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Molecare Farm Vet Sheep

Every Lamb Counts

Rose Young BVM BVS MRCVS Molecare Farm Vets

With lamb prices where they are this year (580p/kg at time of writing), every lamb really does count. In order to maximise lamb survival, it is important that we identify and understand when and why losses are occurring in your system so as we can target your resources efficiently. By splitting the lambing year into four periods and recording production and losses during each section, we can identify and prevent problems early on.

Nearly 50% of lamb losses occur during the period between lambing and 48 hours of age. This article will cover four important areas to focus on during the lambing period in order to minimise those losses and make every lamb count.

In order to produce healthy, vigorous lambs, and enough quality colostrum and milk to feed them, ewes must head into the lambing period with adequate body condition and supply of trace elements. Aim for a body condition score (BCS) of 3 for lowland breeds and 2.5 for hill ewes and farmers should supply a six-monthly trace element bolus to cover the full year. Check ewes over at turnout to ensure teeth, feet and teats are all fit for the job of rearing lambs. A clostridial vaccine during pregnancy will protect ewes from sudden death and lambs from dysentery in the first few weeks of life.

Lambing Environment
Provide adequate space (1.5m2 in a group pen, 2m2 once lambed) in the lambing shed, and ensuring enough experienced staff (one per 250 ewes) are on hand to cover lambing. Forage access should always be ad lib. Test your forage, so additional feed provision can be tailored based on hay/silage quality. Freshly lambed ewes drink a lot (up to 10L a day), so keep fresh water on supply. Hygiene is critical – bed up group pens regularly and use dry disinfectant in individual pens between ewes. Dip (rather than spray) lamb navels liberally with 10% iodine, multiple times if possible. Ensure lambs are mothered up well before turnout; hypothermia can kill lambs quickly if abandoned, even in good weather.

Lambing Difficulties
Consider breeds carefully and select sires based on ewe size, experience and level of supervision available in your system. Don’t underestimate the effect of excessively fat ewes. If there is visible/palpable fat on the outside of the ewe, she will have fat deposits throughout the abdomen and birth canal; reducing space for the lamb to pass through and increasing the chance of prolapse prior to lambing. If intervention is needed, do so cleanly and with gloves. Always check the time when you start and if no progress is made within 20 minutes or so; change strategy. Whether that’s calling the vet or the knacker man, make sure you draw the line otherwise the outcome for the ewe and any lambs still viable will be compromised.

Colostrum is probably the most important part of the first few hours of a lamb’s life; it is so much more than first milk. Lambs are born with no functional immune system and colostrum is the lambs only source of immune molecules after birth (IgG). This liquid gold, if good quality and provided quickly and in adequate quantities, contains everything a lamb needs to keep it alive and help prevent horrible conditions like watery mouth, navel infection and joint ill.

Quality – good ewe health and adequate nutrition – including sufficient protein – in the last 6 to 8 weeks of pregnancy determines colostrum quality. Younger ewes tend to produce lower quality colostrum; it can be checked for total protein (a measure of IgG) using a refractometer or colostrometer and we would recommend speaking to your vet about these tests pre-lambing.

Quantity – lambs require 50ml/kg at birth and every 6 hours thereafter for 24 hours.

Quickly – the first feed must be as soon after birth as possible and always within 2 hours.

In summary, we would recommend that you record as much data as you can this year, this will then inform future lambing seasons so as you can predict and prevent problems and losses from occurring. With a bit of forethought, adequate preparation of the ewes, a well organised lambing shed and finally a good dose of colostrum, we really can make every lamb count.

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