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Racing against nature

Racing against nature

| Text and photo: Windy Kester Moe

For two months every year John Johansen (45) works seven days a week, 14 hours a day. He'll drive 2,600 kilometres and count some 120,000 soon-to-be-born sheep. "I start in Rogaland on 12 January, then I drive to East-Norway and then north from there. I finish in Vardø on 14 March. By then I'll have performed ultrasound scans on some 50,000 sheep."

Sheep counter Johansen's tour of Norway is carefully planned according to the mating season and expected time of birth. A ewe in the south will give birth earlier in spring than her sisters in the north, because the southern climate allows her to be released into the fields earlier. When you know the ultrasound should be performed when the ladies are between 45 and 70 days pregnant, you realise you're dealing with a narrow window of opportunity.

"The season is short, so we need to stay the course," says Johansen when asked about his high work tempo. He visits up to ten farms a day and can see 100 animals an hour.

Sheep farmer Eivind in Øyer has 90 hungry and noisy pregnant ladies in his sheep shed. To avoid inflated stomachs they haven't been fed this morning and the noise is deafening. 

Sheep 2"I need to apply selective hearing or I'll go crazy," Johansen says about his everyday stress, as he gets comfortable on an old car seat. Next to him is a specially made steel cage for the ewes to pass through. Johansen pushes a hand-held probe against the ewe's stomach and studies the spots on his flickering computer screen.    

"Three lambs, next!" he shouts and opens the cage to let the ewe out. The farmer and his helpers write down the sheep's number and the number of foetuses and chase another lady into the cage. 

Johansen likens himself to some sort of a fortune teller:

"Well, I can see into the future and give the farmer the key to plan the days to come."

Knowing how many lambs a ewe is carrying is extremely valuable information for a sheep farmer. The ladies who turn out to be infertile will be sent for slaughter immediately. The flock can be sorted and feed can be adjusted according to the number of foetuses. Those who carry the most lambs get more feed. It is also nice to be able to calculate how much work will need doing during lambing season so that the farmer doesn't waste time waiting for a third or fourth lamb which never comes.

Sheep 3


As a result of improved breeding and feed the number of foetuses per ewe has grown over the past ten years. At the end of his training in Scotland 20 years ago, Johansen was the first in Norway to apply ultrasound examination to  sheep. At that time he usually found two or three lambs. Today it is not uncommon to find quadruplets, quintuplets and sextuplets. 

"In those cases it really is convenient for the farmer to know what to expect. It puts a great strain on the ewe to carry that many."

Then there's the fact that a ewe only has two teats to feed her lambs. If the farmer knows what to expect, he or she can prepare a piece of work which demands both timing and effort: to give lambs to mothers with only one lamb. The ewe must be given the lamb as soon as it is born, or else she will not accept it as her own. To do that you need to know which ewe will give birth to only one and which will have three or four lambs. 

Johansen disinfects his tools, changes clothes, packs everything in his minibus and drives off to the next farm. 

"The nicest thing is that I meet so many people. And sheep, of course."

John Johansen, sheep counter

It is not only within IT people work under a lot of stress. Sheep counter John Johansen knows more than most about stress. For two months every year he has no spare time at all.  

Agriculture workers rarely disturbed outside of working hours

Statistics Norway's work environment survey shows agriculture workers are amongst those who are least disturbed by work outside of working hours. A full 70 percent say this hardly or never happens. Compare this to leaders of small businesses: only 23.7 percent of them say they are hardly or never contacted outside of working hours. 14.2 percent of them say this happens on a daily basis.

But as you can read in this story, agriculture workers too experience a lot of periodical stress.

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