Reducing sheep mortality in the first eight days of life, Part 1


Lamb and kidding seasons are upon us, and producers should do everything possible to reduce losses during the neonatal period (first eight days of life) as that is when 84 percent of all lamb deaths occur, says David Fernandez, Cooperative Extension Program livestock specialist at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

The causes of many lamb and kid deaths in the neonatal period are easy to prevent, Fernandez said. A Wisconsin study reported that 44 percent of lambs lost at birth were stillborn. This usually results from an infection, such as toxoplasmosis, chalmydiosis or leptospirosis, which is often caused by poor hygiene.

Make sure the paddock where females are housed is clean and free of excessive manure build-up, Fernandez said. If you have a large number of stillborns, check with your veterinarian. Be sure your flock or herd is properly vaccinated 30 days before lambing or kidding begins.

Another reason for a high number of stillborns might be pregnancy toxemia, also called ketosis, which is most common in overconditioned ewes and does. But, ketosis can also be a problem in thin ones, too, so do not overfeed or underfeed. Remember that newborns from underfed females tend to have lighter birth weights. Lambs smaller than seven pounds have higher death rates than heavier ones. Ewes and does should have a body condition score of 2.5 to three on a five-point scale or five to six on a nine-point scale, Fernandez said.

Nearly 9 percent of lamb deaths result from a difficult birth, called dystocia. Kids and lambs undergoing difficult birth may not get enough oxygen while they were being born, may have gotten fluid in their lungs or may be exhausted. Exhausted newborns do not have the energy to keep themselves warm or to get up and nurse.

Be ready to assist ewes or does within an hour after the birth process begins and be sure all the equipment you need is clean before lambing or kidding season begins, Fernandez said. Do not breed smaller females to larger framed males. Larger fetuses have more trouble being born than smaller ones. Lambs over 13 pounds tend to have more trouble being born, yet another reason to avoid overfeeding your animals.

The Wisconsin study reported that 5.8 percent of the lambs lost suffocated because the amniotic sac did not break. Being prepared and available can help reduce losses.

Exposure is another major cause of perinatal losses. Nearly as many newborns (8.4 percent) died of exposure as died after a difficult birth. Newborns are wet and don’t have a heavy layer of fat, hair or wool to keep them warm on cold, wet days. Putting does or ewes in a simple shelter that will keep newborns dry can alleviate these losses, especially if wet or extremely cold weather is expected in the next couple of days.

Some causes cannot be avoided. For example, lambs born in large litters had higher death rates; ewes lambing for the first time had higher lamb losses as well.

Tips on managing perinatal losses are: keep paddocks clean, maintain healthy weights, be prepared to assist with birth, provide shelter from extreme weather and keep an eye on higher risk newborns.

“These simple steps could save nearly 7.5 lambs or kids out of every 100 born. And, at $1 per pound per lamb and $2 for kids, you can have an extra $700-$800 next year,’ Fernandez said.

More on body condition scoring, feeding ewes to maximize reproductive success, the basics of goat reproduction and managing the kidding season can be found on the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension website http://uaex.edu/publications/default/aspx. Once there, enter goat reproduction in the search area, or search for FSA9607, “Introduction to Goat Reproduction,” www.uaex.edu/publications/pdf/FSA-9607.pdf