Competing in market lamb and showmanship classes is hard work, but that work pays off. Proper fitting of a market lamb for the show ring involves a sound feed and exercise program as well as grooming preparation before the show.
Start the season with a calendar — mark down the dates of every show you plan to attend, from local to regional or even national. Select lambs that have the frame and growth potential that will keep them gaining steadily until show or market time. When you purchase the lamb, request a record of the lamb’s health, including the dates of immunizations and dewormings. Ask which product was used for deworming so that you can switch to a different product if necessary. Most club lambs require a CD&T booster as well as regular deworming. Watch withdrawal dates on all medications, and use clean needles and proper technique when administering vaccines.
If there are already livestock on the farm, plan to isolate the lamb for two weeks. During this time, start feeding with good quality hay, then slowly introduce the lamb to concentrate. Make sure he has access to fresh water. Sometimes lambs are reluctant to eat and drink immediately after being hauled. In that case, keep a close watch on the lamb and offer small amounts of hay several times a day. Healthy lambs have good appetites, so it shouldn’t be long before he’s willing to eat.
Most showmen slick-shear their lambs within a week or so of bringing them home. Shorn lambs are cooler, and will have a better appetite. Some showmen repeat the shearing every 30 days, keeping an eye on the calendar so the final shearing is right before the first show. Trim hooves as necessary, taking care to not cut too deeply.
If you’ve selected your market lamb project from a group of weaned lambs that haven’t been worked with, your first job is to train the lamb to accept the halter. Make sure you know how to place the halter on the lamb’s head properly — the tension comes from under the chin rather than over the nose. The nose piece of the halter isn’t adjustable, and serves just one purpose: to hold the halter in position. It’s normal for the lamb to fight the halter at first, but with some patience, he’ll accept it. If the lamb isn’t already in a small pen (about 5 x 5 ft.), create a small area that you can easily move the lamb to. That will make catching and haltering the lamb easier and less stressful for both you and the lamb.
Once the lamb accepts the halter, begin the training process. Part of each day’s training should include tying the lamb. Start by tying the lamb with its head in a normal position, and once he accepts being tied, begin to raise his head when he’s tied. This will help the lamb learn to hold its head up in the show ring. Treat each lamb as an individual, and develop goals for the lamb that’s in front of you and not the lamb you had last year.
Lambs that are tied, even those that seem quiet, should never be unattended. Tie the lamb for short periods at first, then gradually increase the time. When the lamb is willing to stand still, start working at placing his feet. Be patient, and remember that some lambs are sensitive about having their feet handled at first. Place the hind legs first, setting them squarely under the lamb, then place the front legs. If the lamb moves a foot, gently place it back where you want it.
As the lamb is being fitted for show, it is important to ‘handle’ the lamb at least once a week in the main muscle areas he’ll eventually be judged on. Those areas include the rack, loin and leg. To evaluate muscling in the rack area, stand behind the shoulder and run your hand from the top of the lamb back to the hindquarters. Muscling should feel firm and not bony over the spine. The loin area should also feel firm and well-toned, and should develop depth as the lamb grows. The leg should appear full, and both the inner and outer leg should feel firm when handled.
Lambs that are exercised heavily while rapidly growing often cannot maintain condition. Being aware of the lamb’s condition will help you determine if you need to adjust the feed, change the ration, cut back on exercise or add more exercise. It’s best to wait until the lamb starts to grow and develop muscle before starting a strict exercise regimen. Too much exercise can break down muscle, especially if the weather becomes hot and the lamb is dehydrated. Lambs should be housed in a barn that is open and airy, with fans available in hot weather.
Whenever possible, lambs should be shown without a halter. Start by teaching your lamb to lead in a small, enclosed area that he is accustomed to before leading him in an unfamiliar area. One hand should be under the lamb’s chin, and the other hand is placed behind his ears. Push him gently under the dock if he balks. As you practice walking the lamb, stop occasionally to set him up. Once the lamb is standing where you place him, step back so that you are at least one foot away from the lamb. This allows the judge to get the best view of the lamb. Practice moving around while the lamb is still so that you’ll be prepared to always have the lamb between you and the judge in the show ring.