Farming Magazine - December, 2012


Small Livestock: Preparing for Lambing

By Sally Colby

Preparing barns, lambing sheds, equipment and supplies prior to lambing season might seem like a large task, but for shepherds who make the effort, the payoff is more lambs that reach weaning weight, healthier ewes that can nurse offspring adequately, and a setup that's easy for the shepherd to work in.

A tote tray is convenient for keeping lambing supplies together and ready for immediate use. This tray includes essentials such as a small bottle in a container that can hold hot water, terry cloth towels, lamb reviver, scissors, iodine for immersing the navel cord, pencil and flock record book, ear tags, ear tag applicator and a syringe with stomach tube.

Those who live in the Northeast and breed for winter/early spring lambs usually use barns or sheds for birthing simply because weather conditions aren't suitable for pasture births. However, pregnant animals will be healthier if allowed to remain outside until several weeks prior to the first due date. Many shepherds keep ewes in an outside lot close to the barn and move animals inside as they get closer to lambing. Lambing facilities don't have to be elaborate, but should provide protection from wind, rain and snow, have adequate ventilation and accommodate animals without crowding. Facilities should also be designed so that animals can be moved and handled easily and without undue stress.

If the barn for this year's lamb crop was used for lambing last year and hasn't been cleaned out, there's still time. After the old bedding is removed, allow the area to air out for at least a few days, and then spread slaked lime on all floor surfaces. For bedding, start with a base of shavings or sawdust to absorb moisture, then spread clean straw on top. This will be the "drop" area, where ewes give birth. If the barn cannot be cleaned easily and has a dry, packed base from last year, spread lime on it, then top with fresh straw.

Next, prepare jugs, or lambing pens, preferably near the drop area. Sections of 5-foot hog panels tied together with baling twine as needed make inexpensive, lightweight and easy-to-use jugs. However, not all ewes and lambs need to spend time in a jug - a large single on a heavily milking ewe can move right to a nursery pen. Most ewes and lambs that are placed in jugs can usually be moved to a nursery pen after 24 to 48 hours. The general rule of thumb for estimating the number of jugs needed is one jug for every five to eight ewes, but remember that the first wave of lambs usually means multiple ewes lambing on one day.

Nursery or group pens should be large enough to hold about five ewes with their lambs, with ample space for ewes to move around freely and retreat with their lambs away from the rest of the group. The nursery pen allows continued monitoring of ewes and lambs for a few more days, provides easy access for docking and inoculations, and helps the shepherd determine when ewes and lambs can be turned out.

Sheep that were shorn last spring should be crutched to remove wool from the hind end and udder area. For sheep that are shorn twice a year, crutching is usually not necessary. Some shepherds shear the flock just prior to lambing, which is an ideal time to shear. Newly shorn ewes in good condition can withstand outdoor winter temperatures after several days in a barn or sheltered area.

The advantage of shearing or crutching immediately prior to lambing becomes evident when ewes are close to giving birth. It's easy to see softness in the hip area, movement of the lambs into the birth canal, a full udder and and early signs of labor. Newborns can find teats more easily if ewes are shorn, and shorn ewes with new lambs are more likely to seek shelter to stay warm.

After preparing the barn, assemble the supplies you might need during lambing. Some supplies will be used with every birth and can be kept in a bucket or a tote tray ready to take to the barn when checking for lambs. Inventory for a tote bucket should include scissors to clip a navel cord that's too long and disinfectant solution for dipping the cord. Suitable disinfectants include iodine, betadine or chlorhexidine, which should always be applied as a dip rather than a spray to ensure complete coverage.

If you apply small ear tags immediately after lambs are born, keep an ample supply of tags and the tag applicator in the tote. Another essential is a dosing syringe and an esophageal tube for tube-feeding sluggish lambs, and lamb reviver that gives newborns an energy boost. Remember to keep a flock record book or a small spiral-bound notepad for recording lambing information such as ewe number and information about offspring.

Have at least several clean terry cloth towels ready for drying newborns; a set of twins might require as many as three or four towels. Towels should be laundered in scent-free detergent and air-dried to eliminate as many foreign odors as possible. The tote should also include a thermometer to check the temperature of newborns that appear to be chilled. Keep a small container to milk colostrum into and a small bottle and nipple in case you have to bottle-feed a newborn.

Use another bucket or tote for supplies that are needed less frequently. Those supplies should include items needed when dealing with difficult births such as OB sleeves or gloves, lubrication and a snare or soft nylon rope. For those who track birth weights, have the scale handy and ready to use.

Some items are better left in either a barn office or the house, but should be ready to go so they can always be accessed immediately. Such items include antibiotics, frozen colostrum or a powdered colostrum substitute, and extra lamb or kid nipples and bottles. Experienced shepherds keep a rasp for filing sharp baby teeth that can hurt sensitive teats.

No matter how much preparation you do and how many supplies you gather, the most important tool is observation that should be ongoing throughout the year, and especially as ewes approach due dates. Knowing what's normal, along with frequent observation prior to and throughout lambing, means a greater chance of saving newborns.

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania..