Sheep Giving Birth: Tips for Successful Lambing
Sheep and Pregnancy: Seeing Your Ewes (and Lambs) Through Lambing
Reading Time: 15 minutes
By Laurie Ball-Gisch — Over the past 12 lambing seasons, the main thing the sheep giving birth has taught me is that every season will bring a new lesson. I’ll never forget meeting a seasoned shepherd with 50 years of lambing behind him who told me that he still learns something new every year. So as I cherish the “lull before the storm” on a quiet, pre-lambing time evening, I want to share some things I’ve learned to make spring lambing less hectic and some items I keep around to make life easier during what is a very busy time of year.
Every fall, as I evaluate that season’s young ewes, I agonize over trying to decide whether or not to put them with a ram. I’ve learned over the years, time and again, that those “one winter ewes” lambing unassisted their first spring, go on to be my most productive. They’re my stars in the making. Over the years, I’ve found productivity and mothering are heritable traits. I have a ewe that’s 12 years old in 2012 that bore twin rams unassisted when she was just 11 months of age. She’s gone on to have many sets of twins and triplets over the years. Her granddaughter had twins as well at 11 months of age and has never produced less than twins, and she is celebrating her 10th lambing season this spring, after having raised triplet ram lambs this past summer! One of her daughters twinned for me as a one-winter ewe, twinned again and tripleted this past summer.
When things go well, they go great. Conversely, when it goes bad, it can be very, very bad. All seasoned shepherds will have at least one horror story to tell of dealing with a first-time sheep giving birth.
I don’t want to get into a long discourse here on the variety of malpresentations that can occur. I do suggest some reference books and some reading prior to lambing time and your sheep giving birth, especially if you are interested in sheep farming for beginners or are new to lambing: 1) Ron Parker’s The Sheep Book; 2) Storey’s Barn Guide to Sheep, which has great illustrations and is designed to keep right in the barn as a “flip” book; and 3) Laura Lawson’s book Managing Your Ewe and Her Newborn Lamb.
One other note: Do not overfeed your pregnant ewes!
If it seems you are pulling too many lambs and those lambs are oversized, then it’s likely that the ewes are overfed, especially in the last 4-6 weeks of the gestation period for sheep. This will make it hard for on your sheep giving birth, and the lambing process.
There are two techniques I’ve used to pull lambs (when they’re already in the birth canal) that are especially helpful if you don’t have somebody else to help you.
One is to put the sheep giving birth on a bale of hay or straw with her feet dangling over the front and back. This anchors her so she can’t run away, and gives you the force of gravity in trying to extricate the lamb. I used this technique one time when pulling a breech lamb that was very large.
Other times when I have to pull lambs and the sheep giving birth won’t lie down for me easily, I got them into a pen or corner and straddled them, while facing their hindquarters, and then leaned over and pulled the lamb, in a downward motion, of course. This only works if the lamb is at least presenting hooves and a nosegiving you something to pull on.
Another trick (I think Ron Parker suggested this) is to have the sheep giving birth lying on her side and to lift her hind legs into what I call the “diaper position.” By rotating her hips and hind legs upward like that, sometimes it rotates the lamb enough that there gives a bit more space for release from the birth canal.
For the ewe, the worst part is, of course, being delivered of the lamb. But for the shepherd, sometimes the worst part is after her delivery if the new mama refuses to be a mother.
They often act so “unmotherly” because they are just plain exhausted. They may have had a long labor, and because they may be sore or even going into shock. After making sure the lamb is alive and gets its colostrum (see notation later, regarding the product Nursemate ASAP) I make sure the ewe has access to warm molasses water (do not serve cold water to ewes right after they have lambed — Laura Lawson’s advice) and also to good fresh hay, preferably with some alfalfa or clover mixed in.
This is also a good time to give the ewe a boost of energy with some CMPK gel (see notes on products later in the article). Gatorade is another thing to keep in the house for lambing time, as you can administer it orally to a ewe that’s tired out, giving her quick electrolytes. Be sure to have the large 60cc syringes around for times like this, especially if a ewe is refusing to drink on her own.
There are little tricks we can use to help a new mom figure out she’s in it for the long haul: When they cannot fathom this creature that is nudging them and poking at their hindquarters and bleating away, it’s usually because something has interrupted the natural hormones that would normally kick into gear during the entire lambing process. Interruptions can include a difficult and prolonged labor and delivery, the intruding shepherd trying to help save the lamb and her life, and/or the confusion of too many animals milling around (try to get these new moms into small, quiet pen areas where they aren’t jostled by other animals, rams, lambs, dogs). Sometimes the eager excitement of other people who want to watch or assist the sheep giving birth fouls her instincts.
While I have sheep giving birth, I instruct all of my family to stay away from the barn during labor or while the ewe is first bonding with their newborns. (Unless I need another person to help me catch or hold a ewe to pull a lamb.)
Sometimes new moms will keep circling, not letting the lamb latch on either out of curiosity or annoyance. If this happens, you’ll have to hold the ewe’s head while the lamb nurses.
One time, a ewe was not talking to or sniffing or licking her lamb. So while I let the lamb nurse, I turned the ewe’s head back toward the lamb’s rear and made her smell the rear end of the lamb the entire time the lamb was suckling. I kept at this many times over a several-hour period. After a couple of hours, the ewe started to lick the lamb’s rear and this finally helped her to bond to the newborn. The next time I went into the pen, the ewe stomped her feet at me, and the baby lamb was happily “nursing away” without my help.
Sometimes we miss seeing a lamb nurse and we fret and worry that it’s not getting enough to eat. Full lambs will do a leisurely stretch when they stand up and you can also check if their mouth is warm by putting your finger into the mouth of the lamb: “Warm” equals “has been nursing!” You’ll also feel a nice full, rounded belly if it has been nursing well.
Another time when I could not get a ewe to bond with her lamb, I brought one of my Icelandic sheepdogs into the pen with me. As soon as the ewe saw the dog, her instinct of protection kicked in and she put herself between the dog and the lamb, stomping her feet at the dog. Just that nudge into defensiveness caused her to want to protect and then bond with that new lamb.
Even more confusing for sheep giving birth are twins. They need special monitoring to make sure the ewe is letting both lambs nurse, and that she’s producing enough colostrum and milk for two. I now just go ahead and give twins of young ewes an extra boost, using supplemental colostrum, “just in case.”
It’s also important to confirm whether a young ewe has fully accepted both lambs. One season I had a yearling ewe that gave birth to a white ewe lamb and 45 minutes later to a badgerface (tan/brown in coloring) ewe lamb. She got them both out on her own and had them both nursing. About two hours later when I checked on them, she was butting the second-born lamb away and not letting her nurse at all. She had decided her firstborn was her only lamb and no amount of coercion on my part would get her to accept that second lamb. I’m not sure why she decided she would only keep one, after having such a good start.
Mature, experienced ewes like this one are a shepherd’s treasure: Bearing twins at 11 months old, she had 22 lambs in her first nine years!
I treasure my old ewes, especially those born here on the farm. These nine, 10, 11 and 12-year-olds are the ones that are resistant to parasites and common sheep illnesses; they’re the ones that produce lambs unassisted and raise healthy, hardy lambs every season; they’re the ones smart enough not to kill themselves through stupidity. Theirs are the lambs I want to keepand should be the lambs my customers want to buybecause they have a proven history, a true legacy. But as ewes age, their milk production goes down. I found this out the hard way when two of my 11-year-old ewes had twins. There was enough milk for both lambs at the beginning, but by the time they were about three weeks old, the ewes couldn’t keep up with the demand. So I now pen up geriatric moms with their lambs and immediately supplement lambs with a bottle from birth onward.
It’s actually quite fun to be “snuggled in” with an old friend and her new lambs and to be able to cuddle and hold newborns, offering one a bottle while the other nurses from its dam. Then I switch and make sure both lambs can nurse from bottle and teat. The great part about this is that the dam still is making milk and she can give the lambs enough milk to get them through a cold night. I don’t have to be out there every couple of hours, as with orphaned lambs. These lambs grow up knowing how to be sheep, and you can be as hands-on or hands-off as you want to be. Quickly the lambs know you are providing extra calories, so you don’t need to keep them penned up much past a few days. The little ones will come running for their supplemental bottles and then go bouncing back to follow mom.
I house yearling ewes and their lambs along with geriatric ewes and their lambsin a barn/paddock/field area separated from the rest of the flock. This way I can grain supplement moms and newborns for extra calories and protein. This also allows me to move away from bottle supplementation earlier, since the lambs learn to eat the grain alongside their dams. This is also where I keep any ewes with triplets or quads.
Helpful Lambing Goods
Over the years I’ve found that there are some amazing products that are time and life savers when it comes to spring lambing. So every winter I take stock of what I have here and what I need to order.
First item on the agenda is Clostridium perfringens, type D and C tetani (CD/T) vaccinations. We make a point of administering the yearly boosters (2cc) to each sheep on the farm in March (or at least two weeks before the first lambs are expected). This also includes vaccinating any llamas, alpacas or goats.
I keep this on hand now year-round, having found it to be a lifesaver of ewes at risk of pregnancy toxemia or ketosis.It’s also very good for sheep giving birth who have experienced a difficult delivery, especially if she is “shocky.” The CMPK is a dairy cattle product that has concentrated calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.
I give the ewe 20 to 40cc orally and repeat this every few hours depending on her condition. This is much easier on shepherd and ewe than administering propylene glycol. Two years ago I found one of my older ewes (10 years old that year) lying down and not getting up when I approached her; I tried to make her stand and she couldn’t. I suspected pregnancy toxemia and immediately gave her CMPK gel. I also got her some warm molasses water and put her in a pen to keep her quiet and easily accessible. She refused to stand that whole day, so I went out every three to four hours to give her about 30cc of CMPK gel and also 60 to 120cc of warm molasses water, as I couldn’t get her to drink on her own. I also gave her injections of B complex and vitamins A, D and E. I left good alfalfa hay in her stall but she did not show any interest in eating that entire day. The next morning when I went out to check on her, she was not in her stall (I hadn’t closed the gate because she was so weak). I found her at the hay feeder eating along with the other ewes. She went on to have triplets for me two weeks later. She had tripleted the year before and had twins the following year at age 11. She’s still going strong and it wouldn’t surprise me if she had twins this year at age 12. The local Tractor Supply store used to stock CMPK gel, but they don’t anymore. So I now order it from either Jeffers or Valley Vet. [Sheepman Supply also carries this and advertises in sheep!, while Springwater Animal Supply carries a similar product under another name. – Editor]
I have iodine on hand for sterilizing and drying up the umbilical cord. Personally, I don’t “strip” the cord or cut it, as some recommend. Whatever is there I gather up into a small vial of iodine.
This is a tube of concentrated colostrum which can be stored at room temperature. I always keep a tube in my jacket pocket during lambing season. You snip the tip off the tube when a lamb needs extra helpi.e., has been through a protracted birth, is born weak and not able to get up and nurse right away on its own. What’s so great about this product is that you can very easily insert the tip of the tube into the corner of the lamb’s mouth and slowly give the lamb the gel orally, on the back of the tongue. (Always use latex gloves when touching newborn lambs!) I usually stroke the neck of the lamb as well, to make sure it is swallowing. This is much quicker and easier than running into the house to get frozen colostrum thawed and much less invasive than tubing the lamb. It allows the lamb the time it needs to gain its strength on its own without losing more body heat. I give a lamb a half-tube to begin with and finish the tube after about 30-45 minutes if the lamb is still weak and not nursing on its own. I order this from Pipestone (www.pipevet.com).
In the last 550 lambs born on the farm, we’ve never “tubed” a lamb. We have, however, saved some lambs’ lives by using a method outlined in Laura Lawson’s book Managing Your Ewe and her Newborn Lamb, pp. 270-273. (This is not for the squeamish and is best if there are two of youone to do the injection and one to hold the lamb.) The technique is called “Intraperitoneal Injection” and involves injecting dextrose (sugar water) directly into the abdominal cavity of the lamb. It requires reading and understanding the procedure and careful preparation of the solution.
One thing about Lawson’s books is that while they are full of very important information, they are not reader-friendly when you are in crisis mode. So I outline the key points of any technique or instructions for administering treatments on sticky notes in a “1, 2, 3” fashion. It’s just too hard to absorb all of her information when you are in the midst of trying to save an animal’s life.
All of our lambs receive 1/2 cc injections of BoSE (selenium and vitamin E) the day they are born. We also give them a second injection of 1cc at 6 weeks of age when they receive their first of two CD/T vaccinations. You do need to purchase this product from a veterinarian.
Deworm The Ewe
While I let my ewes choose their own spot to give birth to their lambs after the lambs are up and nursing, I move mom and newborns into a pen in the barn. This allows me to observe the new family to make sure lambs are nursing well and to also be sure that the ewe has passed the placenta. This is also when I deworm the ewe. Labor and delivery cause dormant internal parasites to reactivate and it’s better that she drop those parasites in a bed of straw in the barn than out on our pastures. Also, be sure to really watch yearling ewes with lambs at their side for parasites that spring and summer. They are still growing themselves while feeding one or two lambs, so their immune systems may be compromised and they may need to be dewormed more often than older ewes.
Lamb Milk Replacer
Sheep milk or goat milk are healthier for lambs than any formula mixed up in a laboratory. But if you do not have “real” milk (we never use cow’s milk!) for bottle lambs, I think the best milk replacer is the Shepherd’s Choice brand, which I buy from Pipestone Veterinary Supplies. I keep a 25 lb. bag of this on hand “just in case.” The lambs grow out well, and don’t get a distended belly, which I often see on bottle lambs on other farms.
