Most lambs are born on grass, then sold in fall. That means out-of- season breeding in indoor facilities, say in former PMU or dairy barns, could offer strong returns because prices traditionally peak early in the new year up until June because very few finished lambs are available during that period.
Lucien Lesage, treasurer of the Manitoba Sheep Association, is experimenting with restricted lighting in two barns on his farm near Notre Dame to see if the technique can work in Manitoba.
Timers control two, four-foot- long T-8 fluorescent lighting units on the ceiling every 16 square feet to provide 300 lux, roughly similar to sunrise or sunset, compared to about 33,000 lux, or broad daylight.
Incandescent bulbs would work, too, but the fluorescent units offer greater energy savings, and Lesage estimates the electricity will add less than $1 per ewe to his cost of production.
By adding four extra hours of “daylight” in the barn for a total of 16 hours, he hopes to stimulate estrus in the ewes for the 80 days prior to being exposed to the rams in March, essentially tricking the flock into thinking it’s fall.
The gestation period for sheep is about five months, or 145-150 days.
The ewes are able to go in and out of the barn, more or less at will.
“As long as they are in the barn before 2 a.m. I can leave them out during the day,” he said. “So it is more natural. They do get exercise and fresh air.”
THREE LAMBS IN TWO YEARS
Lambing in fall means not only that the lambs hit the market top, which is typically from December to June, but also that a ewe can produce up to 50 per cent more lambs during her five-to six-year breeding lifespan by being exposed to a ram every eight months.
“If everything works perfectly, I should be getting 50 per cent more lambs per year,” said Lesage. “If a ewe lambs once a year, with this system they should lamb three times in two years.”
The system may be harder on the ewes, he added, but he thinks that the ewes will still provide the same number of lambings, but in a shorter time span.
Sheep are very prolific depending on the breed. Young ewes are weaned at 70 days, then exposed to a ram 25 days later.
If out-of-season breeding works as advertised, it may help the industry iron out the “glut” of lambs that drives prices down in fall, and then sends them soaring each spring, he added.
Currently, many producers are forced to sell early before the fall flood of lambs hits the market, or hold them back at reduced rations until later in the season to catch the market upswing.
Being able to manipulate breeding seasons could help producers cope with the high demand for lamb during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
Based on phases of the moon, the month-long event which combines fasting from sunrise to sunset comes roughly 11 days later every year. Last year, it began in early August.
At month’s end, the fast gives way to Eid ul-Fitr, which is marked by feasting and donating food to the poor.
In the next few years, prices could skyrocket because the festivities will occur during the traditional low-supply period, Lesage said.
daniel. [email protected]