Ensure lambs get adequate colostrum to offer best start

Michael Gottstein

Many mid-season lambing flocks have their first few lambs on the ground at this stage -- but if they haven't, they are not too far off that point.

Lambing is the highlight of the sheep year when the coming year's crop is born, and with it the expectations and hopes for a profitable year. The birth process and the following 24 hours is the most challenging time in the newborn lamb's life. And there are lots of lambs that never make it past this mark.

Getting the lamb set up to survive these vital hours, and the days and weeks thereafter, is under the control of the shepherd, and what happens at and around lambing time.

It is important to remember that the newborn lamb is born with no immune system to fight off disease, nor does it have a huge energy reserve to keep going for a significant time after birth. The shepherd's challenge is to provide the lamb with nourishment, a clean, safe environment and protection from disease-causing organisms.

Starvation/exposure is the biggest killer of newborn lambs. This basically happens when the lamb is exposed to extreme weather or has not been fed. The second biggest cause is disease, which is obviously related to the hygiene in the shed at lambing time in addition to the quantity and quality of antibodies that newborn lamb has.

No matter how much attention is paid to lambing shed detail, if the lambs do not receive enough colostrum they are at risk. Ensuring that lambs get enough colostrum as soon as possible after birth is the second most important task that each shepherd has after getting the live lambs out of the ewe.

Colostrum performs several different tasks once it has been ingested by the lamb. The primary function is to provide the lamb with nourishment, which is why it is high in energy and protein. After nutrition, colostrum provides the newborn lamb with antibodies. These antibodies provide the lamb with a passive immune system, which will help it to fight off disease until it has developed its own immune system. The third important function that colostrum fulfils is that it acts as a laxative to free up the lamb's digestive system.

The amount of colostrum that is consumed, and the time frame within which it is consumed, is very important. Aim to get each lamb to consume at least 20pc of its bodyweight in colostrum in the first 24 hours of life. This 20pc should be broken into four equal feeds (around 5pc of bodyweight in each feed) and consumed every 4-6 hours so that, by the time the lamb is 16-20 hours old, it will have consumed its full allowance.

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In most situations, the lambs will do the work themselves, but it is the shepherd's job to make sure that all lambs, even the weak or sick ones, get the correct amount. Make sure that the ewes teats are free-flowing after lambing so that the lamb can easily suck. Check the lambs a few hours after birth to make sure that they have fed and that the ewe has sufficient amounts to feed them.

It is important to remember that a ewe with twin lambs needs to produce two litres of colostrum within the first 24 hours. If ewes have been adequately fed before lambing, most of them should be able to produce these quantities of colostrum. However, where for one reason or another a ewe does not come up to the mark, an alternative colostrum source will need to be found.

An alternative colostrum source may simply be spare colostrum from other ewes that has been stored in a fridge or freezer. Commercially available colostrum substitutes and colostrum from cows can also be used but they are not as good as the real thing. If you intend to use a cow's colostrum you should increase the feeding rate by 30pc due to a lower concentration of nutrients and, where possible, mix the colostrum from several cows as some cows produce 'anti-lamb' antibodies.

Colostrum is very high in protein and this can be easily denatured if it is heated at too high a temperature. To avoid this happening it is essential that frozen colostrum is thawed out gradually and at a temperature not exceeding 60.3°C. Never defrost frozen colostrum in a microwave.

Because the lamb's ability to absorb antibodies from the gut into the bloodstream reduces as it gets older, it is important to get the first feed in as early as possible. Lambs that are unable to feed need to be given assistance and fed with a stomach tube if necessary.

Remember that, even where adequate colostrum has been fed, it is still important to keep on top of hygiene in the lambing shed. Cleaning out lambing pens regularly and using plenty of cubicle/ hydrated lime will help to keep infection levels low and give the lambs a good start in life.

Irish Independent

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