If you use a marking harness on your ram(s) during breeding, or if you have been observant and recorded breeding dates, you can add five months to the date when the ewe was last bred to predict when she will lamb. The exact gestation period varies by breed, from 142-154 days. For our Cotswolds at Maple Lawn Farm, we used 150 days to predict lambing.
For the first three and a half months of gestation, fetal lamb growth is slow. A generous ration of nutritious and palatable hay like alfalfa, clover or timothy, or a less-nutritious hay with a small supplement of protein-rich grain, is sufficient nutrition for the ewe. Feeding ewes too much during early gestation may get them over-conditioned, which is uneconomical and can be unhealthy for the ewe when the lambs begin their growth spurt. If you can feel a heavy layer of fat along the backs of your ewes, they are probably over-conditioned. If you are feeding low-quality hay to your ewes, you may want to do a nuitrional analysis to make sure they are getting adequate magnesium and other minerals; ewes carrying twins or triplets may need more of some nutrients than the combination of low-quality hay and grain can provide.
The last six weeks of gestation is the period of rapid growth of the fetal lambs. If you are feeding timothy or alfalfa hay free-choice, start giving the ewes approximately 1/2 pound of grain per day; with less-nutritious hays you may need to feed more grain. 4-6 weeks before lambing is a good time for vaccinations: a CD/T (Clostridium welchii type C & D and tetanus) booster, and BO-SE or a vitamin-E supplement if you have had problems with white-muscle disease or if your hay is grown on selenium-deficient soils. An alternate to selenium boosters is to make sure the ewes have access to a TM salt mix with selenium; there is evidence that selenium deficiency can lead to low lambing percentages. You may also want to add one part dicalcium-phosphate to three parts TM salt mix during flushing, as low phosphorus can lead to reduced ovulation rates and fertility problems; the Di-Cal mix should not be given to rams. If you have had problems with abortions, or if the problem is common in your area, your vet may recommend that you vaccinate against enzootic and/or vibrionic abortion.
One month before lambing is a good time to shear ewes. With the fleece out of the way, lambing is easier for the shepherd, the barn is roomier and warmer (all that body heat is shared instead of being held in by the fleece), nursing is easier for the lambs, and the ewes require smaller lambing pens. If the ewes are not shorn before lambing, crutch the vulva and udder areas, and watch out for breaks in the wool from nutritional deficiencies late in gestation.
Make sure the barn or lambing area is clean and well-ventilated. Test
the ventilation by smelling on your hands and knees. Often barns that
smell fine five feet up have a strong ammonia buildup at the level of
sheep and especially lambs. If you have a bedding pack built up, it
is a good idea to spread hydrated lime and clean straw in what will
become the maternity ward and lambing pen area.
When should I schedule lambing?
Winter lambing can offer the advantage of lambs sized for easter sales, and larger lambs for early marketing or shows. The disadvantages of winter lambing, in most areas, are that lambing may require a shelter or barn, and the cost of feeding ewes grain or other supplements during pregnancy and lactation. In addition to the feed costs, there are real but sometimes unaccounted costs of the labor for feeding and sheltering the ewes during pregnancy and lactation, and the higher veterinary risks and costs of maintaining a flock indoors.
Lambing in late spring, when the weather permits pasture lambing may permit major savings in
the cost of feed and labor. If you have good pastures, a major
portion of the nutritional needs of the ewes can be met by the flush
of late spring pasture growth. For most of the winter, the sheep can
be on a maintenance diet of relatively inexpensive hay or sileage.
What problems should I watch for during gestation?
The most common risk to pregnant ewes is Pregnancy Toxemia (twin lamb disease, ketosis), which typically manifests itself in older ewes carrying multiple lambs, or extremely thin or fat ewes. The symptoms are dullness, lagging behind the flock, teeth grinding, frequent urination, unsteadiness; in later stages of the disease, the ewe may be blind, goes down, and her breath smells like acetone (nail polish remover). There are ketone dip sticks which can be used to test the ewe's urine; a test for low blood glucose (under 50 mg/dl) is more accurate. Pregnancy Toxemia is caused by a diet deficient in energy late in pregnancy; the ewe uses up her sugar reserves, turns to her body fat, and the resulting metabolism releases ketones, which accumulate in the bloodstream. Overfeeding early in pregnancy can aggravate the condition. Pregnancy Toxemia can sometimes be treated by administration of intravenous glucose and oral glycerin or propylene glycol, which have the unfortunate effect of slowing rumen action. Alternate treatments are with steroids such as FlucortTM and injectable vitamin B, or with a cocktail of 1 quart plain yogurt, mixed with Pepto-Bismol and lukewarm water, administered with a lamb feeding tube twice daily until the ewe is up and eating. In serious cases, ketosis can be fatal. It can be avoided with a proper feeding program.
