For some, the lambing season is in full swing and for others the preparations are well underway. Before visiting a farm to help with lambing it is important to find out what the farmers goals are; are they aiming to lamb early so that they can sell their lambs for a premium price in the Easter market? Are they lambing later on in the season and lambing outdoors onto fresh grass to produce a lower input lamb? Do they sell store or finished lambs? These are some examples of the different approaches to producing a lamb and it is important to remember there is no right or wrong.
Sooooo… What do you need to know before going on a lambing placement?
What type of sheep farm is it? There are many types of farming systems; the broad categories are hill, upland and lowland. Each systems requires ewe with different traits. For example a hill flocks will look for a ewe with a strong mothering instinct that will protect her lambs from predators and the weather however, these ewes won’t be as prolific (meaning they won’t produce as many lambs- predominantly a single lamb). In a lowland flock the ewes will be very prolific (meaning they will normally be aiming to have twins) and will often be lambed indoors earlier in the season.
Breed of sheep: this is important to know because certain breeds of sheep are prone to specific problems during lambing. Dystocia is the term used to describe difficulty giving birth, some breeds of sheep are more prone to developing dystocia than others. Double muscled breeds such as Beltex and Texels, as well as any other breeds with large shoulders and rumps, are more prone to have difficulty giving birth. This is because the size of the ewes pelvis is too narrow for the lambs shoulders and hind quaters to pass through. These sheep sometimes require a caesarean section so it is important that you assess the width of the shoulder/ hind quarters and the size of the ewes pelvic canal before you attempt to assist lambing.
Vaccination status of the Flock: There are two highly contagious diseases that are common during lambing- these are toxoplasma and enzootic abortion. Both these diseases can be vaccinated against however the vaccines are costly so vaccination status varies between farms.
- Toxoplasma is caused by a protozoa. It produces a variety of signs however the two most common are a higher than normal number of barren ewes at scanning (because it causes reabsorption in early pregnancy) and lambing abnormalities such as: mummified foetuses, weak lambs, and stillborn lambs.
- Enzootic abortion is a bacterial disease that can cause a variety of signs however the two main signs are premature still born lambs (normally 2 weeks before the due date) and a red, thickened placenta.
If the presence of either disease is suspected the ewe showing clinical should be isolated from the main flock and placental and foetal contents should be removed straight away. Keep the foetus and placenta as clean as possible and the vet should be called to take samples and confirm the presence of disease. The area where the abortion occurred should be disinfected to minimise further spread.
Hints and tips for lambing itself…
Signs of lambing: if you have never lambed before spotting a ewe that is about to start lambing can be tricky. Often they will take themselves away from the main flock and stargaze (this basically means they lie on the floor, extend their neck and gaze towards the sky). They will also start nesting, this can be scratching at the ground and making themselves a comfortable place to lamb. If they are a bit further along you may see a waterbag; it can sometimes be confusing because ewes may have a water bag hanging out but they may still be munching on some hay and walking around- if this is the case DONT PANIC as this is completely normal for sheep! The final stages are lying down and straining. Straining can last for up to 20-30 minutes, it is important to give the ewe some time and space to try and lamb herself before intervening.
Lambing: you could write an entire blog on lambing alone but these are some of the key points.
- Meconium- what is it and what does it mean? Meconium is a brown/ yellow staining seen on the lambs when they become stressed during lambing. When lambs become stressed during lambing the poo… this is gives it the brown/ yellow colouring. If you see a yellow/ brown discharge coming from the ewe or a part of a lamb with meconium staining you should assist the ewe immediately.
- Malpresentation- ideally you want a lamb to come out with it too front legs forward and its head snugly position between the front legs… however this is not always the case. Lambs can be delivered back legs first. When delivering lambs backwards the lamb will normally come half way out of the ewe at which point you need to ensure the umbilical chord is still in tact and supplying oxygen to the lamb; as long as the umbilical chord is still attached it is safe to wait for the next contraction during which you can help pull the rest of the lamb out. If the umbilical chord has been severed the lamb should be removed as a matter of urgency. There are some great resources online to help you learn about all the malpresentation because there are too many variations to list in this overview.
- Ensure the lambs airways are clear. This may sound obvious but often lambs have raspy breathing post lambing the this is because some amniotic fluid has been inhaled during lambing. Clear the fluid from their nose an around the mouth and rub the chest to encourage them to cough. Making the lamb shake their head can also help remove lodged fluid; this can be done by poking a blade of straw up their nose or in their ear (sound a bit mean… but it won’t hurt the lambs).
- Applying iodine to the naval should be performed ASAP after lambing, The naval is a connection between the outside environment and the body and is a great place for bacteria to enter. Iodine helps dry the naval and kill bacteria. If iodine is not applied lambs there is a high risk of developing joint ill; a disease in which lambs develop hot, swollen, painful joint. Once iodine has been applied some farms will give 1ml of spectam as a watery mouth preventative.
- Wait for the lamb to suckle. The first milk the the most important feed of a lambs life. Colostrum produced by the ewe is high in fats (for energy), immunoglobulins (to protect the lambs against disease) and is warm (therefore preventing against hypothermia). If the lamb is not suckling or the ewe has no/ little milk you should feed the lamb powered colostrum via a bottle or stomach tube.
If you are interested in sheep husbandry and handling and would like to come and learn more we will be running sheep courses all year round. Click below for more information.