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  • Coopworth Breeding Stock
  • Handspinning Fleeces, Roving and Felting Batts
  • Lambing Basics

    Feeding the Lambs

    Feeding the lambs
    by Arthur Trevor Haddon


    By Martha McGrath

    In this article, I am going to concentrate on management of the ewes in late gestation and at lambing. For a year-round flock management schedule, see VA Tech's Sheep Management Schedule, or my Sheep Links page.

    * LAST TWO MONTHS of gestation- "condition score" ewes, feed well.

    You should have a general idea of when your ewes will lamb. There are
    gestation tables and Lambing date Calculators available online that work pretty well.

    Condition score your ewes every 4-6 weeks during gestation. "Condition scoring" means feeling the backbone, behind the last rib, and in front of the hip bone of the sheep to ascertain the condition (fat/thin) of the sheep. To see how this is done, and a table telling the ideal score for the animal's stage of production, see;
    Body Condition Scoring of Sheep You should be able to feel the spine easily, but the horizontal process of the vertebrae should have some padding and not feel sharp. The ideal condition score in late gestation is 3. Keeping ewes in ideal condition will reduce the incidence of lambing problems including pregnancy toxemia, and the ewes will milk well.
    Check the teeth of any thin ewes- also check thin ewes for parasites, and "thin ewe syndrome" (can be caused by CL, OPP, Johnes's Disease). Separate them and give additional feed. Fat ewes can be pulled out and fed a lower calorie ration in early and mid gestation, but calorie restriction in late gestation will cause pregnancy toxemia in overconditioned ewes, according to Mary Gessart, DMV, Shepherd Magazine, Jan. 2000.

    In a previous newsletter, I told you about our experiences feeding a Reduced Hay Ration. We continue with that in late gestation (the last two months), making sure the ewes get enough energy and protein for their growing lambs and future lactation. The trace minerals are important, too, especially the calcium/phosphorus ratio, and selenium in areas where the soil is low. (see my "milk fever" article for more info.)

    * LAST MONTH- vaccinate, deworm, shear.

    I like to vaccinate with CD&T and deworm the flock about 3 weeks before the first ewes are due to lamb. I use Levamisole (Tramisole) wormer because it is safe in late gestation, and effective on dormant larval stages (hypobiosis). I also like to shear the ewes at this time. I have shorn as late as the actual due dates (once had to put one ewe out of the holding pen while she lambed) without it seeming to affect the ewes, but I would rather not wait that late! Pre-lambing shearing makes things easier on me. I like to be able to see udders and vulvas as the ewes are at the feed trough. It also keeps fleeces cleaner, and allows newborns to find the udder. Some say that shorn ewes will seek shelter with their babies in bad weather, while ewes in full fleece may not. If you can't shear, it is a good idea to crutch, or shear the wool under the tail and close to the udder so that the newborn can find the teats easily. Our Coops are pretty wooly, so I usually have to shear the inside of the hind leg then, too.

    * LAMBING- leave ewe alone if she is making progress.

    I check the ewes about 4 times a day at lambing time; at feeding (morning and about sundown), mid day, and just before bed. Many knowledgeable people recommend that you not bother the ewes in the middle of the night, because this can cause them to go in to labor after you go back to bed! If your full-term ewes are in a barn, you can put a "baby monitor" in the barn, with the reciever by your bed, and check your ewes by listening for sounds of pawing and heavy grunting, without getting up.

    Ewes that are close to lambing will usually have a large milk bag the last week or so, then a swollen, pinkish vulva in the last few days. A clear mucus discharge means she is dilating, and close to lambing. She will probably want to be alone, and will start pawing and getting up and down. Keep an eye on her (binoculars are great!) but don't bother her. If all is well, a balloon-like water bag will soon appear, followed by the lamb's 2 front hooves and nose. Don't worry if she gets up and down, and everything slides back inside her, but if the ewe has been pushing for an hour, doesn't seem to be making progress, there may be a problem. You will have to call your vet, or scrub up and "go in".