Chlamydiosis, which produces enzootic abortions in ewes, is highly contagious. If it is a risk in your area — your vet will know — there are vaccines available. Because of the contagious potential, including transmission to humans, exercise extreme care with aborted fetuses and tissues. The incubation period is 60-90 days after infection. Vibriosis, which has similar symptoms, is difficult to distinguish from Chlamydiosis except in the laboratory. The vaccine is different, so it is important to carefully transport a fresh or frozen aborted fetus to a qualified pathology lab for diagnosis.
Another potential danger is abortions from toxoplasmosis, which is carried by cats and spread in their feces. Young kittens are the most common carriers. Because they are often born on the top layer of hay in the barn, hay fed during early gestation may introduce toxoplasmosis when the ewes are most susceptible. Another vector is contaminated grain from the cats chasing mice and rats near or in the grain storage area.
Hypocalcemia (milk fever) is caused by the huge demands for calcium a near-term lamb makes on the ewe. The usual symptoms are that the ewe goes off her food, her ears are ice cold, her muscles stiffen, she goes down, and bloat may set in. The condition responds spectacularly to subcutaneous injection of 100ml. of calcium borogluconate solution (Cal-DextroTM #2). Inject in at least four sites and massage the site after the injection. Hypocalcemia most often strikes older ewes with multiple lambs.
OPP is a slowly progressive, viral
disease that is ultimately fatal. The earliest clinical signs are
weight loss with a normal appetite, and an intolerance for exercise.
Later signs include labored breathing, which may lead to a secondary
bacterial pneumonia. In some instances the udder, post-lambing, will
be hard, with little or no milk production. OPP is
detectable with a blood test. The primary vector for transmission is
infected colostrum or milk. It is possible to raise an uninfected
lamb from a ewe infected with OPP but it requires
diligent separation of infected ewes from the rest of the flock, and
immediate isolation of lambs from infected mothers.
What equipment and supplies do I need for lambing?
If everything goes right, and it does most of the time, you need nothing more than:
No two ewes manifest the same signs. Some wander off to a far corner of a pasture, or find a corner of the barn where they can be alone. Some will go off food. Most will `drop' as the position of the uterus shifts lower in their bodies and hollow areas appear in their flanks; this is sometimes hard to see in older ewes, who are dropped most of the time. Ewes usually `bag out' as milk develops in the udder a day or two before lambing. When the ewe goes into labor, she may paw the ground as if digging a nest, and is often restless, getting up, circling or moving to a new spot, lying down, and repeating the cycle. As she moves further into labor, you can see contractions, the water (amnion) will often break, and she may grit her teeth.
Many ewes don't read this Lambing FAQ
and don't realize they're supposed to indicate imminent lambing with
unambiguous signs. Even if you examine the back ends of your ewes and
feel bags daily, some ewes, both rookie mothers and old-timers, can
drop a lamb with no warning signs. Fortunately, they're often easy
What do I have to do for a `normal' birth?
Most ewes can handle things pretty well; patience is often more productive than intervention if nothing looks awry. Within four hours of the onset of labor, the ewe will deliver a lamb and set to cleaning and mothering it. The vigorous licking is important stimulation to the lamb, and helps trigger hormones that accelerate the development of milk, contractions for remaining twins or triplets, and the expulsion of the afterbirth. If you're there when the lamb is born — and you should try to be — clear any mucus from the lamb's nose and make sure it is breathing. If it isn't, tickle the nostrils with a piece of straw. If that doesn't work, pick the lamb up by both back legs and gently swing it in a vertical circle over your head; the up and down movement of the diaphragm as the lamb swings is an efficient artificial respiration. Some shepherds use oxygen, mouth-to-nose respiration, or a drop of Dopram V, available by presciption from a veterinarian, to start a lamb.
Usually, lambs need little help beyond a tickle with straw. Then, allow the mother a few minutes to mother her lamb, before you clip, dip, and strip.
