Lambing gets more challenging

Michael Gottstein

At this stage, many of the country's mid-season lambing flocks are well and truly in the middle of the lambing season.

Most farms will have facilities in tip-top shape at the beginning of the season but as lambing progresses, and the work load builds, it becomes harder to keep on top of everything. The aim of the shepherd should be to attempt to save each lamb that will succumb to an avoidable cause. The payback for this is approximately €70 extra per lamb saved.

I frequently have conversations with sheep farmers around lambing time during which the topic of lamb losses almost always comes up. Invariably, the figures often quoted only include lambs born alive which subsequently die.

Abortions, ewes that scanned in lamb but subsequently do not lamb and stillbirths are often not counted. The target for most commercial flocks is to keep all lamb losses below 8pc for low litter flocks (less than 1.4 lambs reared per ewe to the ram). Flocks with higher litter sizes should aim to keep losses below 12pc. Yet I come across flocks ever year that lose 20pc and more.

Documenting/recording the number of losses and the causes of these losses is not only important from a benchmarking point of view but it also identifies areas where improvements need to be made in the future. Unfortunately, this is something which is rarely done on sheep farms.

As the lambing season progresses it becomes more difficult to keep lamb mortality below the targets mentioned here. The reason for this is that disease levels in the lambing area increase as lambing proceeds. Identifying the biggest challenges will allow steps to be taken to reduce the risks.

Reduce losses

By and large, most problems in lambing sheds are scours and infections, such as navel and joint ill. The following are some key areas that should be considered when attempting to reduce losses at lambing time:

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1. Start by having the ewes as clean as possible at lambing time. Frequent bedding in straw bedded houses or freeing up slats are important to reduce soiled hindquarters/udders at lambing time.

Ewes that are extremely soiled should be dagged at lambing time. If sheds are damp look at issues such as the dry matter of the feed (wet silage), ventilation and leaking water bowls to reduce the humidity within the shed.

2. Move ewes and newborn lambs to individual lambing pens as soon as possible after lambing. These should have soiled bedding removed and be disinfected after each ewe. Use lots of hydrated/cubicle lime and plenty of clean straw.

3. As I have already mentioned in previous articles, colostrum is the lamb's best defence against infection. Ensure that the lambs get adequate colostrum as soon as possible after birth. Each 5kg lamb needs to get 250ml (5pc of body weight) in the first four hours and this needs to be repeated every six hours.

4. If ewes are short of colostrum at lambing time or the colostrum is very thick and sticky then there may be a nutritional shortfall. Increasing the protein level in ration by feeding additional soya bean meal may alleviate the problem.

Where lambs are unable to suckle the ewes (weak lambs, poor teat placement), intervene and use a bottle and teat or stomach tube to ensure that the required intake of colostrum is achieved.

5. Turning out ewes and lambs at the earliest opportunity will provide the lambs with an outdoor environment that is cleaner than indoors. Where the ewes are not turned out, due to poor weather or insufficient grass, then steps should be taken to keep the pens as clean as possible (topping up with clean bedding and spreading hydrated/cubicle lime regularly).

6. Any items being used to feed lambs (stomach tubes, teats, bottles) need to be cleaned and disinfected after each use. Washing them in warm soapy water and immersing them in a suitable disinfectant (Milton) may do the trick.

7. Once infected lambs are identified, prompt intervention is required. You may only have a window of a few hours to save a lamb. Seek veterinary advice as to what antibiotics will be required. Where lambs are dehydrated an electrolyte mix should also be given orally.

8. Consider giving lambs oral or injectable antibiotics for the prevention of scours and navel ill, subject to veterinary prescription, where the above interventions are not effective in stopping disease outbreaks.

9. Follow up the causes of lamb losses. This may mean sending a few lambs for laboratory analysis so that you have an understanding as to what has gone wrong. This will enable steps to be taken the following year to prevent re-occurrence. This is particularly important in the case of sheep aborting -- don't just assume it is a particular type of abortion.

Irish Independent

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