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Plan ahead to reduce lambing season stresses


If colostrum intake is adequate and the ewe's milk supply is good, lambs should perform well once they make it to 48 hours

If colostrum intake is adequate and the ewe's milk supply is good, lambs should perform well once they make it to 48 hours

If colostrum intake is adequate and the ewe's milk supply is good, lambs should perform well once they make it to 48 hours

In the words of Roy Keane and many others: "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail." Lambing is probably the most stressful and time- demanding activity on many sheep farms. Minimise this by preparing early. Feeding and nutrition have been discussed in these pages over recent weeks so that is not the focus here.

Assemble your lambing kit

This 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.

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 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.

A plan for dealing with surplus or orphan lambs is also a good idea.

With large litter sizes, fostering options will be limited, so will you use bottle feeds, bucket feeds, an ad-lib feeder or an automatic feeder?


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 overenthusiastic 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. Lambing is a three-stage process. The first phase, which usually lasts around six hours, but can be longer, essentially is the ewe getting ready to lamb

This will involve all the characteristic signs of lambing onset such as increased restlessness and frequent standing and sitting, increased bleating, nest building or pawing the ground and increased frequency of straining. The end point of this is the appearance of the water bag.

The second phase is the birth of the lamb. This can take up to an hour after appearance of the water bag and there can be 30 minutes or more between lambs.

The final stage is expulsion of the placenta or 'cleanings'. This usually occurs within two to three hours after the lambs are born.


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 overenthusiastic intervention than by taking your time.

Bear in mind the timings outlined above. Lubricant is important at lambing - soap and washing-up liquid, while very good for cleaning your hands before intervening, are not suitable as lubricants because they actually have a drying effect.

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This field is required

Wear arm-length gloves if possible, though this does not suit everyone. But regardless of intervention, maintain 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. At all stages, stress on man and beast should be kept to a minimum.

Treat navels as soon as possible after birth. Move ewes and lambs to the individual pens as soon as possible also to prevent mismothering. Provide a continual supply of clean drinking water to the ewe immediately after lambing, as they lose significant quantities of fluid during lambing. Use plenty of bedding material in the lambing pens.

Monitor the newborn lamb closely, as the first 48 hours of life are the main risk period for lamb mortality. A pocket thermometer will be very useful for identifying infection and hypothermia.

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 it in your pocket or on the floor as you ready the lamb for feeding. If you must leave it down, place it in the colostrum container, as the colostrum is going into the stomach also.

Newborn survival

The key target is to get as many of the lambs born alive to 48 hours of age. At this stage they have survived the highest risk period of their lives.

Once colostrum intake is adequate and the milk supply of the ewe is good, these lambs should perform well from this point onwards.

Having said all this, each lambing season will inevitably throw up a surprise that we have not encountered before, just to keep it interesting.

Associate Prof Tommy Boland lectures in Sheep Production at Lyons Farm, University College Dublin - @PallasTb Email:

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