The importance of allowing ewes and lambs to bond cannot be overstated, writes Eamon Patten, Teagasc Drystock Advisor, Ballinrobe.
At the time of writing, we are in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis and very poor weather conditions for people lambing ewes. I hope that both situations will improve in the near future.
For now, I have included a few pointers when weather conditions are not suitable for lambs going out, i.e. within a day or two of lambing.
Ewes and lambs
Ewes turned out that have not developed a strong bond with their lambs will suffer significantly higher lamb losses, particularly during adverse weather conditions. The aim should be to allow at least 24 hours (48 even better) occupancy in an individual pen before moving the ewe and her lambs to a group pen or sheltered paddock.
Most farmers recognise this fact and will often comment on how well lambs thrive if kept indoors, but this is not practical in the long run. With poor weather, the pinch point is usually the number of pens. A normal situation target is one individual pen for every 8-10 ewes.
During adverse weather, the number of individual lambing pens required should be increased but more importantly, is to have sufficient group pens where 8 ewes and their lambs can be held for a few days before being turned out to grass.
Turning out sheep
Always plan to turn out ewes and lambs in the morning, so that the lambs have time to familiarise with their surroundings before the onset of darkness. Check freshly turned out lambs before nightfall. If ewes and lambs have to go out, then consider the following:
- Turn out ewes with single lambs first;
- Turn out in small groups in fields with shelter. Try to have some type of shelter or windbreak, even temporary by providing artificial shelter areas using small square bales of hay/straw scattered around the field if extreme weather is being forecast;
- Put protective disposable jackets on lambs. These generally only last a few days;
- Only turnout into fields with adequate grass (>5cm) – grass shortage increases the incidence of miss-mothering.
Bedding and hygiene
With very severe weather, there is no choice but to try to keep stock indoors. After lambing, the quantity of bedding and forage required by ewes with lambs at foot increases dramatically in line with the ewes increased intake of food and water.
In an emergency, when using poor buildings not designed for sheep, the availability of some good quality hay can ease labour and may reduce straw bedding requirements.
The biggest problem in keeping stock indoors is the hygiene situation and trying to minimise the increasing disease challenge. The use of adequate bedding is vital. Spreading lime before bedding and using lots of straw will help to reduce disease risks.
It is important to prevent the lambs from getting onto the forage and soiling it. An easy way to achieve this is to use lambing hurdles into which bales of fodder can be dropped. When feeding silage/haylage, remember that it goes off and can be a source of listeria. This can lead to health issues with both ewes and lambs, consequently, it is important to remove stale feed every 3-4 days.
Finally, ironically a big issue is water supply and is often overlooked. As mentioned earlier, a ewe’s intake of dry matter increases significantly with lambs at foot. She could have a requirement of 11 litres a day, that is two and a half gallons! A good clean supply is required and checked daily. A few concrete blocks around troughs or under bowls can allow access and prevent soiling.