Farm Ireland

Friday 27 April 2018

Lambing: at the ready

Make for a hassle-free lambing by doing the preparation

Michael Gottstein

February marks the beginning of spring and over the next month or so the majority of the Irish national ewe flock will start lambing. The lambing season is the critical time for sheep farms as it is the time when the seeds for the harvest are sown. Lambs that don't make it through this period will never be available for sale and are seen as lost potential as far as the sheep farmer is concerned.

Because spring time is generally the busiest time on farms, it is essential that you are well prepared to cater for the new arrivals well before the lambing season kicks off. Your aim should be to have systems in place that will allow you to spend the least possible time feeding, bedding, etc, thereby allowing the maximum amount of time to be directed towards lambing supervision and trying to keep lambs alive.


Where lambing takes place indoors, it is essential that the set-up is up to scratch. The ewes' needs change rapidly in the run up to lambing. And, as lambing approaches, the ewes are getting bigger and less mobile and require more nutrition. It is often said that where sheep are fed concentrates in groups, about 20pc of the sheep will eat more than their share, 60pc will eat their allocated allowance and the remaining 20pc are left short. Often this last 20pc are shy feeders, lame ewes and ewes which are very heavily pregnant and find it more difficult to move around.

While it is not possible to completely rectify the situation so that all sheep get the correct amount, having adequate trough space is one way to ensure that even the shy feeders get fed. Large ewes (90kg) need two feet, or 60cm, trough space per head. Medium-sized ewes (70kg) need about four inches, 50cm, less. This may seem like a lot and you will find that the sheep will, in actual fact, be able to squeeze into a much narrower space, but it is the 20pc that don't get enough that you are trying to accommodate here. These are the sheep that are most at risk from going down with twin-lamb disease if they are continually left short of feed.

After lambing, the ewe and her lamb(s) should go through a mothering-up period where the ewe is confined to a single pen (1.5m x 1.5m) for 24 hours before being mixed with other ewes and lambs. This has two benefits: it allows a strong bond to develop between the ewe and her lamb(s) and it allows the shepherd time to observe that everything is in order and that the lambs are sucking properly.


Because newborn lambs are very susceptible to disease, it is important to have the environment as clean as possible. Adequate ventilation will allow the gases and water vapour to escape and help prevent the build-up of infection indoors. In addition to that, steps should be taken to ensure that the sheep are kept clean in the run-up to lambing. In straw-bedded sheds this will require frequent bedding and, ideally, the use of cubicle lime to disinfect the old bedding before new bedding is spread. The same principles apply in the lambing pens. Copious quantities of lime, followed by straw, will greatly assist in providing a clean environment for the lambs.

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In late pregnancy, nutrition becomes a big issue for the ewe. Seventy percent of foetal growth takes place during the last seven weeks or so of pregnancy.

Because the ewe's ability to consume vast quantities of forage is compromised by the increasing size of the foetus, there is a requirement for concentrate feed to provide extra energy and protein. Protein supplementation becomes very important in the final three weeks of pregnancy. The target level of dietary protein required for ewes at the point of lambing is 200g/head/day. This protein is essential for foetal growth and for the production of colostrum.

Make use of your

scanning results

Having spent money on scanning it is amazing how many people do not use the results. Ideally ewes should be scanned about 80 days after ram turn. Scanning at this stage will allow triplet-bearing ewes to be targeted for preferential feeding.

For the scanning results to be of any use, the ewes will have to be penned and fed according to litter size. The benefit of doing this is two fold. Firstly, it allows feed saving to be made where ewes are carrying only a single lamb and, secondly, it helps to regulate lamb birth weight, avoiding excessively big single lambs while, at the same time, ensuring that triplet lambs are reasonably sized. The target should be to have a survival rate of around 90pc from scanning to birth.


