned out to have a dead lamb tangled up with a live one and a cervix needing manual dilation. Jackie allowed interested children to don a glove, feel the lambs, and help maintain the pressure on the cervix until it was time for delivery.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are five questions that always come up when I speak to other producers about these events:
What about insurance? We are already insured up to the eyeballs because of our many farm enterprises which involve people and food.
Is it profitable? Yes. The $35 per head fee is calculated to cover expenses while contributing to farm profitability.
How can you focus on the sheep while supervising children? It’s clearly understood that my priority is the livestock. Guests are required to have at least one supervising adult for every three children and are completely responsible for them. I will disappear at a moment’s notice if I must.
What are the guests like? Without exception, our guests have been courteous, respectful, flexible, and appreciative of the opportunity.
How can you stand having additional responsibilities during lambing? That has been the greatest surprise of all: The energy and enthusiasm of our guests actually makes sheep gestation and lambing time more fun. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child’s eyes light up with the experiences that we shepherds tend to take for granted: Holding a lamb, saving a life, watching a ewe help her newborn to its feet. Our guests help my family appreciate how lucky we are to live on a farm and raise sheep.
Caroline and David Owens raise Coopworth and Katahdin sheep in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Their sheep support the farm through traditional means (such as freezer lambs, breeding stock, and fleeces) but also through educational programs like Sheep Camp, Adopt-A-Sheep, and Lambing-Time Slumber Parties. For more about Owens Farm, visit www.owensfarm.com
Originally published in Sheep! May/June 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.