Dr. Scott Greiner, Extension Animal Scientist – Sheep, Virginia Tech
(Previously published on the Virginia Cooperative Extension web page)
Frequent visits to the lambing barn
Dystocia has been shown to be a significant cause of lamb mortality. Losses due to stillbirths and dystocia can be reduced by frequent visits to the lambing barn and timely assistance of ewes. Pregnant ewes should be checked every 3-4 hours. If ewes are checked at 11 p.m. or midnight, it is not necessary to check again before 5 or 6 a.m. Ewes that will lamb between these times usually show signs at the late night observation. The lambing area should be dry and well bedded, and sources of cold drafts that will chill newborn lambs should be eliminated. It is not necessary to have a heated lambing barn- a dry, draft-free area is most important. The lambing process can vary considerably between ewes. Ewes in labor should be left undisturbed. However, once the ewe begins forceful straining and the water bags are passed, delivery should normally take place within 45-60 minutes. Once the front legs are visible, lambs should be born within 30-45 minutes. After the first lamb is born, subsequent lambs are normally delivered within 30 minutes. Prolonged delivery beyond these times may indicate lambing difficulty, and the ewe should be examined and assisted if necessary. When assistance is required to deliver one lamb, the uterus should be examined for additional lambs. For lambs that are pulled, a piece of straw may inserted into the nostril to stimulate breathing. Lambs that are delivered rear legs first should be gently shaken upside-down by holding the rear legs to allow fluid to drain from the lungs.
Move ewes to a jug after lambing
When possible, ewes should be allowed to give birth where they initially bed down. Moving ewes to individual pens when they start lambing may prolong the birthing process and cause other complications. Additionally, allowing ewes to complete the lambing process before moving them to jugs will keep the jugs drier and help prevent injury to lambs in multiple birth situations. Lambing jugs should measure at least 4 ft. x 4 ft. Large breeds and multiple births may require larger jugs. The environment of the jug is critical to newborn lamb health and survival. The jugs should be kept well bedded, dry, and free of drafts. For facilities with cement floors, a base of lime or sawdust/shavings is recommended under straw. Cement floors can be cold and damp, and therefore a source of chilling and pneumonia in newborn lambs. When feasible, lambing jugs should be cleaned between ewes.
Upon moving the ewe into the jug, the lambs’ navels should be clipped and immersed in iodine. Many navels (less than 2 in.) will not need to be clipped. Iodine helps prevent infection and promotes drying of the navel.
Insure lambs receive adequate colostrum intake
Colostrum is the milk produced by the ewe up to 18 hours after birth. It has important nutritional value for the newborn lamb. Colostrum contains essential antibodies that provide protection for the newborn lamb, and provides energy to keep the lamb warm. Newborn lambs are susceptible to hypothermia due to their large body surface area in relation to body weight, and relatively low energy reserves.
Lamb should receive adequate intakes of colostrum within 30-60 minutes after birth. To help insure this, the ewe’s teats should be stripped to remove the wax plugs that frequently obstruct the teat. In some cases, these plugs will prevent lambs from getting milk that appear to be nursing. Stripping the teats will also confirm the ewe has milk. Lambs should be monitored closely to make sure they nurse. Lambs that have nursed will have a full stomach upon palpation. Lambs that have not nursed should be assisted. Most lambs have a strong suckling reflex shortly after birth, and will nurse when presented a teat. It may be necessary to close the lamb’s mouth on the teat and/or squirt milk in the lamb’s mouth to initiate suckling. An effort should be made to help the lamb nurse the ewe before other methods are used to get colostrum into the lamb.
In some cases, the lamb is unable to nurse the ewe even with assistance. These lambs may be small, weak, chilled, rejected by the ewe, or injured. In these cases, tube feeding is necessary to get colostrum into the lamb. Lamb tubes that attach to syringes are available commercially, and should be on hand for all shepherds. Lambs should receive 20 cc colostrum per pound of body weight. As a reference, 30 cc equals approximately 1 oz. Therefore, a 10 lb. lamb should receive 200 cc or about 7 oz. of colostrum in the first 30 minutes after birth. After the initial tube feeding, many lambs will respond and begin to nurse on their own. If not, the lamb may need to be tube fed 2-3 hr. after the initial feeding.
Source of colostrum for these cases is another important consideration. The first choice would be from the lamb’s mother. If colostrum is not available from the ewe, another ewe that has just lambed may be a source. It is a good idea to freeze colostrum for future use from ewes that lose their lambs or ewes with singles that are heavy milkers. Colostrum should be pre-measured and frozen using ice cube trays or freezer bags. Frozen colostrum should be thawed with indirect heat (water bath), and not a microwave or direct heat as antibodies will be destroyed. In an emergency, goat or cow colostrum may be used. There are also artificial colostrum substitutes available commercially.
The ewe and her lambs need to be monitored closely the first few days after birth. Healthy lambs are content, and will stretch when getting up and wag their tails when nursing. A gant and weak appearance may be indicative of starvation. Check the ewe to be sure she has milk. In the case of multiple births, the smallest lamb may not be able to compete for the milk supply. Time spent in the jug will depend largely on the number of jugs available and rate at which ewes are lambing. Strong, healthy singles may be removed from the jugs in 24-36 hr. after birth, and twins 48 hr. Triplets and ewes with weak lambs may need to stay in the jug for 3 days or more. Ewes and lambs should be removed from the jug as quickly as possible, as chances of pneumonia and diarrhea are greater the longer they are kept confined to the jugs. Labor requirements are also much greater when ewes are confined to the jugs.
Upon removal from the jugs, ewes and lambs should be put into a mixing pen with 3-4 other ewes and their lambs. This will help acclimate them, and they should be closely observed to identify abandoned and rejected lambs. After a day or two, the ewes can then be put into larger groups.
Before turning out of jugs, pertinent information on the ewes and lambs should be recorded. Appropriate identification of the lambs (ear tags, paint brands, ear notches, etc.) should also be done at this time. The ability to match a ewe with her lambs can be very beneficial as a management tool. Thin, poor-doing lambs may indicate a health problem in the ewe (mastitis) or inferior milking ability.
Virginia is largely a Selenium deficient state. Deficiency of Selenium and/or Vitamin E causes white muscle disease in lambs. For prevention of white muscle disease, lambs should receive .25 mg Selenium per 10 pounds of body weight in the first few days after birth.
Docking and castration is best when performed at the same time, usually 2-5 days after birth. At a young age, there will be less stress on the lambs. Additionally, these practices are faster and simpler to perform for the producer when the lambs are young.
Vaccination of ewes with Clostridium perfringens type C and D with tetanus prior to lambing will provide protection for lambs for tetanus (via colostrum), provided docking and castration is done a few days after birth. If ewes have not been vaccinated with tetanus prior to lambing, lambs should receive 300 IU of tetanus antitoxin as well as tetanus toxoid. Do not mix the antitoxin and toxoid in the same syringe or give in the same location (use opposite sides of neck).