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Avoid wee-hour lambing by feeding sheep at noon.

It's been a very long day.

Your back aches from the hay you've loaded, your ears are still ringing from the sound of the shearer, and your body is still numb with February cold. Happy that the day is finally over, you snuggle deeper into the warmth of your bed...

Suddenly, a flashlight beam explodes in your eyes. Groggily you force yourself to a semblance of awareness, to see the shadow of your spouse standing in front of you, dressed in a winter work suit, an expression of concern on his/her face.

"What is it?" you manage to mumble with slight apprehension, glancing at the clock. It's 2 a.m.

"I think that ewe is ready to lamb," a worried voice answers.

Weary and aching once again, you crawl out of the warmth of the comforter, pull on your cold jeans, and trudge through the snow into the barn, where the ewe awaits you with a smug smirk. Resignedly, you curl up below the heat lamp, wrapping an old barn blanket around you, and begin yet another night vigil that will last well into the early hours of sunrise, and will most likely result in nothing more than another lost night of sleep for you...

Yes, those of us who raise sheep have come to dread those early winter days of the lambing season, particularly the early morning hours, when ewes seem to have an uncanny knack of producing their little woolly offspring. But wait! Believe it or not, there is hope! Although it hardly seems possible, there IS a way to alter the natural lambing time of the ewe!

I first became aware of this happy blessing through my well-thumbed copy of Ron Parker's The Sheep Book (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983, pgs 133-134). In essence, what I discovered was that like many other animals (including people), sheep are subjected to a natural biological clock that determines their bodily functions, including eating, sleeping, digestion, and yes--lambing. The question is, how do you alter this clock?

Although a daily solar cycle consists of a 24-hour period, it is rare that any animal's biological clock is on a 24-hour cycle. The cycle usually varies by an hour or more in either direction, and must be reset daily by internal mechanisms using external clues. The main clues that an animal uses in setting its inner clock are naturally the times of sunrise and sunset, but other external clues also serve. According to scientists, farmers, and university researchers, the time of feeding does play a major role in helping an animal to alter their biological clock.

Most sheep are fed in the early morning hours (around 6:00-8:00 a.m.), and end up lambing in the wee hours of morning (around 1:00-4:00 a.m.). However, experiments show that when sheep are fed around noon, a high percentage of their lambing times will run between 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. (A different approach seems to produce a majority of daytime births with cattle: feeding in the early morning and again at night.)

We decided to try this approach last year with six ewes. About six weeks before their due dates, we moved them inside the barn into the "maternity ward". At noon, we fed them their grain mixture (2 parts whole corn, 1 part Omolene 300, 1/2 part soy meal, 1/2 cup bone meal, 1/2 cup brewer's yeast, 1/2 cup dried molasses), removing anything uneaten after a few hours. From noon to about 6 p.m. we supplied them with hay.

Although we only had a handful of ewes to work with, our findings reflected the results of much larger sheep raisers. Our birth times were (in order): 7:00 p.m., 6:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. As you can see, we had none of those early-morning experiences, with three occurring in the morning and three in the afternoon-evening. By the third lambing, I was beginning to feel confident enough that if a ewe hadn't lambed by the time we closed down for the night, I would feel safe that she wouldn't lamb until at least the next morning. This eliminated about two weeks' worth of late-night trips to the barn in freezing weather, or reflections of the above scenario. It was great!

Some additional notes on lambs: at this time of year, many new lambs are lost due to effects of extreme cold. A freezing lamb will not shiver; it is beyond the ability to keep itself warm by shivering. Check the inside of the mouth; if it is cold, the animal is chilled to the bone.

A good idea is to keep a hand-held hair dryer in the barn to warm chilled lambs; it is especially important to warm the ears, especially on the newborns, as they are the first part to suffer frostbite. If a hair dryer does not seem to help, the lamb should be immersed in a tub of warm water (a large canning pot works well). The temperature should be just slightly below normal body temperature, then slowly raised by frequent additions of hot water to bring the temperature to a few degrees above normal.

