Farm Ireland

Monday 23 July 2018

Hitting nutrition targets key to the lambing season

Spring Lamb lying in field in evening sun. Stock image.
Spring Lamb lying in field in evening sun. Stock image.
Tommy Boland

Tommy Boland

The lambing season represents one of the busiest and potentially most stressful periods on many sheep farms.

While it is impossible to pre-empt everything that may potentially arise, it is possible to prepare in such a manner as to minimise the difficulties that may arise.

When it comes to preparation there are three key areas which we must focus on:

  • Prepare the animal
  •  Prepare the lambing area and all equipment/supplies that are required during lambing season
  • Prepare the people

Late pregnancy ewe nutrition is key in preparing the ewe and indeed the lamb for the lambing season.

During the final two months of pregnancy, the ewe's energy requirements increase by between 80-100pc depending on how many lambs she is carrying.

Ewe protein requirements increase by approximately 100pc during the final three to four weeks of lambing, and mineral requirements are also elevated during the latter stages of pregnancy.

Hitting the targets in terms of meeting the ewe nutritional requirements will give rise to ewes which have good body condition at lambing, produce lambs of appropriate birth weight, and have good volumes of good quality colostrum at the point of lambing.

Such a scenario gives the best chance of lamb survival and minimises issues around lambing. The protocols for late pregnancy feeding have been covered in detail in these pages previously.

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Assemble your lambing kit in advance of when the ewes are due to begin lambing. The time to go looking for essential equipment is not when the first lambs are on the ground.

The basics in a lambing kit should include arm length gloves and antibacterial soap. Lubricant if intervention is required.

Spray markers for animal identification. Stomach tube and syringes and a supply of bottles and teats in case there is a need to supplement lambs.

A method to sterilise these between feeds, a supply of colostrum or colostrum supplements, rubber rings and ring applicator, a thermometer and a red lamp or other heat source.

An iodine solution or other navel disinfectant is required also.

Hopefully the need for many of the above is minimal, but when they are required it is better to be looking at them, than looking for them!

It is also a good idea to contact your vet in advance of lambing as many of the major issues on sheep farms arise at lambing.

Individual lambing pens are required at a rate of approximately one pen for every eight ewes if indoor lambing is practiced. If litter size is large or mating was very compact more lambing pens are required.

It is advisable to have white lime or some other material to disinfect the lambing pens between ewes also to minimise disease risk. If litter size is high having foster gates on hand is advisable.

Litter size

Intervention at lambing should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Lambing is a natural process and most ewes will do it quite successfully without our intervention.

International studies would suggest that if intervention is greater than 10pc there is some issue at play, whether this is over-enthusiastic shepherding or inappropriate nutrition or some disease issue.

Now it is most likely that levels of intervention will be higher at higher litter size and where we are wet fostering. If we do have to intervene it's important to do so in such a manner as to minimise the risk of injury and infection.

In my opinion more damage is caused by early and over enthusiastic intervention than by taking your time.

 Lubricant is important at lambing, soap and washing up liquid etc, while very good for cleaning your hands before intervening are not suitable as lubricants as they actually have a drying effect. Wear arm length gloves if possible, though this does not suit everyone.

But regardless of intervention keep hygiene to as high a level as possible. If a ewe does require significant intervention administration of anti-inflammatory drugs, in consultation with your vet, is often merited.

If lambs need supplementary colostrum this should be heated, slowly, to body temperature, don't microwave colostrum as it destroys the important proteins.

Using a stomach tube is the most reliable way of getting colostrum into a lamb, but it is essential that the stomach tube is sterile prior to use and the colostrum is delivered slowly into the stomach.

Milton or some such solution should be used to sterilise the stomach tube between feeds and avoid the temptation to put the tube in your pocket or on the floor as you ready the lamb for feeding.

Additional labour is often required at lambing time. This may be from family (often unpaid) or hired labour. This additional labour must be well trained and highly valued (unfortunately, this is often not the case with family support!!).

A couple of key things to bear in mind when dealing with staff at lambing:

don't assume anything - something that is obvious to us may not be so to everyone

train the staff - they won't be clones of you, but train them as to how you want a procedure completed, and listen to their feedback. Especially in large flocks, clearly understandable written protocols can be a huge asset.

The lambing season is by its nature tiring and stressful, good preparation will help to minimise these stresses for animal and farmer alike.

Associate. Prof Tommy Boland lectures in sheep production at Lyons Farm, University College Dublin. @Pallastb

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