Small Ruminant Management: Pre-weaning Health Considerations – Part 1

Dr. Brady Campbell, Assistant Professor, State Small Ruminant Extension Specialist

As we discussed a few weeks ago, abortion causing diseases can strike your operation at any time without warning. I hope that you don’t experience any of those types of hardships in your endeavors, but if you do, you now have a resource to reference when something goes awry. Being able to identify the current challenge your flock or herd is facing and having the tools to remedy the issue is key for success in any livestock enterprise. Of course, the management of your operation doesn’t stop at reproduction, or at least we hope not! Once you have hardy and healthy lambs and kids on the ground, it is important to remain vigilant to ensure success during the pre-weaning phase of production.

According to Dwyer and others (2016), lambs and kids are most vulnerable to disease and mis-management that often results in death during the first 24-48 hours after birth. Furthermore these authors also support that approximately 50% of pre-weaning death losses occur within the first two days of life. Globally, the estimated mortality or death rate in sheep operations hoovers around 15%, which has remained unchanged for nearly 40 years. Depending upon the size of your operation and intensity of management, theses values may seem staggering or on par to what you would  normally expect. Often times, early lamb and kid loss is commonly associated with issues during the birthing process, weak and small lambs and kids, or lack of adequate colostrum intake. For those that are curious as to what adequate colostrum intake is, it is recommended that lambs and kids receive10% of their body weight in colostrum within the first 24 hours. Moreover, half of this should be received within the first 8 hours of life as by 12 hours post birth colostrum absorption decreases by 50%. As an example, a lamb or kid weighing 10 lbs. will require 1 lb. or 16 oz. of colostrum. Remember, if measuring intake or in the case of tube feeding, 1 oz. = 30 cc.

Now that we have the basics covered, let’s turn our attention to factors that result in weak and ultimately unthrifty lambs and kids that occur at birth or shortly after.

Dystocia/birth trauma/small birth size/mis-mothering
As producers we hope that we don’t experience any issues during lambing and kidding, but it would be unrealistic to think that nothing will occur that won’t challenge our skillset as caretakers and producers at least once during the season. Challenges associated with dystocia (lamb and kid malpresentation or deformation), swollen heads and necks, small birth sizes, and mis-mothering can all result in weak, unthrifty, and dead lambs and kids. For those that are interested in learning more about dystocia, such as how and when to assist, be sure to check out our very own Jacci Smith as she walks through various scenarios in this video (Lambing and Kidding Simulators). As a result of dystocia, you may experience swelling of the head and neck in lambs and kids that remain in the birth canal or have only their head presented for an extended period of time. Because of the swelling, it is difficult for a lamb or kid to nurse and therefore supplemental feeding via tubing may be required. An example on how to properly tube feed a lamb or kid can be found here (Tube Feeding Lambs and Kids). Lambing and kidding in large pens may increase instances of mis-mothering. It is recommended that your flock or herd be separated into smaller ‘drop groups’ in a smaller area to reduce the number of females giving birth at once, thus reducing the potential for stealing or lambs and kids wondering too far away from the birth site.

Hypothermia is an additional concern that occurs shortly after birth, especially for this time of year. It is noted by the Pipestone program that lambs have enough brown fat reserves to survive the first 6-8 hours after birth without colostrum/milk intake in conditions above freezing. Beyond this time period, young lambs and kids that do not receive colostrum will suffer from hypothermia as internal body temperatures will plummet quickly. Remember, it is never recommended to feed (via bottle of tube) a hypothermic lamb or kid. For those interested in how to warm lambs and kids up prior to feeding, be sure to check out this article on intraperitoneal injections. This resource outlines the level of hypothermia a lamb or kid may be experiencing as well as provides step-by-step guidance on how to implement this life saving procedure.

Starvation – Mastitis and Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) or Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE)
Once we have gotten our lambs and kids beyond the first 24 hours of life, mother nature tends to kick in and take care of itself. This isn’t to say that our work is done as we must remain observant each time we make a trip to the barn. Starvation can occur at any time during the lactation period, but is of great concern during the first 30 days of life prior to lambs and kids eating grains and forages. Lambs and kids that are not receiving adequate milk intake will show various signs indicating that there is an issue such as arched backs, sunken in sides (i.e., slab sided), and lethargy. If you suspect there to be an issue with milk production and consumption, first check the source by stripping each teat. If no milk is present, begin observing and feeling the udder to determine potential issues.

Mastitis can set in prior to birth or after and is caused by a bacterial infection from organisms such as Staphylococcus aureus or Pasteurella hemolytica for example. In order to determine which bacteria strain is infecting your operation, work with your local veterinarian to collect samples for further analysis. For those that have avoided this misfortune, mastitis results in hard, hot, painful, and swollen udders. There may be an alteration in milk production – either poor quality milk that appears clotted and chunky or no milk available at all. Just as we see with dairy cattle, treatment is possible, but only successfully when detected early. Mastitis can be easily avoided by ensuring that our facilities remain clean through proper sanitation. Furthermore, keeping your barns appropriately bedded will also aid in reducing the risk for bacteria entering the teat each time a ewe or doe lays down. Of course it should be of no surprise that if we face challenges associated mastitis we should supplement lambs and kids as needed and cull infected ewes and does as soon as possible.

Aside from mastitis, there can be other issues that may result in starvation. In talking with local producers this year, there have been reports of some having issues with scar tissue forming in and around teat canals. Scar tissue production is the direct result of tissue damage and trauma. This is more than likely the result of aggressive nursing during the previous lactation. Therefore, to potentially reduce this issue we must ensure that our ewes and does and fed appropriately to produce adequate milk and be sure to offer additional feed (i.e., creep feed) to lambs and kids. Furthermore, aside from physical damage, we may face some challenges associated with virial diseases. Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) in sheep and Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE) in goats can both negatively affect milk production. In general, both of these not only have the potential to result in hard and unproductive udders, but also chronic weight loss, respiratory distress, and swollen joints that typically results in lameness. These diseases are more critical when compared with those above as they can infect a large number of animals in a short amount of time. Infection can spread either via nose to nose contact with flock and herd mates and via colostrum in nursing offspring. Therefore, it is critical that you only purchase animals from clean operations and cull animals immediately once they have been confirmed positive. Unfortunately, reports have indicated that approximately 25% of all North American have OPP. To help better understand how to manage OPP and how you can reduce it’s spread I encourage you to check out the OPP Society.

Although this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of what you may experience in your operation during the first few weeks of new born management, it gives us a good understanding of what to potentially expect and how to manage it. Be sure to tune in next week as dive deeper into additional health concerns that we should be aware about that may negatively affect our operations as we take a look at pneumonia, tetanus, navel and joint ill, as well as entertoxemia.

Happy Shepherding!