Among the many things I learned at a recent visit to Peter Wentz Farmstead to talk about lambing season is this: Sheep are opportunists. Especially when a pad of tasty story notes is nearby.
I found this out by reaching out to one of the farmstead's wooly residents who had trotted over to say hello. As I patted her cottony head, she zoned in on my pages of scribbled comments from Farm Manager Jim Nichols.
Tug-tug-tug. Munch-munch-munch. The spiral binding is about to disappear.
"Hey! You can't have that!"
Nichols laughs: "Gotta be careful," he cautions. "They'll eat anything that's in reach."
Mama Sheep wanders off to fill her belly elsewhere; Nichols tells me her name is Judy. Her lamb, caramel colored on the head and back but darker toned toward the legs, scampers after her, dancing a little hitch step to keep up.
It's one more sign of spring in Montgomery County, Pa.: Lambing season.
After the initial curiosity has worn off, the ewes and goats are indifferent to my visit, busily chomping their way through the hay that has been spread for them. The green grass they crave hasn't poked its way yet through the blanket of stubborn snow in the pasture of Peter Wentz.
The oldest of the lambs are three weeks old; the youngest are four days.
Baby sheep on the lam!
"Sheep have a four-month gestation period," Nichols says. "They come into cycle in the autumn, which means you're typically having lambs right around the end of February, the beginning of March. That's when nature decided that they ought to be."
The climbing temperatures help the lambs to thrive, but Nichols has seen some births during downright hostile weather. "I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've seen lambs drop in snowbanks and be just fine," he explains. "As long as lambs get up and nurse within the first couple of hours and get that warm milk in their belly, they turn out to be remarkably durable youngsters."
Nichols has improved ovine survival rates at Peter Wentz by creating what he calls "lambing jugs," which is a safely gated enclosure in which the ewes can give birth. It keeps the moms-to-be under control and enables the lambing process to be monitored closely.
It also helps with imprinting. "Sheep are not the Einsteins of the animal world," Nichols says. "We keep them in because the lamb knows the mother's voice and usually can identify her. But the mother doesn't necessarily know the lamb. So we keep them together for about a week so that the lambs get the scent pattern down. And that way, when we turn them out, we're reasonably assured that they'll stay together."
Nichols devised this system in from trial-and-error experience. At another farm, without the jugs, he often had as many as 20 lambs running around looking for a meal, and 10 mothers unable to find their specific offspring. "Things got confused in a hurry," he chuckles.
The improving weather will only increase the activity of these babies. "When it starts getting warmer," Nichols smiles, "these guys will start playing. And any high point in the pasture brings on a game of ‘man on the mountain.' And they'll go up. And one of them will get on top. And all of them will challenge and get up there and knock them down."
The lambs are ready for the visiting public. But if you want to see them at their cutest, you'd better get a move on. Lambs grow at an incredible rate, from six pounds at birth to 40-50 pounds at three months, on their way as adults to an eventual 120 pounds. Peter Wentz Farmstead gives you two upcoming opportunities: April 2 at the Meet the Sheep event. And April 12 when Nichols demonstrates the art of sheep-shearing. The trick, he says, is all in balancing the sheep on its haunches and preventing leverage from the kicking of the two back legs.
While onsite, you may also catch sight of Frida and Sweetie, two calves that were born last October. Nichols ensures proper socialization by walking them around the property like pets, as if they were two heifer-sized Great Danes. It's easy to distinguish them: Frida has a white patch above her eyes that Nichols thought looked like a unibrow. "Yes, we named her for Frida Kahlo," he jokes, referencing the Mexican painter known for self-portraits that showed a joined eyebrow.
If you like, you may count the sheep. And if that makes you drowsy, feel free to check into one of our fine accommodations in Montgomery County. The deals that are part of our current promotion expire March 15, so there's still time.
To miss out on this last opportunity for a discount getaway would be a b-a-a-a-a-a-d mistake.