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Special announcement – our first ever baby lambs were born on the farm this past weekend, and we couldn’t have been more excited. I think my husband and I were more nervous than the ewe who delivered – that’s normal, right?
Part of our anxiety (much of our anxiety, actually) stemmed from the fact that we know absolutely nothing about lambing. Sure, we read a little bit from articles online, and even consulted a book here or there. But there really aren’t any great comprehensive sources of information about lambing that we could find, at least not any that I was able to uncover.
So in case you are reading this in anticipation of your first lambing on your farm, know this: it’s not as stressful or scary as it might seem! While there’s definitely some information you’ll want to know ahead of time, the process is natural and requires very little human intervention.
Here are answers to the questions to which you’ve always wanted to know the answers – but were too afraid to ask!
Tupping is the nice name that’s given to conception. In most flocks, like ours, this is carried out in the fall. When you put your ram in with the ewes, he will breed them without needing any other encouragement or intervention by you.
We never once saw our ram, Thor, breed our ewes – we never even saw him sniffing curiously around them! Yet several months later, they all showed obvious signs of pregnancy. We were absolutely perplexed by this until we had a conversation with an experienced dairy farmer who mentioned that it is not uncommon to never see a bull breed a cow, either.
Why? More experienced, fertile males will get the job done the first time, so to speak, while inexperienced or infertile males will hop on repeatedly until they have a higher success rate.
Ewes have gestation periods of around 5 months. There is some variation in this, of course, so it’s important to take note of the exact date that you put the rams in with the ewes. This will give you a rough window with which to work.
It can be really tough to determine whether an ewe is pregnant, particularly if she is carrying around a heavy coat of wool. This is why shearing is recommended a couple of months before lambing. It will help you determine whether your sheep is showing signs of pregnancy. In some sheep, you might not know until a few weeks before she is ready to lamb.
However, ewes who are pregnant will not come into heat again. While you can influence the fertility of your sheep by preventing diseases, providing clean and adequate supplies of food and water, and protecting them from stressful situations, you ultimately can’t do much to control the fertility of your flock otherwise.
An ewe who has returned to heat will have a swollen, reddened vulva, and will stand to be mounted by the ram. Ewes can come into their first heat or six or seven months of age, and will return to a heat cycle every three weeks or so.
A pregnant ewe will have a slightly enlarged vulva by about six weeks into her pregnancy. By twelve weeks into her pregnancy, she will have an enlarged abdomen and she will begin to walk more slowly. As you get closer to her due date, she will begin to “bag out” in preparation for nursing, and her belly will become more pronounced.
A few days before birth, the udder of your ewe will begin to swell and turn red, as will the vulva. You might notice a hollow on either side of the tail, and there will be some discharge. On the day she is ready to give birth, she will begin to make a lot of vocalizations, bleating often and becoming very restless.
In the case of our first ewe to lamb, Joanna, we didn’t realize she was going to lamb until about an hour before she birthed the lambs. We noticed that she kept returning to the same spot in her yard and was pawing at the ground repeatedly. She kept squatting to urinate, and was incredibly restless. Once these signs appeared, it was only a few minutes before her water sac appeared and then ruptured. Then it was go time!
Truthfully, there’s not much that you need to do to make sure your sheep are ready to lamb. Make sure you provide a nutritious, balanced diet to your pregnant ewes. Feed supplementary hay to provide food during wet or cold spells, and make sure they aren’t being overfed.
Otherwise, the only other thing you need to do is to ensure you have a clean, quiet place prepared for your ewe to lamb. Other maintenance, such as shearing or hoof trimming, should be carried out well in advance of the late stages of pregnancy to avoid any unnecessary stress. Beyond that, there’s not much you will need to do. She will do the rest!
Ok. So let’s have some real talk here.
No matter where you look online when you look for the answer to this question, you’ll find alternating responses. Many people advise against moving the ewe, particularly after she has dropped her water sac. This is because she will “bond” to the scent of the fluid, and will want to remain in the same place. If you move her, there’s a chance that she will try to return to that spot repeatedly, causing her undue stress while she is trying to deliver her lambs.
