Almost half of lamb losses occur within the first 48 hours of life and with lamb prices continuing to remain high (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.
The easiest way to collect data and to identify where losses are occurring is to split lambing into four periods, record production losses
during each section and focus on key aspects during these periods.
The four areas to focus on are:
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. The target for lowland breeds is a body condition score (BCS) of three and two and a half for hill ewes.
Ewes should also have an adequate supply of trace elements and farmers should supply a six-monthly trace element bolus to cover this.
Check ewes at turnout to ensure teeth, feet and teats are all fit for the job of rearing lambs is important.
A clostridial vaccine during pregnancy will help protect ewes from sudden death and lambs from dysentery in the first few weeks of life.
2. Lambing environment
It’s important to provide adequate space (1.5m2 in a group pen, 2m2 once lambed) in the lambing shed and employ enough experienced staff (one per 250 ewes) 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 10 litres a day), so keep freshwater supplied at all times.
Hygiene is critical. This means it’s important to 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 when abandoned, even in good weather.
3. 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. When there is visible/palpable fat on the outside of the ewe, she will have fat deposits throughout the abdomen and birth canal, which can reduce the space for the lamb to pass through and increase the chance of prolapse.
When 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 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 provides the lamb with its only source of immune molecules (IgG). This ‘liquid gold’, if good quality, 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 (protein isimportant) in the last six to eight 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 – ask your vet
- Quantity – lambs require 50ml/kg at birth and every six hours thereafter for 24 hours
- Quickly – the first feed must be as soon after birth as possible, but always within two hours.