Nearly 20 percent of lambs die before weaning. Eighty percent of those losses occur during the first 10 days. Good baby lamb care can significantly increase the number of lambs raised by ewes in the flock. A realistic goal would be to limit lamb mortality to 4 to 5 percent.
Lambing jugs (pens)
After the ewe has completed delivery, she and her lamb(s) can be moved to a lambing jug (individual pen). Lambing jugs help with bonding and prevent mismothering. Soon after delivery, the ewe’s udder should be checked for milk supply and potential problems, such as mastitis.
You can strip the teats to remove the wax plugs, though lambs can do this for themselves. Lambs should be monitored closely to make sure they nurse. Lambs that have been nursed will have a full stomach upon palpation. Lambs that have not been nursed should be assisted. Small, weak, and mismothered lambs may require assistance.
The size of the lambing jug can be varied by the size of the ewe. 5 x 5 ft. is common. Larger jugs may be required for bigger sheep and multiple births. Smaller jugs increase the probability that a ewe will lay on her lamb(s). Lambing jugs should be clean, dry, and well-bedded. If feasible, jugs should be cleaned between ewes. Having one lambing jug per 7 to 10 ewes in the flock is usually adequate. More may be needed if lambing is closely spaced.
Feed troughs and water buckets should be suspended out of reach of lambs. Heat lamps should be used with extreme caution. They should be used sparingly, hung in the corner of the pen at least 3 feet above the bedding. Lamb coats or jackets are safe alternatives to heat lamps.
Lambing cubicles (4 ft. x 6 ft.) placed around the walls of the lambing area have been used successfully as a place for ewes to lamb. They were originally tried to prevent mismothering. Research also looked at cubicles as a way to reduce labor needs during lambing.
When lambing occurs on pasture, ewes and lambs are not typically jugged unless there is a problem. Sometimes, first-time lambers are placed in jugs; while mature ewes lamb on pasture or range. Less labor is required with pasture lambing, but there is usually a trade-off with higher mortality, due to mismothering, predator, or weather losses.
The navel of a newborn lamb is a possible route for infectious agents. Navel cords more than 2 inches long should be clipped closer to the body. To avoid infections, navel stumps should be disinfected soon after birth. The navel area can be sprayed or dipped with an antiseptic solution such as Gentle Iodine (1% iodine), or Chlorhexidine.
Colostrum is the “first milk” that a ewe produces after lambing. Colostrum contains a high level of several nutrients that are important for lamb health and performance. Colostrum also contains a high level of antibodies against a variety of infectious agents. At birth, the lamb does not have its own antibodies because antibodies in the ewe’s bloodstream do not cross the placenta.
It is critical that lambs receive enough colostrum during their first 18 to 24 hours of life in order to ensure adequate absorption of colostral antibodies. Antibodies are large protein molecules that cross the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream of the lamb only during the first 18 to 24 hours of life. Absorption of these antibodies is most efficient during the first few hours after birth.
It is recommended that lambs receive approximately 10 percent of their body weight in colostrum by 24 hours after birth. This means that a 10 lb. lamb should consume 1 lb. (16 ounces) of colostrum by 24 hours of age. Ideally, they should consume half of this within 4 to 8 hours of birth. A 60 cc syringe holds 2 ounces of colostrum.
All lambs need colostrum. While it is possible for lambs to survive without colostrum in a relatively disease-free environment, the likelihood of disease and death is much higher in lambs that do not receive colostrum. The ideal colostrum source for supplemental feeding of lambs is from healthy ewes in one’s own flock.
Ewes vary in the quantity and quality of colostrum they produce. Young ewes generally produce less colostrum because they also produce less milk. At lambing, ewes can be checked (teats stripped) for the quality and quantity of colostrum.
Older ewes have had greater exposure to infectious agents and usually have a higher concentration of antibodies in their colostrum. Colostrum from dairy cows or goats may be used if ewe’s colostrum is not available. The colostrum from the colored breeds (e.g. Jersey) is more desirable. Only milk from Johne’s-free herds should be used. Because cow and goat milk is lower in fat, more of it needs to be fed.
Producers who are attempting to develop an Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP)-free flock need to be concerned about the source of colostrum since OPP can be transmitted from infected ewes to lambs via the colostrum. Cross transmission between goats (CAE) and sheep (OPP) is also possible.
There are various colostrum products on the market for lambs. A colostrum substitute is one that contains immunoglobulins (IgG). Land O’Lakes markets a colostrum substitute for lambs. Most other products are colostrum supplements. These products are very nutritious but do not contain any antibodies. Regardless, be sure to use a product that has been formulated specifically for lambs.