You may want to weigh the lamb, and on a very cold night, a hair-dryer on the lamb's ears, or a heat lamp, can help a chilled lamb get up to speed. Be careful with heat lamps: use only porcelain sockets and heavy duty cords, and keep them at least 36 inches from bedding or other flammable materials. Even with every precaution, ewes knock lamps over, starting barn fires, and too much time under the heat lamp can encourage pneumonia. For a really chilled lamb, some shepherds use a heat box with a hole for a hair-dryer, or a bucket of warm water to submerge the lamb (except the head, of course). Try not to wash or dry the lamb too much; letting the ewe do the work stimulates the lamb and encourages bonding between them.
When the ewe is finished lambing, which can take a while for twins or
triplets, gently drag the lambs into the lambing pen. The ewe will
follow the trail of smells in the bedding. She will want a bucket of
water (warm if possible, adding a few tablespoons of molasses will
encourage her to drink) and a nice tab of hay. She won't need grain
for a day or two, but should have free choice hay and plenty of water.
When you spot the afterbirth, usually from an hour to eight hours
after birth, remove it from the pen.
How do I know if the ewe is going to have twins or triplets?
Sometimes you can tell in advance from the size and shape of the ewe.
If another lamb is coming, the ewe may get restless again, walking
away from her lamb, or lying down with contractions. The second (or
third) amnion may break with another flood of fluid. If a bag of
reddish fluid and a white worm-like tissue, or the afterbirth itself,
appears, it probably means she is not going to have any more lambs
that year. Sometimes the only way to be sure whether there is another
lamb is to physically examine the ewe with a glove and lubricant.
Unless something seems to be awry, it's best not to interfere.
What do I do if the ewe rejects her lamb?
Some rookie mothers don't know what to do; they drop a lamb and walk away as if they had just pooped. Putting the lamb in front of their noses, or putting them into a pen with the lamb is usually enough. You may have to help the lamb nurse the first time. It usually works better to nudge the lamb from behind, the way a ewe does, than to drag it to a teat. Tickling the lamb's bottom when it has the teat in its mouth is often enough to get it sucking. A wagging tail on the lamb, or the belly going in and out, is generally a reliable sign the lamb is getting milk (actually colostrum the first day).
Some mothers will reject a lamb, often one of twins or triplets. If you hold the ewe so the lamb can nurse, either manually or by putting the ewe in a stanchion, after several days the ewe will usually begin to accept the lamb. The key for the ewe is the smell of the back end of the lamb; after a few days, the ewe will detect her own milk in the lamb's feces. It sometimes works to rub the ewe's nose and the lamb's rear with Vicks VapoRub, or putting a cinnamon stick up the ewe's nose and putting cinnamon on the lamb's rear; older ewes are less likely to fall for these tricks. Another trick is to bring a dog into the barn. Often, the instinct to protect the lamb from the dog is strong enough to reestablish the bond of ewe and lamb. Some shepherds have also had luck putting the large plastic collars that veterinarians use to prevent an animal from worrying a wound onto the ewe; it will prevent her from sniffing the lamb's rear and may allow you to graft the lamb. If the mother bashes the lamb as well as not allowing it to nurse, you may have to take it away and bottle feed it.
Grafting a lamb to another mother, because the first mother lacks milk or has too many lambs, is tricky. Some techniques include: bathing the graftee in amniotic fluids from the new mother, a stanchion for forced nursing, tying the feet of an older lamb so it won't seem too active, skinning a dead lamb (the way you skin a rabbit) and placing the skin over the lamb you want to graft. Some shepherds have had luck inflating a balloon or putting a gloved fist in the adopting ewe's vagina; when it is withdrawn slowly, the ewe thinks she is giving birth again. Whatever the techniques, grafting takes patience. persistence, and luck. If you're trying to graft by smearing fresh amniotic fluids over an older lamb, it helps to dip the graftee in water first, preferably warm water, and to restrain the ewe so her nose doesn't get too wise too early. Sometimes a ewe will initially allow the lamb to nurse, then later figure out that it isn't her lamb and reject it.
If there is any chance a lamb may end up a bottle baby, it is a good idea to give it a bottle
or two fairly early. Lambs that have known only a ewe's teat
sometimes are tough to train to a bottle.
I found a cold, hunched-up lamb. What should I do?
A newborn lamb has enough blood sugar reserves to generate the needed body temperature for 2-6 hours, depending on the ambient temperature. If it does not get colostrum soon enough, the body temperature begins to fall, and the combination of hypothermia and dehydration can leave the lamb too weak to nurse.
If you find a newborn lamb hunched and cold, the first priority is to warm the lamb. A plywood box and a hair-dryer through a hole in the top is ideal; bales of straw in a square with a sheet of plywood over the top and a hair-dryer through a hole works for groups of lambs. There are plans for warming boxes on the survival of newborns factsheet. Warm, dry, moving air is the goal. Once you have restored the body temperature of the lamb, see nursing.
