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Preparation key for maximising lamb survival

February 3, 2021

Lamb mortality is not only one of the most disheartening aspects of lambing time but it also represents a significant loss to farm income every year. Every lamb saved is an extra lamb to sell, which increases your flocks output at the end of the year.

A two year research project, funded by UK levy boards, highlighted that mortality up to 7 days of age ranged from 6% to 12.8% with the mean figure being 9.5%. Hence almost one in ten potential lambs die either at lambing or before they reach one week old.

The study, which examined new born lamb and calf survival in Great Britain also found, that unsurprisingly triplet lambs had by far the greatest mortality with 32% of triplet ewes losing one or more lambs in the first 24 hours compared to 9% of twin ewes.

College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) Beef and Sheep Adviser Gareth Beacom suggests there are several important factors that farmers must place emphasis on in order to maximise lamb survival.

“Ewe body condition has a major impact on not only lamb survival but also lamb performance throughout the year. The target should always be to maintain body condition score in the later stages of pregnancy to ensure a plentiful supply of colostrum and a good lamb size at birth”.

Whilst some loss in condition may be tolerated in the later stages of pregnancy any ewe losing too much condition early on may have to be drafted out and given preferential treatment. A simple way to do this is to move them to a higher scanning group i.e. bare twins to move into the triplets batch. Flocks with high prolificacy may also require an additional batch of quads and bare triplet ewes to enable extra feeding and feeding to be split over two feeds per day.

Getting concentrates high in protein and containing good quality protein is vital in ensuring ewes lamb down with plenty of high quality colostrum.

If you have a concern about nutrition then getting a blood sample from ewes 3 – 4 week’s pre lambing can help assess the ewe’s metabolic status to see if there is an imbalance. This time frame is generally the best time to both spot a problem in the metabolic profile in the ewe and still give you time to address it.

The research project concluded that quality of colostrum was a key component to lamb survival. It is also one of the main factors in preventing neonatal diseases and improving animal welfare.

A lamb will require 50ml per kg live weight of colostrum in the first 2 hours of life and will require this 4 times in total within the first 24 hours.

As well as colostrum the other critical element in minimising disease and infections at lambing time is hygiene.

Lambing pens should always be kept clean and dry, with plentiful bedding at all times. They should also be cleaned out and disinfected as regularly as possible during lambing time. Lime is a quick, effective and cheap way to do this in between ewes.

Two of the most common ailments highlighted by farmers at lambing time are watery mouth and joint ill. Both of which can be prevented by ensuring the lambs get an adequate amount of high quality colostrum at the right time and through ensuring high levels of hygiene in the lambing pens.

An iodine based naval spray is also an essential step in minimising these infections. Best practice is to apply this at least twice several hours apart to ensure that the lambs get treated on time and it is not all licked off by the ewe after the first application.

In the past some farmers would have opted to give an oral antibiotic treatment at birth. Interestingly the research project didn’t notice any significant difference in growth rate or lamb mortality with lambs that received an oral antibiotic at birth versus lambs that did not. This again highlights that hygiene is key and the importance of it cannot be underestimated.

The final and perhaps most important factor in ensuring a successful lambing is the farmer themselves. It is important to get additional labour if required to make sure as much is done as possible before lambing to minimise stress and workload when the busy time approaches. Ensuring enough supplies are readily available and easy to access can also ensure that lambing goes as smooth as possible. A sample checklist for lambing can be seen below.

Lambing checklist
LubeGlucose injection
GlovesFeeding tubes (X2)
Clean ropes/Wire for headFeeding bottles
Syringes and needles (21g for lambs)Iodine/Naval spray
Antibiotics (Long acting)Colostrum
Lamb scour treatment Milk replacer
Anti-inflammatoryHeat Lamp/ Warm box
CalciumRubber rings?
Energy dose Markers
OxytocinTags/marker for culling
Harness/Spoons/Nylon rope and needle