For many, spring is a welcome sight, but with lighter evenings and warmer weather comes one of the busiest and most stressful periods for UK sheep producers.
But need it be so stressful? With careful planning and preparation, many of the problems arising could be offset, according to independent sheep vet Paul Rogers.
“A successful lambing period is all about preparation and making sure conditions for ewes and lambs are correct. With many sheep now housed, it’s important to ensure attention is paid to ventilation. When you don’t have good ventilation this can lead to a build-up of bacterial and viral infections, which can cost money in terms of poor performance and extra vet costs.”
And there are practical, easy ways of assessing how good ventilation is in sheep housing, according to Gerry Donnelly, Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Northern Ireland. “Typical signs of poor ventilation in sheep housing include lots of condensation, cobwebs and sheep with dirty fleeces. When a sheep house is suffering from these symptoms, remedial action must be taken,” he says.
As part of housing it’s also important to assess the space available. When grouping animals it is important to think in terms of a manageable number in each pen, says Mr Rogers.
“I recommend no more than 50 ewes in a pen, so they can be easily seen on inspection. Batching groups according to lambing dates, condition scores and those lambing for the first time means efforts can be concentrated.”
Mr Donnelly also recommends not overcrowding pens. “In a straw-bedded scenario, larger ewes (90kg) need 1.4sq m of lying space each. On wire mesh or concrete slats this reduces to 1.2sq m a head.”
But, space allowance isn’t only important in the pen, it’s also important at the feed face, says Mr Rogers. “When penning any group it is vital they have adequate access to trough space and that there is enough trough face for all ewes to feed at once.” Figures suggest a large ewe of 90kg needs 0.6m of feed space, with smaller ewes requiring 0.5m a head.
And condition scoring can help farmers keep on top of how efficiently their feeding regime is working. “Condition scores are a good way to monitor how a feeding regime is paying and highlights where direct supplementary feed is needed. By keeping on top of condition, you can stop condition deteriorating further, which could have an effect on lamb birth weight and vigour.”
Making sure vaccines are up to date and given in plenty of time will also help protect ewe and lambs, says Mr Rogers. “Boosters for clostridia and pasteurella given six weeks before lambing will offer good cover and some protection will pass through in the colostrum to the lamb.”
However, while vaccination will cover against some illnesses, a major problem for indoor-housed ewes can be foot rot. Mr Rogers recommends not only allowing enough clean bedding to prevent muck building up, but also running ewes through a footbath. “Running ewes through a footbath either weekly or fortnightly could help control foot rot and it also gets ewes moving.”
And adopting every strategy possible to maximise lamb survival is vital when you consider the costs of increasing ewe output by 0.1 lambs per ewe for a typical lowland flock could increase gross margins by £5 a ewe.
The most important thing needed to ensure lamb survival is colostrum. Mr Rogers suggests every lamb receives about 50ml/kg from their own dam within the first six to eight hours after birth. “But before lambs suckle it’s fundamental the ewe’s teats are clean, as poor hygiene could lead to problems such as watery mouth,” he says.
But there are many other ways bacteria could enter a lamb and cause problems, adds Mr Rogers. “Naval dipping is a critical part of management. A good disinfectant should be a 10% iodine solution in a spirit base as this has a drying effect on contact and helps the naval shrivel, thus decreasing route of infection.” Also when stomach tubing colostrum, Mr Rogers stresses the importance of disinfecting tubes between each lamb.
But another major route to infection for the ewe is when individuals assist during lambing. “Although only 3-5% of ewes require intervention during lambing, this should only be applied when a ewe is struggling after 30 minutes. In such cases, hands must be sterile, gloves worn and lubricant used. There is major potential for infection and zoonotic implications,” warns Mr Rogers.
However, although the preparation list for indoor lambing may seem endless, many principles also apply to those lambing outside, with some additional requirements. “Good observation, knowing when to intervene, having adequate space so they are not all lambing down in the same place, and providing shelter belts are vital for those lambing outdoors,” says Mr Rogers.
And while it is inevitable problems are going to arise each year, Mr Rogers stresses the importance of keeping records and using them to prevent similar scenarios reoccurring. “Recording when infection occurs, condition scoring individuals and scoring number of lambs born is critical for future management of the flock and to improve farm efficiency.”