If you find an older lamb (4-6 hours old or more) hunched and cold, the hypothermia may be caused by starvation, as the brown fat reserves around the kidneys are depleted and the blood sugar level drops too low to generate adequate body heat. The usual treatment to `restart' these older lambs is to inject IP (intra peritoneal) dextrose. Generally 5cc of 20% dextrose is recommended per pound; 40cc is about right for most lambs. Most agricultural and vet suppliers carry 50% dextrose which can be diluted 50:50 with sterile or boiled distilled water. Restrain the lamb by holding the rear legs and pinching the pelvis between your knees, and inject the warmed solution with a 20 ga. 1-inch needle at a site 1-inch beside and 1-inch behind the naval. Aim the needle toward the opposite hip. The solution should inject easily and not create a bubble under the skin. The body wall is a little over half the depth of the needle. (Caution: if the lamb is jumping around, it probably doesn't need IP dextrose, and in all cases use careful sterile procedures to avoid peritonitis.)
Once the lamb is jump-started, and warmed, make sure
it is getting adequate milk from the mother or supplemental sources.
Returning a starving lamb to a mother with mastitis, or a mother who
has rejected the lamb, is inviting a repeat crash.
What if the lamb can't or won't nurse?
Make sure the ewe has colostrum by milking each teat. If the ewe wasn't shorn or crutched before lambing, you may need to use hand shears to clear some of the dung locks away so the lambs can find the teats. Lambs aren't the brightest little creatures, and will often suck away on a tag of wet fleece instead of the teat.
The lamb may be too small, too cold, or too weak to nurse. Put your finger in the lamb's mouth to see if it is strong enough to suck. If it sucks on the finger, milk 2-4 ounces of colostrum from the mother into a baby bottle. Then, using a nipple that has had the hole widened with a hot needle, feed the lamb two ounces at a time. One or two feedings of colostrum may be enough to jump start the lamb.
If the lamb is too weak to suck on your finger, and especially if the lamb's mouth is cold, make sure the lamb isn't chilled before tube feeding two ounces of colostrum. You can buy ready-made tube feeders from vet supply houses, or make your own from a surgical catheter and a large syringe. Lubricate the tube with a little mineral oil or warm water, measure how much tube it takes to reach the lamb's rumen, and slide it down gently. Stop frequently and hold a wet finger over the end of the tube; if you feel air coming out, you're in the trachea or lungs; pull out and start again. A really weak lamb may also be dehydrated. You can inject 30-50ml. of 5-10% dextrose solution subcutaneously, in three or four spots (10 ml. each) along the back and sides to rehydrate the lamb. You may need to tube feed at 2 or 3 hour intervals until the lamb is strong enough to nurse.
Whatever procedure or combination of procedures you
follow, the lamb needs feedings of colostrum for the first eight to
twelve hours. Ruminants do not pass antibodies from the mother to the
baby through the placenta; the lamb gets its antibodies from
colostrum. If the mother doesn't have any, use frozen colostrum saved
from a ewe with a single lamb, colostrum from a goat or cow, or an
artificial colostrum. Because cows are frequently carriers of Johne's
disease, which can be transmitted from cattle to sheep via colostrum
(heating it hot enough to kill the Johne's disease would also destroy
the effectiveness of the much-needed antibodies), cow colostrum should
be a last choice unless you are sure the cattle are from a
Johne's-disease-free herd. Frozen colostrum should be heated in a
double-boiler, or by putting the bottle in a pan of heated water;
avoid the microwave, which will destroy the effectiveness of the
How can I tell if a birth isn't going right?
If a ewe has been in labor for four hours without dilating enough to deliver a lamb, if the lamb appears in an unbroken amnion, or if you see indications of a presentation other than the normal two front feet and the nose of the lamb together, the ewe may need help.
If the cervix of the ewe remains tight after prolonged labor, a situation sometimes called ringwomb, careful manual massage to stretch the cervix may help. In most cases, tightness of the cervix after four hours of labor is false ringwomb which will respond to gentle pressure of one or two fingers in a circular motion around the inside of the tight cervix. Use plenty of soak flakes or neutral liquid soap and warm water, or a purpose-made lubricant. If the cervix does not relax with manual massage, the ewe may need an injection of ECP (Estradial Cypionate) to relax the cervix, followed by an injection of Oxytocin to induce contractions. If the lamb seems to be coming, and the presentation is correct, rolling the ewe on her side, or onto the other side, can sometimes tip things enough to ease the birth. Only in rare instances is a Caesarian section needed for a lamb birth.
