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Archive for May, 2017

Sponging Sheep

Many years ago I was at a wedding, and ended up standing at the bar beside a group of farmers. This resulted in me overhearing the most bizarre conversation of my life, which went something like “you need to apply the sponges correctly, and then waffle the scrotum. If you find you’re getting watery semen, that’s because you’re not waffling correctly”.

OK, that’s probably not how the conversation went, but I definitely remember sponges, semen and scrota being mentioned several times, very loudly, and in public, without any of these hardy looking farmers batting an eyelid.

 

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Fast forward ten years, and now I’m the one concerning myself with sponges and scrota (albeit not yet waffles nor watery semen).

So what is ‘sponging’ I hear you ask? Well, basically it involves inserting a marshmallow-sized progesterone impregnated sponge into a ewe’s vagina for two weeks before they go in with the tup. In our case, we used this to ‘tighten up’ lambing, so that it took place over a four day period, rather than the usual 2-4 weeks.

chronogest sponge

A ewe’s progesterone levels naturally go up and down during their fertility cycle, and it’s the progesterone levels dropping that brings on ovulation. So, when you remove the sponges, this causes progesterone levels to fall, and 48 hours later, the ewe should be ‘in season’ and receptive to the tup.

If you want your ewes to cycle earlier in the year than they normally would, you have to give an injection of PMSG (pregnant mare serum gonadotropin) when you remove the sponge (many show flocks do this, so they can lamb as early as possible). However, since we were still tupping at the normal time, we were able to skip this step.

The sponges are inserted using an applicator, plenty of lube and a sense of humour. The applicator seemed kinda expensive for what it was, so we made our own out of some plastic plumbing pipe, being very careful to sand all the cut edges smooth. In essence, it worked the same as the cork gun you probably had as a kid – load the sponge into the applicator, lube up, insert into the vagina, and POP! 😀

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The sponge instructions say “Sponges should be removed after the required time by gently pulling on the strings. As each sponge is removed, it may be accompanied by a small amount of distinctive-smelling fluid”. Now, language like that is usually farming code for “watch out – you’re about to lose your lunch!”, and indeed a gush of watery fluid did follow each sponge as it was removed. However, it wasn’t particularly foul smelling, and I did manage to retain my stomach contents. What did surprise me though, was how hard I had to pull on the string to remove the sponges. (Of course, The Shepherdess tells me that it can be just the same with tampons, and that somehow I should have known this in advance.)

So did they work?  Well in a word, yes!

36 hours later, our tup Brynmor was subject to a considerable amount of flirting through the fence, and was about to have a very good day indeed! 😀

sponge effect.jpgNow, because we were effectively expecting our boy to do two week’s work in one day, we did manage him quite closely, by putting him in a pen with one or two ewes at a time, and removing them once each had been served twice. This was, to put it mildly, an interesting way to spend a morning! After that, we left him in with the girls as normal.

After three days, we put coloured raddle paste on his belly, so we could see if any of the girls ‘returned’ to the tup (i.e. did not become pregnant on that first service, so would therefore lamb later). Luckily none did, which set us up for a nice tight lambing.

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And tight it was!  All of our eight ewes lambed over a four day period, rather than the 2-3 weeks we had experienced previously. This meant that we could get lambing and mothering up safely out of the way within a single week. Now, given that The Shepherdess and I both work full time, the impact of that is really quite significant. Also, having all of the ewes lambing at the same time meant there were more opportunities for adopting lambs onto other mothers (e.g. giving a triplet to another ewe who only had a single), which can be really useful in a small flock.

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In summary, sponging is definitely something I would recommend that smallholders consider doing. It really did make our lives easier, and is something we will be doing every year from now on.

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