Speaking of bottle feeding lambs, I long ago posted on my website a recipe for dealing with “Frothy Bloat” which can affect bottle lambs. I’ve heard many times over the years, and from as far away as Wales and France, from shepherds who tell me that this information saved a lamb’s life. So I will share it here as well.
Remedy for Frothy Bloat
Mix 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger in two tablespoons of water: Shoot this mixture down the back of the throat, over the tongue of the lamb with a syringe (minus the needle).
To prevent bloat in bottle-fed (using milk replacer) lambs, one veterinarian recommends putting 0.5 ml of penicillin in the milk bottle, especially around the four-weeks-of-age stage, when it seems to occur most. He says to put it in the first bottle of the day only, but does not say how many days to do this.
Canned Goat’s Milk
A couple of years ago my daughter Fiona and I got a few dairy goats. When I was too busy to keep up with my cheese production this past spring, a friend of mine suggested I should “can the milk” to save for bottle lambs (or kids). I saved up enough milk over a couple of days to fill 7-quart jars in order to fill my canning kettle and I canned goat’s milk. I now have a cupboard full of canned milk ready to open and warm in case we have any bottle lambs this next season. It was actually quite easy and quick to can the milk and may save a lot of money over purchasing the milk replacer.
Pritchard Teat Nipples
I like the Pritchard Teat nipples because it’s easy for small lambs to nurse from them. Even better: They screw onto a plastic pop bottle! We’ve found that it needs a bottle with at least three threads in order to be secure without leaking. Not all brands of pop bottles have enough threads, so be sure to check this. As the nipples don’t come with a hole, don’t forget to cut off the tip!
In Laura Lawson’s book Managing Your Ewe, page 120 reads, “Offer warm molasses water to the ewe after delivery of each lamb. Ewes who have difficult deliveries appreciate this quick energy. It helps give an energy boost and replaces some of the energy lost during the birth process. It also seems to help in a quicker expulsion of the placenta. Many only drink it after all lambs have been delivered. To make molasses water, add about 1/4 cup molasses to 2 gallons of warm water.”
Because the water container for ewes with new lambs should be tall enough to prevent lambs from falling in, I use the 5-gallon buckets with handles. I take an empty bucket into the house and put 1/2 cup molasses in the bottom. Then I run very hot water on top of the molasses to dissolve it, and I fill the bucket about 1/2 full of hot water. I take the bucket out to the barn and finish topping it off there. I have “tennis elbow” after so many years of lugging heavy water buckets, so I now carry the less full buckets as far as I can before I fill them up. The cold water from the hydrant then cools down the hot water from the house tap. So with a 5-gallon bucket, I use 1/2 cup of molasses, and about 4 gallons of water, since I don’t fill the bucket completely full.
We keep a box of latex gloves in the barn and always put them on when handling any newborn lamb, or when assisting in any births. We believe it’s very important not to imprint other scents on the lamb while handling it, as not to confuse the new mom. Ewes learn the identity of their own lambs through smell, sight, and sound. We have found it just easier to keep the box of gloves handy in the barn and I also keep several pair stuffed in the pockets of my coat. Be sure to dispose of these gloves after use.
Weigh The Lambs
I long ago invested in a hanging scale and sling for weighing newborn lambs. I keep a notebook handy either in the barn, or my pocket, and always weigh newborn lambs after they are safely on their feet and have had their first mom’s milk.
I don’t like to interfere with that first bonding or first suckling, but after mom and lambs are settled down, I weigh each lamb and record their weight that first day.
Also, if I have triplets, I weigh them again a few days later or within a week of birth to monitor how well they’re doing. It’s more effective to intervene early if a lamb starts to lag behind its siblings than to wait until it’s older before realizing it’s not gaining as well as the others.
We reweigh our lambs at 6 weeks of age and again at 12 weeks. The 6-week weigh-in tells me how well the lambs are gaining on their dam’s milk (you can figure out a daily rate of weight gain with some math calculation) and the 12th week weigh-in tells me how well the lamb is gaining as it is weaning off milk and converting its grazing into nutrition as its rumen develops. It’s not unusual to see the daily rate of gain drop from six to 12 weeks of age as the lamb begins to convert its food through rumination.
Trust Yourself; Learn From Your Sheep
We all make mistakes. The key is to learn from those mistakes and to listen to what the experience with sheep giving birth has taught us. With sheep giving birth, every loss is a lesson that helps us to save a future lamb. Each bad experience we go through, no matter the outcome, makes us better shepherds and makes our flock healthier and stronger.
This lambing season, and every future lambing season on your farm and mine, I wish for us all that we’ll only find healthy ewes and lambs greeting us at each new sunrise.
Originally published in sheep! March/April 2012 and regularly vetted for accuracy.