However, our first ewe went into labor about two weeks earlier than we had expected. It was cold and drizzly, and getting into the evening hours. Leaving her outside would not have been safe, so we realized that we needed to take the chance and get her inside. We decided that we wouldn’t force it and would instead let her come in on her own. We offered her some grain and easily coaxed her into the stall.
Had she resisted, we probably would have given in and let her lamb outside – but this would have been much more nerve-wracking. Ideally, you should keep an eye on the signs of early labor and get your ewe into her birthing stall as soon as possible, but if you can’t, use your judgment on whether or not you should move her.
Normal presentation is a lamb that is coming out head and forelegs first. If your lambs are presented normally, they can usually be born without any intervention. If the lamb is particularly large or is turned the wrong way, you may need to intervene.
When an ewe has given birth, you will see her begin to clean her lamb and begin to feed it. Try to cut the cord shortly after birth and clean it with iodine. You may also need to remove the wax plug in the ewe’s teat.
Otherwise, stay as far away from the process as possible. Nature will take its course, and often, your presence can stress your ewes more than it can help them.
The timeline involved in delivering lambs can vary quite a bit between ewes. Those in labor should be left undisturbed, but once water bags are passed, delivery will take anywhere between 45 to 60 minutes. If you have multiples, the second or third lamb will be delivered within thirty minutes. If you do not have lambs delivered after this time period, and she has not yet passed the placenta, this can indicate difficulties in lambing and you may need to assist.
If you have a breech lamb, meaning it’s turned in the wrong direction and the ewe cannot deliver it on her own, you’ll need to get gravity on your side. There are a couple of techniques involved in this.
You can have the birthing ewe lay on a bale of hay with her feet dangling over the front. This will anchor her and prevent her from moving too much, and you can use gravity to pull the lamb. You can also get the ewe in a corner and straddle them, then lean over and pull the lamb in a downward motion. This only works if the lamb is already partially exposed.
When a lamb is born breech, you may need to insert a piece of straw gently into the nostril of your lamb to stimulate breathing. Those that are delivered hind-first will need to be shaken upside down to allow fluid to drain from the lungs.
There are so many factors that go into premature lamb death, and one of the biggest ones is overfeeding. Many people mistakenly think that by feeding their ewes tons and tons of hay or other feed, they will be doing them a favor. The opposite is actually true. Overfed ewes will have a hard time giving birth, and you’ll find yourself having to pull massive lambs. This can be stressful for everyone involved.
Other causes of death in lambs include dystocia (difficult birth), starvation, a coating of amnion over the nose, and organ rupture. Disease is also possible, but not likely in healthy flocks. Difficult births are the most common cause of lamb deaths, however, and are usually exacerbated when an ewe is carrying twins or triplets.
Not really. Well, to a certain extent. You can influence the time of year your ewes begin to lamb by, of course, not allowing the ram to live with the ewes until you are ready for them to be bred.
Some studies have also shown that you can influence the time of day an ewe chooses to give birth by establishing a certain time of day for feeding your ewes. By feeding your ewes at the same time every day (such as mid-morning), you can encourage them to lamb during the day. You must also provide little nighttime stimuli, like noise or bright lights, which will help to regulate the flock’s circadian rhythm.
Pregnancy toxemia is when a pregnant ewe exhibits signs of distress during pregnancy. This is very common, and may cause your ewe to lag behind your other sheep. She might limp or grind her teeth, and she will urinate frequently.
This usually affects ewes that are either extremely over- or underweight, or in ewes who are carrying multiple lambs. It indicates a dietary deficiency. If you notice it, consult a veterinarian immediately to rectify the situation.
Well-fed ewes will have more colostrum and more milk to produce stronger lambs. They are less likely to suffer from sickness and will be more likely to feed their lambs adequate.
However, lambs demand a lot from their mothers, and milk fever is a common result. This can cause an ewe to stop eating and to develop cold ears and stiff limbs. She might fall down or even bloat. You may have to administer medical treatment in order to relieve some of the gas in her gut.