Starvation, exposure and infection are the most common causes of death in newborn lambs. In flocks that are lambing indoors, the exposure element is reduced when compared to outdoor lambing flocks. On the flip side of the coin, however, the disease challenge is increased when you're lambing indoors.

Colostrum is a very unique product and it has numerous important functions in the newborn lamb. The first function is to provide the lamb with nutrition. Newborn lambs are born with a limited amount of brown fat, which can rapidly be broken down. Where a lamb does not feed shortly after being born, the fat reserves will keep it going for a couple of hours after birth, provided that it is dry. Once lambs have used up this fat reserve they are vulnerable to starvation and hypothermia if they do not receive nourishment swiftly.

After providing the lamb with nutrition, the next function of colostrum is to provide the lamb with a defence against diseases. Lambs are born with virtually no immune system and depend on getting antibodies to fight off disease from the colostrum. This passive defence system allows the lambs to fight off most diseases until they have developed their own. However, for these antibodies to be able to cross the lining of the gut wall and enter the bloodstream, the colostrum has to be fed early in the animal's life. The reason for this is that the gut, which is pretty porous in newborn lambs, starts contracting to prevent infectious agents crossing into the bloodstream after birth.

The third and final function of colostrum is to act as a laxative and to help free up the lamb's digestive system.

The amount of colostrum produced by the ewe is very important. Ideally the colostrum should be free flowing. Really thick, sticky colostrum is not ideal and may be a sign of inadequate nutrition before lambing. In order to get lambs off to a good start they should receive 20pc of their bodyweight in colostrum in the first 24 hours. It is important that one quarter of this allowance (5pc of its bodyweight) is consumed in the first six hours of life with a further 5pc before the lamb is 12 hours old.

Achieving an adequate colostrum yield is a challenge for the ewe and will not happen if pre-lambing nutrition is inadequate. Where particular ewes are short of colostrum it is a good idea to try to get some from ewes that have only had single lambs. Pooling and storing excess colostrum from high-yielding ewes is a good idea. The colostrum can be stored in a fridge for two weeks and in the freezer for six months. Where an alternative source of ewes' colostrum is not available, colostrum from cows that have been vaccinated for clostridial diseases before calving is the next best option. If you intend to use cow colostrum, you should increase the feeding rate by 30pc because of lower concentration of nutrients and, where possible, mix the colostrum from several cows as some cows can have antibodies that harm lambs. Again, in situations where colostrum from cows is not available, a commercially available colostrum substitute should be used to supplement the ewe's supply.

It is important to remember that colostrum is very high in protein and this protein is temperature sensitive. Overheating protein will denaturise it, thereby destroying its properties. It is essential that when thawing out frozen colostrum, it is done gradually and at a temperature not exceeding 60.3°C. Never defrost frozen colostrum in a microwave.

Remember, once your lambs are born the clock is ticking from the point of view of getting colostrum into them. In most situations the lambs will be able to suck and help themselves once the ewe's teats have been freed.

However, where lambs are not able to suck properly (due to poor teat placement, a weak lamb etc) assistance should be given using a bottle and teat or a stomach tube.

Hypothermic lambs

Hypothermia is a major killer of young lambs, particularly in outdoor lambing flocks. Good diagnosis and treatment is essential if hypothermic lambs are to be saved.

The following steps should be followed when assessing and treating lambs suffering from hypothermia:

The lamb's temperature will dictate what action needs to be taken. The normal lamb body temperature is 39.3-40.3°C. If it goes below this level, the lamb is hypothermic. The table (above left) sets how to establish the type of hypothermia and how to successfully treat this condition.

Before lambing it is a good idea to consult your vet and get a demonstration on the correct procedure for giving a glucose injection.

This is given into the body cavity by holding the syringe at 45.3° to the body and inserting the needle 1cm to the side and 2cm behind the navel.

Make sure that your warming box is working and, if you do not have one, you should buy one. A few lambs saved will quickly pay for the cost of one of these units.

Irish Independent