If a lamb appears in an unbroken amnion, use a fingernail to gently break the sack as quickly as possible. The danger is that the lamb will take a breath inside the sack and drown.
If the presentation of the lamb is wrong, you will need to help. Make sure your fingernails are cut short, put on one or two long obstetric examining gloves, and lubricate your gloved hand and arm in warm water with dissolved Ivory soap, or with an obstetric lubricant. The ewe should be on her back or her side, with an assistant holding her back legs up. If you're alone, you can tie a length of baling twine to her back legs and loop it over your neck, or loop a rope over a beam in the barn. Even ewes who are normally shy are often cooperative when you're helping them with lambing, but you want to hold her still. Although it is convenient for the shepherd when the ewe is on her back, that position can bring the pressure of a full rumen and other internal organs on the ewe's lungs, so watch out for distressed breathing. Ease up when she has a contraction, so you aren't fighting her; the contractions are strong enough to clamp hard on your arm. You will be working by feel, so try to imagine what is connected with what as you gently work your fingers into the vaginal canal. If you don't have an assistant to hold a light for you, try to arrange adequate lighting. In a dark barn it is easy to confuse hooves and noses.
For those procedures that involve pushing the lambs limbs or head back into the birth canal, many shepherds and vets find — especially with younger mothers — that it is easier if they first loop soft twine around the exposed limbs so they don't later have to find them inside the crowded birth canal.
Whenever you intervene, be gentle; the tissues are delicate, and perforation of the uterus or birth canal is almost certainly fatal to the ewe. Even with complex presentations, unless the lamb is in breech position, patience is often rewarded. Excessive or premature intervention can cause or aggravate problems that would otherwise work themselves out in time.
One other problem that occasionally shows up is a lamb born with a portion of detached placenta still attached to the umbilical cord. The trick here is to tie off the umbilical cord 3-4 inches from the lamb before the placenta is cut off, so the lamb will not bleed from the umbilical cord.
Some shepherds like to administer an antibiotic by
injection or through a vaginal bolus after intervening in a birth.
This is often not necessary: in a normal birth, the expulsion of the
placenta cleanses the birth canal.
Is there a way to get the ewes to lamb when I want them to?
Maybe. Ewes are creatures of habit. Recent experiments suggest that shepherds can take advantage of the ewe's conditioned diurnal cycle to concentrate lambing at a convenient period of the day or night. There are two parts to the program: 1) feeding the ewes at a consistent time every day; and 2) not providing any stimuli during the night that will confuse the cycle. Some research studies suggest that shifting feeding to mid-morning will minimize the number of midnight to 6am lambings. There is no proved correlation between night lighting and the incidence of night lambing, but many shepherds report that minimal activity in the barn during the night hours — no unnecessary noise and no bright lights, with all checking of the flock done by flashlight and quietly — minimizes night births. At Maple Lawn Farm we fed hay in the morning, grain at 5pm, followed the quiet regime in nighttime barn checks, and 90% of our lambs were born in the daytime or early evening. If you want births only in the daytime, a morning or noon feeding may work better. With different feeds, breeds, climate, or barn setup, your mileage may vary.
There are also protocols for synchronizing estrus in
ewes, using implanted sponges or a pessary to provide exogenous
progesterone. A newer technique to sychronize estrus cycles in a
flock is to feed 0.125 mg. of MGA (Melengestrol
Acetate) with 1/2 lb. of grain (2.5 lbs. of MGA mixed
thoroughly with a ton of grain) every 12 hours for a minimum of 12
days; then within 54 hours of the last feeding of MGA,
inject 20 mg. of Estradiol 17 beta (not ECP)
estrogen. The ram can then be introduced. The ram should be out of
sight of the ewes while they are on the MGA ration.
This latter technique uses products that are currently not approved
for sheep, and is probably not a good idea for a flock of less than 20
When is it time to cull a ewe?
There is no fixed age for retirement. Older ewes can be wonderful mothers and raise healthy, fast-growing lambs: the ewes will have built up a broad range of antibodies which they pass on, and the mothering instinct seems to grow stronger with time. Eventually, old ewes get tired. The uterus loses elasticity, the udder may lose capacity either through a bout with mastitis or just aging of the plumbing, and sometimes the muscle tissues of the abdomen get so weak that the weight of a lamb or lambs stretches the musculature beyond its ability to retension. Some older ewes may not be able to deliver lamb(s) unaided, even with a normal presentation. If an older ewe has trouble producing colostrum right after birth, giving her warm water with molasses and a little grain to build up her energy may help; kneading and massaging the udder, or banging it the way a lamb does, may also encourage the milk to drop down. A loss of elasticity in the uterus, a permanent drop of the abdominal tissues, or an inability to produce colostrum or milk means it's time to cull the ewe.