Most of the time, an ewe will step right in and assume her motherly duties after the babies are born. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, particularly with first time mothers. Avoid intervening whenever possible, but if you notice some of these telltale signs, you may need to step in.
For example, if your ewe and lambs are on opposite sides of the pen, or if your lambs are crying and the ewe is not responding, you may have a problem on your hands. Similarly, if an ewe kicks at a lamb any time it tries to nurse or refuses to allow all her lambs to nurse, she might be rejecting her young. Worst-case scenario is if an ewe is headbutting a lamb in attempts to kill it.
Usually, you’ll know something is wrong as soon as you see one of these signs. Act immediately. You can bond the sheep together or graft your lamb to another ewe. To bond your ewe and lamb together, you need to make sure the lamb has time to ingest her mother’s milk, which will help her smell more like her mother and become more familiar. Creating a bonding pen can help to create an isolated area where lambs and ewes can securely get to know each other.
If you cannot get the ewe to bond to her lamb (usually this will happen over two days), you can choose to rear the baby in an alternative fashion. You can use lamb milk replacer to feed the lamb or encourage the lamb to feed with another ewe through a process known as grafting. Ideally, you should always encourage bonding over grafting, blut this can work in a pinch.
Unfortunately, sometimes ewes reject their lambs. This can be caused by a number of factors.
First, ewes are attracted to the smell of amniotic fluid for a few hours after they give birth. This encourages them to nuzzle, sniff, and lick their babies repeatedly, which helps her become familiar with the odor of the lamb. This is why you should wait as long as possible to dry your lambs or to cut their umbilical cords. Let Mom do her job, and stay away for a while.
If you have to intervene at all during the birth, such as to help pull a breech lamb, your ewe may be confused about her new lambs. Any intervention on your behalf can disrupt the natural hormones that should kick in during lambing. If this is the case, try to get the ewe and her lambs into a quiet, secluded location where they can spend some time alone together.
Ewes sometimes act unmotherly after birthing because they are exhausted. This is particularly common in new mothers, but it’s important that you encourage your ewe to interact with her lambs because they will need to nurse shortly after being born. As with other mammals, the lambs need access to their mother’s colostrum, which has the antibodies and nutrients they need to be healthy.
To encourage your ewe to care for her young, make sure she has plenty of fresh water and hay to eat after lambing. She might just need a snack!
Most of the time, lambs will latch right on to their mothers’ teats and start feeding shortly after birth. The occasions in which this doesn’t happen are few and far between, but can appear in a number of ways.
For example, sometimes new mothers will repeatedly circle, not allowing their lambs to latch on. This is often an act of annoyance or simple curiosity, and is more common in first-time mothers. You may have to hold the ewe to allow the lamb to nurse.
You can also gently guide your wet lamb toward the ewe. Try to nudge the lamb’s bottom near the udder, and encourage it by placing a teat in its mouth. If the tail of your lamb begins to wag, it’s feeding.
We were quite anxious our first few days after lambing, convinced that the lambs aren’t getting enough to eat. We rarely saw them feeding, and although the ewe wasn’t exhibiting any negligent behaviors, we were concerned that they had not yet latched on.
However, there are several ways you can tell your lambs are nursing. First, are they urinating? They should also be active and healthy looking, content upon observation. When they get up, they will stretch, and when they nurse, they will wag their tails. You can also check that a lamb’s mouth is warm by putting your finger into its mouth. Warm usually means that it is well-fed and has been nursing successfully.
Make sure you also take the time to remove the wax plugs that obstruct the teats! While some species, like Icelandics, are strong enough to pull this out on their own, it doesn’t hurt to intervene and make sure it’s out of the way. It can often appear as though a lamb is suckling, yet it won’t be receiving any milk at all if the wax plug is still in the way.
This was a question we had because when our first set of lambs were born, lows at night were still down in the teens and twenties. We have a barn, but it is not heated. Although it is not drafty, it definitely can get chilly at night.
