A ewe and a dead lamb© David Bagnall/REX/Shutterstock

Aly Balsam speaks to some sheep specialists to find out what information should be recorded, how it can be done in a practical way to avoid overloading staff at lambing and what information it can tell you. 

All too often, sheep farmers know how well their sheep have scanned and how many lambs they sell at the end of the season, but do they know what has happened in-between?

According to advisers and vets, this period is all too often a “black hole” of information, with producers unaware of when losses occur and why.

Data from the Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) lambing project show that 49% of lamb losses occur within 0-48 hours of birth, with 10% happen 15-days post lambing.

However, it’s impossible to know what’s happening on individual farms without recording.

See also: How melatonin implants can boost lambing crop

Independent vet, Louise Silk believes lamb losses is one of the main key performance indicators to monitor at lambing time.

She says: “It is definitely an area that can be improved on. I appreciate there are barriers to recording as it’s a busy time at lambing, but the cost benefits and gains to be had from recording and monitoring are massive. And once procedures are in place, it can be straight forward to record.”

By understanding exactly how many losses have occurred and ideally when, this allows management to be tweaked and improved for future seasons.

When no recording has been done in the past, loss targets could be set in discussion with a vet, using AHDB Beef & Lamb figures (see ‘Benchmarks for lamb losses’, below or StockTake figure). Once data has been gathered, farms can then set their own, realistic, specific targets.

Consultant, Lesley Stubbings stresses the importance of only recording if information is going to be used. Decisions can then be made accordingly.

“If you’re good already, how do you protect that? Do you start vaccinating against abortion? It’s about future-proofing and making it robust,” she says.

What to record

Mrs Silk recommends recording how many animals are:

  • Born alive
  • Born dead,
  • Die within 24-48 hours
  • Die after 48 hours

If a higher than acceptable level of lambs are born dead, the farm team can then work with their vet to establish why. Is it infectious disease, for example, or are ewes in poor condition?

If more lambs are dying after birth, then colostrum management and hygiene may need attention.

Undertaking on-farm post-mortem examinations can also provide more detailed information on lamb loss reasons (see ‘Should you carry out lamb post-mortem examinations?’).

Ms Stubbings says knowing your scanning percentage is essential when recording lamb losses as this allows farmers to understand how many lambs they are expecting and thus how many they have lost. AHDB Beef & Lamb set a target of 14% lamb losses between scanning and sale.

As a minimum, Ms Stubbings advises recording how many live lambs are turned out with ewes. Figures can then be linked back to scanning percentage. However, to understand where lambs are being lost, more detail is needed on numbers born alive and dead.

Options for recording losses

Ms Stubbings believes a practical way to do so, is to have “wet and dry bins” for dead lambs. “Wet and dry is quite good as it gives an idea of if the lamb was viable and died or weren’t viable,” she explains.

A dry lamb will have been licked clean and will typically be more than 12 hours old, while a wet lamb will have been born dead. The team can then go through the bins at the end of the day and keep a tally of numbers in each bin.

Mrs Silk believes the best general recording method for lamb losses is whatever works for an individual farm.

She adds: “Some use EID and a handheld device, others count the number of dead lambs at the end of the day and note on a board, others record in a notebook. It doesn’t matter how you record, as long as you do it.”

Benchmarks for lamb losses (AHDB Beef & Lamb) 

 

Lowland

Upland

Hill

Scanning to birth

6%

5%

3%

Birth to turn-out

6%

6%

7%

Turn-out to weaning/sale

2%

3%

3%

Birth to sale

8%

9%

10%

Scanning to sale

14%

14%

14%

Case study

JH Lord and Sons, Eastfield Farm, Hough-on-the-Hill, Grantham, Lincolnshire

Recording lamb losses on Excel spreadsheets pinned up in the lambing sheds is now routine for the team at Eastfield Farm, Grantham.

The team began making a note of lamb losses about four years ago, following a meeting with Lesley Stubbings. At the time, the farm was losing an acceptable level of lambs, in-line with UK targets, but wanted to better understand why losses were occurring.

Shepherdess Kerry Sykes-Marsden recalls: “We sat down at a meeting and talked about scanning results and lambs to market and realised we needed to understand where lambs were being lost in the system.”

The North Country Mule flock begins lambing on 16 February. Ewes are split across three sheds, with one of the team taking responsibility for each shed during the day.

The person in each shed takes responsibility for recording lamb losses in their shed and notes down:

  • Date (to establish any patterns in losses linked to stage of lambing period)
  • Whether the lamb was a single, twin or triplet
  • Born dead
  • Died within 24 hours
  • Died 24 hours to hardening (hardening is when ewes and lambs are moved after 24-48 hours into pens of eight to 10 and then pens of 24)
  • Losses from hardening to turnout
  • Reason why (for example, were they still born, laid on, unattended or didn’t have enough colostrum)

The farm secretary then records the information on a computer to enable data to be analysed by Mrs Sykes-Marsden, Dr Stubbings and the vet.

To date, the data has not highlighted any specific time when lambs are being lost, with losses occurring “little and often” at all stages.

Mrs Sykes-Marsden recognises that at the same time as recording, the farm team also started feeding triplets artificial colostrum or extra ewe colostrum as standard within two hours of birth. This could have potentially reduced losses at this time.

However, she believes continual monitoring of lamb losses is vital to ensure losses remain on target and that levels of abortion remain under control.

“I think a lot of farmers don’t want to look at it, as recording lamb losses hurts. But when you record losses you can look into why those losses are occurring at certain times and therefore save money in the long run,” she says.

Mrs Sykes-Marsden believes recording in such a way is just a matter of getting into a routine. She explains: “It’s just the case of getting in the habit. It’s just like driving a car.”

Should you carry out lamb post-mortem examinations?

Carrying out on-farm lamb post-mortems (PM) could provide farmers with an extra level of detail to help better understand why lamb losses are occurring.

Vet Emily Gascoigne of Synergy Farm Health runs farmer PM training sessions and believes the data they provide is hugely valuable.

“Post-mortems are a tool to improve surveillance. Lots of data is lost when dead lambs just go in a dead lamb bin. The reason for any PM is, what can we learn on-farm to positively impact management of future lambs born?” she says.

“For example, if you’re getting lots of empty lambs, why are they not getting enough milk? if you’re getting a lot of dystocia or lambing difficulties, that’s a different discussion. It’s about prompting discussion with your vet.”

Miss Gascoigne says on-farm PMs are likely to be more relevant to larger flocks of more than 150 ewes, as higher numbers will mean farmers gain more experience and get better at doing them. On smaller flocks, getting the vet to do them may be more appropriate. She advises carrying out PMs on 10% of lambs that are lost.

There are online resources to learn about how to PM on farm, however she emphasises there is a  risk of misinterpretation or missing something when farmers are not trained correctly and advises seeking advice from a vet.

Example post-mortem findings

Independent vet and consultant Kate Hovers, runs through some possible PM findings:

  • Stomach if it’s empty, it could be a sign the lamb hasn’t sucked – was the lamb weak or did the ewe have poor colostrum?
  • Lungs if they sink when you put them in water, it could suggest the lamb was born dead and didn’t breathe
  • Feet if the feet still have slippers on, the lamb didn’t walk and may have been born dead
  • Guts look for signs of scouring

More information 

A post-mortem form (PDF) can help you to make assessments. It is available in the BRP section of the AHDB Beef & Lamb website at beefandlamb.ahdb.org.uk You can also view a post-mortem example and lamb losses record sheet in the Reducing lamb losses for better returns manual (PDF)