If you're farming for profits, and not as a hobby,
you may want to be aggressive in your cull policy. Ewes who produce
weak, slow-growing, or otherwise faulty lambs; who consistently
produce fewer lambs than your usual lambing percentage; who have
repeated lambing problems; and ewes with prolapses are all candidates
for culling. With a small flock especially, the decision to cull can
be difficult. But if you are keeping replacement lambs who can
inherit faults or problems, a rigorous culling policy quickly improves
What do I do if the lamb(s) die?
If a ewe loses her lambs, and you don't have another lamb to graft
onto her, it is important to gradually reduce her production of milk.
The easiest procedure is to keep her in a pen, feeding her small
rations of the lowest nutrition hay you have, and holding down her
water intake. Don't feed her any grain. It may help to milk her out
a few times. If it is early enough, milk out and save her colostrum
in the freezer for emergency use in future years. When her bag is
soft, you can put her onto a pasture, but avoid lush pasturage for a
What do I do if the ewe prolapses?
There are three kinds of prolapse that can affect a ewe. During gestation, the growth of lambs can cause the vagina or rectum to prolapse, an unfortunate consequence of large lambs and good nutritional programs. Rectal prolapses are accentuated by coughing, which can be brought on by dusty hay or grain, and especially by short-docking tails. Vaginal prolapses are the more common problem: an occasional bulge of pink flesh that emerges from the vulva when the ewe lies down and retracts when she gets up and walks around may not be cause for concern, but keep an eye on her. If a grapefruit-sized mass of red flash protrudes and stays out, the ewe needs immediate attention.
To treat vaginal prolapse, pen the ewe and raise her rear legs (standing her back legs on a bale of hay works) to relieve the pressure. Wash the protruding flesh with mild soap and water and replace it gently, watching out that your fingernails don't tear the tender flesh. There are three options for holding the prolapse in place.
A ewe can prolapse the entire uterus after birth. This is a situation
for a vet, but in a pinch you can carefully wash the protruding
uterus, sprinkle it with sugar to make it shrink, and carefully
replace it. The ewe should be treated with antibiotics afterward. A
partially expelled afterbirth looks much like the inside of the
uterus. Be careful not to confuse them.
What medications do the ewe and lamb need after birth?
Ewes are susceptible to a rise in worms after lambing, and should be given a dose of wormer the next day. If you had to intervene to assist with the birth, the ewe may need an antibiotic series. If the afterbirth isn't expelled within twelve hours, you may want to give the ewe an injection of Oxytocin. Sometimes, if the delivery was especially difficult, like a very large lamb, or with much intervention, the nerves for the rear legs, which pass very close to the birth canal, may be pinched, leaving the ewe shaky on her rear legs or unable to stand. A few days of rest, and 1000 mg. of aspirin (3 regular or 2 extra-strength tablets) twice daily will usually relieve the soreness.
Local conditions will determine what, if any, medication the lambs need. If you didn't dip the navel in iodine immediately after birth, you may want to give the lambs a precautionary injection of Penicillin. If your pastures and feed are selenium-deficient, and you've had lambs develop white-muscle disease, you may want to inject lambs with BO-SETM (selenium & vitamin E supplement); the minimum recommended dose of 2ml. may be too much for a newborn; try 0.5ml. The newer version of selenium supplement is Myosel-BTM. (The ESeTM and Myosel-ETM products for horses and the MuSeTM and Myosel-MTM products for cattle are too strong for lambs.) If you've had pneumonia problems with lambs, you may want to administer PI-3TM, a nasal vaccine approved for cows, at birth. If the ewes weren't vaccinated with CD/T before lambing and especially if the lambs will be fed grain in a creep, you should vaccinate the lambs early; otherwise, wait until the lambs are at least a month old before their first vaccination with CD/T. The tetanus part of CD/T may only be necessary if you have equines on your farm or other indications of tetanus.