The answer to this question will depend largely on the specific breed of sheep you are raising. We raise Icelandics, which are some of the hardiest breeds you can raise. Although they had been recently sheared before lambing, they were still rugged enough to tough it out at night outside.
Prior to lambing, we have always given our sheep the option of going inside the barn at night. Most of the time, they don’t. We found that they only went inside on their own when it was sub-zero and blowing snow. Sheep can easily lamb on pasture and many people do this in the winter. Ideally, you should have temperatures that are relatively warm -think 50 or 60 degrees during the day and no colder than low 40s at night.
What’s more important than air temperature is soil temperature. If it’s early spring and the ground is still frozen, this will affect a lamb even if the air temperature is toasty. Make sure you account for those deep freezes that keep the ground much colder than the air. You also need to take into consideration precipitation. Any kind of rain or snow (as well as a gusty wind) will drop your lambs’ core body temperatures to dangerous levels.
An easy way to tell if a lamb is hypothermic is to watch its behavior. If it’s lying in a hunched posture, has hollowed out sides, or is crying for its mother repeatedly, it may be hypothermic. Dehydration and lethargy are also related to hypothermia.
The only surefire way to tell if a lamb is hypothermic, however, is to take its rectal temperature with a thermometer. In addition, any lamb who is unresponsive or laying flat on its sign is definitely in trouble and requires immediate intervention.
Don’t freak out if you notice that your lambs are sleeping a lot in the first few days. In the beginning, they will sleep for about twelve to sixteen hours every day.
Truthfully, there’s not much you need to have in order to ensure successful lambing – Mother Nature will take care of most of it for you! Icelandic sheep in particular are easy to keep and even easier to lamb. A few essential items are rubber gloves, castration bands and a castrating tool, iodine, surgical scissors, and vaccinations.
Whenever you handle your lambs, you should be wearing gloves to reduce their exposure to disease. Iodine and surgical scissors will be used to cut the umbilical cord of the lambs shortly after birth. It’s important that you sterilize the area, as this is a common source of infection in newborn lambs.
While there are many vacations you can choose to administer to your lambs, there is really only one that is universally recommended by veterinarians, and that’s CDT. CDT helps prevent a range of bacteria-related illnesses (like tetanus) and should be administered within the first few weeks after birth, with a booster given a few weeks later. You can also choose to vaccinate for diseases like rabies. These can be carried out on the farm by you or by a veterinarian.
There are other products that you might choose to purchase, too, such as CMPK gel and concentrated colostrum. These aren’t mandatory and while they can help make the lambing process easier (or be a lifesaver in a pinch), you can probably get by without them.
There are several ways of castrating young males, but one of the most common is to use rubber bands (they are made specifically for this purpose – don’t use the ones in your home office) with an expander.
This expander will stretch the ring to allow it to slide over the scrotum. Ti will squeeze the arteries shut and the scrotum will drop off in seven to fourteen days. It causes minimal distress and should be done with the first week of the lamb’s life.
I’ve read varying information on this, but I always recommend keeping rams separate from ewes and lambs. Rams often believe that an ewe who has just given birth is automatically ready to be bred again. This can lead to serious injury and problems in bonding between the ewes and lambs.
The ultimate answer to this question depends largely on the personality of your ram. Although your ram is relatively docile and good-natured, we had to isolate him from the ewes and lambs during lambing because he was overly curious and kept interfering with the ewe who was trying to give birth. This caused lots of unnecessary stress and as a result, we had to isolate him from the rest of the group into his own pen. Again, use your best judgment in determining whether to keep your sheep apart.
The most important thing to remember about lambing is that each flock is completely different, and each shepherd will be different in how he chooses to deal with the birthing process. Consider your breed of sheep, as well as their ages and individual dispositions, when you are making decisions during lambing, and always go with your guy when you’re in doubt about what to do.
What other tips for lambing do you have? Be sure to let me know in the comments, and subscribe to our email list for all the latest updates and discounts. Be sure to follow us on Instagram (@jrpiercefamilyfarm) and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm) for regular posts, too! And thanks for reading.