Lambing season is one of the busiest times of year for any sheep farmer, but it can quickly become overwhelming and tiring. Good preparation and planning will help to manage it successfully.
Make sure you have all the necessary equipment and supplies and that your system is fit for handling the expected numbers. It is important to have good hygiene in the lambing environment for both indoor and outdoor systems with the appropriate stocking densities. Do your best to provide lie-back areas and lambing pens that are dry, draft-free and cleanly bedded with proper cleansing and disinfection between occupants.
When lambing assistance is required, clean gloves should be used for all ewes and hands regularly washed. Navels should be fully immersed in a 10% iodine solution as promptly as possible after birth. Follow maximum hygiene during all husbandry procedures, and suitably clean and disinfect the equipment between individual animals.
To reduce the use of prophylactic antibiotics on lambs, it is important to provide adequate nutrition to your ewes in the last six weeks of pregnancy. Group them according to scanning results and their body condition score. This will improve lamb survival rates, give better birth weights and maximise colostrum production. Also, it has been shown to improve the maternal bond with the lamb. Your vet can help to assess their energy and protein status 4-6 weeks pre-lambing by taking blood samples.
The volume, quality and timing of colostrum is essential. Lambs should receive 50ml/kg in the first 2 hours following birth and a total of 200-250 ml/kg birth weight within first 18 hours in mild weather. 50% more is needed in wet and windy conditions. In case of inadequate supply, quality or volume of colostrum, one can try to substitute with another ewe’s colostrum. Pooled goat colostrum from an CAE accredited herd can also be used as a second choice. Pooled cow colostrum from a Johne’s free herd can be used but 30% more is needed to make up the energy. Commercial substitutes are also available. When storing colostrum, it is best to use zip lock bags for easy defrosting. Defrosting should be done gently until reaching 39°C.
When the colostrum period is well managed the lambs will better be able to cope with a few bugs without the need for antibiotic treatments, this helps establish a healthy population in their gut. Colostrum-deprived lambs are usually not able to control the multiplication of E.coli. In some circumstances, where it is not possible to improve the management quickly enough, the use of oral antibiotics might become necessary. It is then important to aim to use less every year.
Try to step away from blanket treatment of all lambs at birth. Start with small changes first by trying to keep up to 10% or more without treatment at the beginning of your lambing season. Then, from there on, reassess and monitor. Antibiotics against watery mouth should be targeted towards high risk lambs. These would be triplet or low birth weight lambs that are born later in lambing season with more challenging environmental conditions, or into group with recent clinical cases or lambs born to thin and/ or poorly fed ewes.
Try to set targets for reducing lamb losses. Good records are essential to benchmark performance and to help you identify any potential problem areas. You should be aiming for less than 15% lamb losses, but top performing flocks are achieving closer to 10%. Good flock health planning together with your vet is essential.
If you need advice on lambing or are interested in joining one of our Flock Health Clubs then please contact your nearest Westpoint practice.
Written by Kaisa Velstrom BVM&S MRCVS