You must be very careful not to heat the lamb up too quickly; a very rapid warming will cause blood pressure to drastically alter due to the rapid opening of blood vessels, resulting in shock and possibly death.

This procedure works best when done in the house, but the problem with this is that often you wash the scent off the lamb and the ewe will fail to reclaim her. If possible, allow the ewe to watch the proceedings; or, if you have managed to catch any of the birth fluids in a bucket, you can re-soak the lamb in birth fluids before returning her to her mother (make sure you get a large amount of scent under the tail, the first place the ewe will check).

Another problem with lambs in cold winter is that many lambs who do not appear to have any major problems will just simply die overnight. If you notice any lamb that is acting lethargic--not eating as much as the others, not as enthusiastic, looking rather "droopy", or just lacking in general vigor in comparison to the others, do not hesitate to take immediate action! Often, a ewe will reject a weak or runt lamb. The rejection is not always apparent; the ewe may appear to act normally toward the lamb, but she will usually walk away when the lamb tries to nurse. In this case, make sure the lamb gets a first meal of colostrum, even if you have to hold the ewe down or milk her. The special protein-based antibodies in the colostrum can only be absorbed in the first feeding. (Note: If it is impossible to get colostrum, there are recipes for making your own, although it will not have the antibodies that regular colostrum does. If possible, you should take a little from each ewe prior to lambing and store it. Colostrum will freeze for up to two years, but remember to thaw at room temperature. Sudden and intense heat will destroy the antibodies.) Sometimes a shot of injectable B-Complex (available from most vet catalog suppliers) will help.

If you don't see an improvement, don't assume things will take care of themselves. Get the lamb into the house and on a bottle! Many lambs have been saved by simply bringing them into a warm environment and making sure they are eating regularly. If possible, bring the lamb out to its mother for a few hours when weather permits; in some cases, the mother may reaccept the lamb after it has grown stronger. Also, be sure that, if your new bottle lamb was a single lamb, you milk out the mother to prevent mastitis from developing.

Another frequent problem with lambs born in winter is the development of pneumonia. Pneumonia is not a disease; it is a symptom, caused by various organisms that invade the lungs. At the first sign of a raspy breathing or cough, do something! Lambs are weak creatures, and at an early age, their systems are not developed enough to handle massive onslaughts of disease or bacteria. Although there are many different antibiotics that are used to treat pneumonia, we have found Tylan 50 to be the best. We usually start the lamb out with 1/2cc injected subcutaneously. In some cases, by the next day symptoms will have disappeared. If not, we increase the dosage to 1/2cc twice a day. If there is still no improvement, we will use 1cc, although this has only happened once. So far, every case we have had responded to the Tylan.

Remember also, when raising bottle lambs: if you plan on keeping your ram lambs, do not spend too much time with them, tempting as it may be. Keep human contact with ram lambs at an absolute minimum. This is because a ram lamb that is familiar with people will be much more prone to butt and attack a person than a ram who is shy or afraid of people.

Finally, a very good feed to use as a "creep ration" (a separate feed for the lambs) is soybean meal (sometimes sold as "swine feed"). The advantages to soybean are many: it is much cheaper than a pre-mixed creep feed, it has a high protein percentage, it is nicely ground and easy for lambs to eat, and according to studies, lambs prefer its taste to that of other feeds. It is also good to keep on hand to mix with other feeds to bring the protein content up. And, it can be used as an all-around feed. In emergencies, we have fed it to our baby chicks (mixed with corn meal), our dogs, our parakeets, even our tropical fish! (If you like to read labels, you will find that soybean meal is a standard ingredient in almost all animal feeds.)

After all the work, preparation, and exhaustion that accompanies the lambing season, remember: there are few joys that are comparable to holding a newborn baby lamb, still wet from its mother's womb, its little ears poked out inquisitively, its tiny nose searching the air, its little hooves struggling to maintain a wobbly stance as you put it on the ground. And when it cocks its tiny head and looks up at you with deep black eyes full of total trust, you'll know that everything was worth it.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Countryside Publications Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mateski-Hoyne, A.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:1773
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