Watch for entropion, a turned-in eyelash (usually the lower) that irritates the lamb's eye and produces profuse tearing. Some shepherds recommend injecting 0.5ml of Penicillin into the lower eyelid to force the lash away from the eye. A less-intrusive procedure is to manually roll the eyelash out several times a day while the lambs are in the pens. In some cases lambs can develop bacterial infections of the eyes, with symptoms that duplicate the tear-soaked cheeks and ulcerated corneas of entropion. Orange births in which the meconium is passed in the birth canal, can produce these infections.
A few days after birth, and before the lambs are out of the lambing
pens, you will want to band or cut the tails, apply ear tags or
tattoos, and possibly castrate ram lambs that are not going to be
bred. If you wait too long, castration by banding with elastrator
bands may be difficult. After a month or so, even castration by
cutting the scrotum open may be a job for a vet.
How long should the lambs and mothers stay in the lambing pens?
A veteran with a strong single lamb could come out after twenty-four hours. Rookies, and ewes with multiple lambs, should stay in for two or three days, until the ewes have thoroughly bonded with their lambs. Sometimes, if you let them out early, the lambs can get lost, or ewes can forget their lambs in the rush for feeders. You might have to put them back for another day or two. If you have a large flock of rambunctious ewes, you may want to move new mothers and lambs to a calm nursery area for a few days before they rejoin the flock.
It is worth expending some time on the challenge of providing hay, water, and grain to the ewes in the pens. Small hayracks on the walls above the pens or elevated above the pen dividers, and clip-on grain feeders, work well. Ewes inevitably poop in water buckets, and keeping the buckets clean, filled, and ice-free is a challenge. Some farms have luck with PVC pipe waterers running the length of the pens. Holes cut in a large pipe let the ewes drink, and a trickle flow will keep the water from freezing.
After the ewe and lambs leave the pen, clean it out
as much as possible, lime thoroughly with hydrated lime, and rebed
with fresh straw before the next tenants move in. Hydrogen peroxide
is a good disinfectant for lalmbing facilities.
What do I do with orphans (bummers)?
If you can't fix them up with a foster mother, lambs without mothers, or whose mothers don't have enough milk for them, can be raised on milk-replacer. For the first twelve hours, the lambs should have only colostrum. Then, one option is to put them in a pen with free-choice cold milk-replacer from a bucket with nipples. The other choice is to feed warm milk-replacer from a bottle, which will allow the lamb to stay with its mother, who may have some milk. The lamb will probably learn to sneak milk from other mothers too. For the first few days, the lamb shouldn't get more than four ounces per feeding, six times a day. You can then gradually increase the amount and decrease the number of feedings per day. After two weeks, two or three bottles a day is plenty. Baby bottles work best for little lambs. Later, beer or soda bottles with lamb nipples are fine. More than 12-16 ounces in a feeding is likely to induce scours. Unless you like chasing lambs all hours of the night with a bottle, encourage bottle babies to eat grain and leafy alfalfa in the creep as young as possible, so you can wean them early.
Some lambs need a little help but not a complete bottle regimen. The
runt of triplets, or even of twins, may need a bottle or two a day to
keep up. You can usually see when one lamb isn't getting a fair
share: hungry lambs are often hunched up; they cry; if they're really
hungry, their mouths will be cold. Sometimes a bottle or two will get
them going again, or they may need a bottle or two a day to supplement
the mother's milk production.
What care do lactating ewes need?
A good ewe pours so much of the nutrition she consumes into producing milk that it is difficult for her to maintain her weight. You want to give her energy- and protein-rich (16%) grain, a pound a day per lamb per ewe (ewes with singles get one pound, twins two pounds, triplets three pounds if they are nursing all three), along with free-choice of the highest protein hay you have, such as good leafy alfalfa or early-cut timothy, and plenty of clean fresh water. If you're lambing in late spring, the ewes may do fine on fresh pasture. Try to check the udders of the ewes daily, watching for signs of mastitis. A hot red bag, or a cold blue bag, are bad signs. If you detect mastitis, treat as soon as possible with antibiotics, both systemic and applied directly by teat infusion. It may help to milk out a bad teat.
When the lambs are weaned, it is time to cut down on the high-energy
and high-protein grain. If you are on an accelerated lambing program,
like the Cornell Star program, at weaning you may want to
switch from 16% grain to straight-shelled corn, which is only 10%
protein. The high energy level of the corn approximates a flushing
diet, while the cut in protein will lower the milk production.
Are there any human health concerns related to lambing?
Pregnant ewes fed on silage or moldy hay are susceptible to listeriosis, also called `circling disease,' which can cause abortions. The most common cause is hay or sileage containing soil. The organism which causes listeriosis is transmissible to humans. The UK Department of Health recommends that pregnant women avoid contact with pregnant ewes, lambing, newborn lambs, milking, and afterbirths in sheep flocks susceptible to listeriosis.
