A successful lambing season is brought about by good preparation. Preparing for lambing actually starts at breeding time but for most of us that “window” is long gone. For us, the lambs are not far away.
This morning, -38 C, my daughter announced the 40 ewes we had decided to breed for winter lambing have all started growing udders. For those responsible for lamb checks this is really great news. A tight lambing season is greatly desired. The lambs are uniform, we aren’t deprived of sleep for any longer than necessary and we will have a lamb crop to sell to finance summer haying expenses. On the other hand it was a sobering reminder that we are simply not ready and those little guys are not going to wait.
Six weeks prior to lambing is a fantastic time to reassess the ration for the ewe flock. A ewe’s nutrient requirements change throughout her production cycle. They increase during her last six weeks of pregnancy and are highest during the first six to eight weeks of lactation. Ewes carrying triplets have higher nutritional requirements than ewes carrying twins, and ewes carrying twins have higher nutritional requirements than ewes carrying singles. The more lambs a ewe is nursing, the higher her nutritional requirements. Thin ewes don’t feed their lambs well and fat ewes have more problems with pregnancy toxemia and lambing.
Four weeks prior to lambing we like to administer 8-way vaccine and vitamins to the ewe flock. The vet counselled that four weeks was optimum timing to ensure the colostrum would have the highest amounts of antibodies and vitamins from these shots. This is also a perfect time to squeeze the ewes along the short ribs and assess their body condition score, providing an opportunity to again adjust the ration if needed.
Our flock has experienced selenium deficiency symptoms in the past, which we have been addressing. Instead of injecting the ewes with selenium before lambing because in rare occasions it had caused abortion, we have been using vitamin E. The best source of vitamin E, which is needed for selenium absorption, is whole grain. The problem in most rations is that the second the grain is milled the vitamin E starts to diminish. Our nutritionist doesn’t recommend relying on grain to supply sufficient levels unless it is fed very shortly after grinding. To compensate, we feed a mineral mix that has added A, D and E, and we started administering E in the form of E-AD injectable four weeks prior to lambing.
However, now the E-AD injectable we have used for five years that virtually eliminated our selenium issues, is totally unavailable and our personal inventory has been depleted. According to Vetoquinol they cannot find a manufacturer of vitamin E to their standards so we’ve had to work with our vet and come up with a different plan. When the lambs are born we are going to administer a selenium supplement according to package directions. The ewes will be injected at this time along with being wormed.
This is also the time to make sure the infrastructure needed for lambing is ready. In warmer weather we let the ewes drop their lambs then move them to a jug. For winter we are making the jugs a bit larger, approximately six feet by seven feet, to allow the ewe and lamb(s) room and time to bond as a family. The rule of thumb for lambing jugs is one per seven to 10 ewes. Our experience has shown we need closer to 50 per cent of the flock number in jugs so my husband and son are busy expanding our lambing area inside.
A call from a shepherd last night in search of colostrum was another reminder to make sure our supplies were at hand.
The following is a list of what we like to have handy before lambing starts.
1. Dental tape: This is for tying off the umbilical cords if they continue to bleed after they have broken at birth. I like tape instead of dental floss because you can tie it really tight without it cutting through again and leaving the cord too short. There are commercial clips available from supply catalogues, and in a pinch even a clothespin will work, but I find the tape fits nicely in the pocket and is cheap.
2. Strong iodine: Our vet insists all umbilical cords being doused in strong iodine. We have found that an old teat dip applicator works well.
3. Latex gloves: Always a good idea to get some OB gloves while you’re at the vet’s picking up the other supplies. We have found the smaller exam gloves available at drug stores, Princess Auto and grocery stores for very reasonable prices.
4. Rags: I always keep a large supply of rags to help dry lambs off if it is cold.
5. Blow dryer: We bought three blow dryers for about $10 at a thrift shop a couple of years ago and they come in very handy for drying lambs when it is particularly frosty. We have found it is less stressful to the ewe and lamb to run an extension cord the length of the barn, through the rafters, and dry the lamb with her than try and remove the lamb to a different spot to dry it. I make sure the ewe smells the blow dryer before I turn it on and before we use it on the lamb. They take the noise quite calmly. All our pairs stay in the barn till they have mothered up.
6 Colostrum: We make sure to have a few bags of colostrum ice cubes in the freezer. One ice cube is about one ounce and they defrost very quickly. A 60 cc syringe holds two ounces of colostrum.
7. Electrolytes: This is something that we only need at midnight when the vet is closed so it is always good to have a few extra bags around.
8. Flashlights and new activity: We start walking through our ewes in the dark with flashlights about two weeks before lambing starts so they get used to this activity. Also, more than one or a group of us start walking through the flock so they don’t automatically think we are up to something. And, we touch them as much as possible so we can move one out without getting them excited.
9. Barn cam: For those of you using a camera to monitor activity in the barn, now would be a good time to make sure it still works.
10. Lamb coats: We are going to try using old baby-sleepers this year if we have a newborn lamb that needs a jacket. I will leave it open underneath for a boy lamb but could close a few snaps for a girl.
11. Castrating rings and dehorning paste
12. KY jelly: For assisting births.
13. Pocket-size calving record book: These can be found, usually for free, at many feed supply stores and can be customized to fit your information record needs. We have columns for date of birth, dam, sire, tag #, sex, and difficulty of birth. Even though they are made for cattle they work just as well for sheep. We always do all processing at tagging (injections, ringing tails, applying castrating rings) so if they have a tag we know they’re done.
14. Ear tags: Buy early as these always get short in supply.
15. Make sure the phone numbers of your best neighbour and vet are on speed dial. I have had to send a child into the house to call for advice and relaying phone numbers just wastes time.
16. Alarm clock with battery backup so you don’t miss any checks at -40 C due to power outage.
17. Heat lamps: I mention these here because we DO NOT advocate using them in a barn. A dry baby with a belly full of colostrum should be able to function without them and these lamps are extremely dangerous as a fire hazard.
According to our calendar our lambs should start being born mid-February which would be right on time for warmish Manitoba winter weather. It will be nice to be able to watch little lambs frolic in the straw while I do dishes. As long as we’re prepared all should be well. †