Lambing, that magical time of year. Spring is on the way and barns are filled with snuggly newborns. One of my favorite things about farming is watching a newborn lamb take it’s first wobbly steps. For me it is magical every time.
So how do you give lambs the best start in life? The first moments to hours are the most critical.
As a disclaimer: sheep are born trying to die. Multiple individuals and professionals on two continents have confirmed this. The sad reality is that you will lose animals. The important thing to remember is you did your best and you learned something. Next time this comes up you will be better educated and prepared. When you know better, you do better.
Immediately after a lamb is born clear the amniotic sack and any mucus away from the lamb’s nose and mouth so the lamb can breathe.
After that the order of operations is Clip, Dip, Strip, Sip and Jug
Trim the umbilical cord 2-3” away from the lamb’s body with clean scissors.
Dip the trimmed umbilical cord in strong iodine 7% (DO NOT substitute gentle iodine) to disinfect and help dry up the cord. Repeat in a few hours, especially if mum licked it off.
The umbilical cord is a superhighway for germs entering the body. If bacteria enters, it typically results in joint ill, an infection of the joint capsule that is extremely difficult to treat and often causes permanent damage.
A ewe’s teats are filled with a waxy substance designed to keep dirt and germs out during pregnancy. Sometimes lambs have difficulties getting it out, especially if they are weaker.
Gently squeeze the teat downwards until you get a few squirts of colostrum.
Get colostrum in those lambs!
Lambs are born with brown fat, the kind that provides energy but only for a few hours. It is entirely possible for a lamb to freeze to death on a 90 degree day if they do not receive colostrum within a few hours after birth.
While lambs are being dried off by mum we will give them a dose of something called Survive. Given orally, it's basically fat and vitamins. It gives lambs a bit of reserve to get them going long enough to nurse.
NOTE: this is not a replacement for colostrum, but a small snack to get them going and have the energy to get colostrum.
Not only does colostrum protect lambs from hypothermia, but it is also a source of antibodies that help a lamb properly develop an immune system. While the ewe will produce colostrum for 2-3 days, the lamb is most able to absorb antibodies in the colostrum for 12-24 hours making it even more important that the lamb receives colostrum soon after birth.
If a lamb is too weak or not bright enough to nurse (it happens, sometimes they need a few hours to figure it out, but they don’t have the luxury of time) we will tube feed with 4oz of artificial colostrum.
Four ounces will not completely fill a lamb up. If they are on the hungry side they are encouraged to figure out how this whole nursing thing works and you are free to go in for a cuppa and a nap.
You can tell if a lamb has nursed by feeling its stomach behind it’s ribs. The phrase ‘tight as a tick’ should come to mind. Mouth and ears should also feel warm.
A lambing jug is a small pen (about four foot by four foot) where Mum and babies spend a few days bonding. It’s warm and cozy and has few distractions. Sometimes ewes will steal another ewe’s lambs thinking they are hers. Or a lamb will try and nurse on the wrong mum and end up hurt. The jug also allows for close monitoring of newborns.
Our pens are made from sections of hog panels tied together and bedded with straw. We clean pens daily and completely clean out bedding between each ewe.
For about a dozen ewes we have about four pens. However, if we have severe cold or wet weather we will keep lambs in the barn longer. So try to have a ‘nursery area’, group housing for lambs and ewes where they can stay until the weather clears. Usually a pen stuck in whatever corner of the barn that is free.
If a ewe is in early labor we will try to move her to a jug. The jugs are cleaner and I don’t have to worry about a ewe lambing in a snow bank or mud puddle or have a dozen other ewes INSISTING that they should help.
By putting in the initial time and labor investment up front you are setting your ewe and lambs up for success and saving yourself work in the long run.
See how we prepare for lambing by learning what we keep in our lambing kit HERE.
Welcome to Willow Farm's blog! I'm Kyle, farm manager and all things marketing