Toxoplasmosis, a coccidial organism carried by domestic cats, can cause late abortion in ewes or result in dead or weak lambs. The coccidia can cause encephalitis in pre-natal children. Pregnant women should avoid contact with the aborted lambs and with cats that might carry toxoplasmosis.
There is a documented risk for pregnant women from Chlamydia psittaci, an abortive agent for ewes which has an affinity for the human placenta and can prompt abortion or stillbirths. There may be a zoonotic risk for Coxiella and Campylobacter as well. Pregnant women should avoid any contact with an aborted lamb fetus, and should exercise caution around lambing ewes, facilities where ewes are lambing, and any weak-born lambs.
Salmonella typyhimurium (Salmonellosis), Cryptosporidia, a protozoan disease which affects lambs and humans, and orf (sore mouth) are potential health dangers from sheep. Appropriate hygiene — keeping children away from lamb feces and sore mouth lesions — is generally sufficient to prevent any problems.
Coxiella burnetti, the organism which causes Q-fever in sheep
and goats, can exist as a subclinical infection in ewes that releases
the infectious organisms in uterine fluids, milk or the placenta at
parturition. These organisms can contribute to abortions in sheep,
and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. There is some evidence
that the organisms can cause serious hepatitis or endocarditis in
Do I need a barn for lambing? What about lambing in the pasture?
Pasture lambing, with the potential savings of equipment and labor, is more and more popular, now that the demise of the Wool Incentive Act has lowered the margins for sheep farming. A pasture is a clean environment, and except in the most extreme weather, a well-fed ewe can take care of her lambs on a pasture. See the Pasture FAQ for information on establishing and maintaining pastures.
In addition to the labor saving, pasture lambing will quickly show you which ewes are really effective mothers. The lambing jug, constant intervention by a shepherd, and creep feeding can often mask deficiencies in mothering and low milk production by ewes. In pasture lambing, those deficiencies show up quickly and you can cull those ewes to increase the productivity of the operation.
The biggest disadvantage of pasture lambing is predators; newborn lambs are prime prey for coyotes and other predators. In many locales, grass growth cannot support growing lambs and their mothers until late April, which means breeding is delayed until December. Many breeds of sheep see a drop in ovulation and conception late in the breeding cycle after the peak birth rates of March and April; the drop off in lambing rates may be a high price to pay for the convenience and ease of pasture lambing. Recent research has explored the trade-offs involved in pasture lambing on larger scales.
You probably want to check on newborn lambs to make sure they're nursing, and perhaps to dip their navels in iodine. For poor mothers, who will end up candidates for the cull list, you may need to erect a temporary lambing pen for the ewe and lamb(s), or bring the ewe and lambs into a shelter for the first few days. Other ewes who have not yet lambed may try to `adopt' the new lambs, and fighting marauders off can exhaust a ewe who has just delivered. With first-time mothers especially, a temporary shelter or pen gives you a chance to watch for nursing problems, scours or other neonatal concerns, and keeps the lambs nearby for injections, tail docking, castration, and ear tagging. Ewes and their lambs develop territorial instincts, so it is not a good idea to move them at an early age, especially if your flock has high lambing rates. If you are lambing on pasture in the late spring, you probably want to deworm the lambs at six weeks, even if you are lambing on relatively clean paddocks. Fecal egg counts are the best indicator of the need for wormers. Some shepherds have reported success with diatomaceous earth in the diet instead of using antithelmics for worms, but there is little evidence in the literature of controlled trials which show that DE is efficacious as a wormer.
Sheep aren't wild animals anymore. The sheep we raise have been bred
to produce multiple-births and big, fast-growing lambs. Usually, they
can give birth without help, and do a marvelous job of taking care of
their lambs. When the lambs are too big, or if there are more lambs
than the mother's milk can support, we help out. In return, we get
the pleasure of watching the miracle of birth and one of the strongest
and loveliest bonds in nature.
Who wrote this FAQ?
The author is Ronald Florence, PhD, a novelist and historian who raised Cotswold sheep in Stonington, Connecticut. Additional information was provided by
This document is copyright 1994-2002 by Ronald Florence. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or link this page to your WWW page, as long as this copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not copy this FAQ or any portion of it to a WWW page, or print it in any publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without the express written permission of the author; this restriction includes but is not limited to print, digital media, and electronic transmission.
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