    Do you want to pasture lamb or barn lamb?
    We do sort of a combination. I let the ewes lamb on pasture, then pick up the lambs and the ewe USUALLY follows me to the barn, where I put them in a "jug", (a 5 X 5 foot pen).
    Ewes with singles stay for one day, twins for two, trips for 3.
    I like to "strip, clip, and dip" in the jug. I strip the teat to make sure the plug is gone and she has colostrum, clip the umbilical cord to about one inch if it is too long, then dip the cord in iodine.

    I deworm the ewes again at lambing, when I eartag and tail-dock the lambs. (If they have been moved to a jug, I like to tag and dock after the first 24 hours, so that the lambs are not stressed when they should be getting that most important first colostrum. When lambing on pasture, it is easiest to catch the newborn, weigh, tag, dock, and record sex when first found.)

    The ewes do not need grain while in the jug, only hay and fresh water. Woody Lane, who writes a column for Shepherd Magazine, recommends that you feed alfalfa pellets to the ewes in the jugs, as it is easier to manage. He says that it will not cause digestive problems, since it is made from pelleted alfalfa hay.


    I like to bring the ewes and lambs into the barn in the jugs because it is easier for me to spot any problems. I worm the ewes again, and weigh, dock and eartag the lambs while in the jugs. When I check on newborns, I gently nudge them to make them stand. A healthy lamb will stretch when it gets up. While the lambs are in the jug I'll do a quick first evaluation, making sure the mouth is sound and ram lambs have 2 descended testicles. Another problem I look for is entropion, an inward turning of the lower eyelid that causes watering of the eye. I can usually correct this by rolling the eyelid out a few times. Any lambs with these problems are noted in my records and sold for meat. Sometimes a newborn will not pass the meconium (first tarry feces) and become constipated. It will become listless and not eat. If I find a newborn lamb like this, I give it half of an enema which often works wonders in this case. If the lamb is not constipated, then the enema really won’t hurt it. One caution- do not store the enema in a cold barn. Keep it in the house. No need to further stress the lamb with a cold enema! The opposite problem sometimes occurs after the meconium is passed and the lamb is producing the normal yellow feces of a milk fed lamb. This can sometimes glue the tail down, and the lamb will have trouble passing more- this is called "pinning". Check under the tail and use a baby wipe to clean the area. I sometimes spread a little protroleum jelly in this area to keep it from happening again. Keep an eye on these lambs, as it can be the start of e-coli scours. A few squirts of Spectam Scour Hault (for pigs), an oral antibiotic can help nip that in the bud. E-coli scours can quickly kill a lamb! I dock and castrate with rubber bands a few hours before the lambs are due to go out of the jugs, because I've read that the pain of docking too soon after birth can interfere with the lamb drinking that first, important colostrum. The newborn lamb's stomach has a special ability to absorb antibodies from the colostrum, and the newborn fat reserves only last about 12 hours. I no longer castrate most of the ram lambs. This allows me to select the best stud prospects from the lamb crop, and I have read that the Muslim meat market prefers intact rams. This does mean, however, that I have to move the ram lambs with the breeding rams in August to prevent unintentional breeding.

    If all goes well, after a few days the ewe and newborn lambs are put in another pasture with other new moms. While in the jugs and on pasture, walk through a few times a day. Make any sleeping lambs get up- a healthy lamb will stretch, then find mom! A sick or starving lamb will either not get up, or stand hunched up.

    When I have lambed on pasture in May, I carried a diaper bag to the pasture containing a small digital scale (sold for weighing a fish catch) and plastic grocery bags to pop lambs in to hang on the scale, ear tags, docking pliers and bands, and my record book. I took care of tagging and docking there in the field, and then left the moms and babies alone.

    Note; I found an article on a New Zealand website that states;
    "When a ewe is preparing to lamb, she'll try to find a quiet spot for a birth site. She'll paw and sniff the ground, getting up and lying down as labour progresses, and turning round to see what has happened. As her waters burst on this birth site, the smell will anchor her to that spot. So if you don't see all this pre-birth behaviour, you may dive in and shift her, for example to what you think is a better spot. She'll not agree because the smell of her waters has dictated where the lambs must logically be located. So often you try to shift a ewe, even after she has lambed, and all she wants to do is to run back (defying the dog) to get back to the smell of the birth site. Nature has told the ewe that her lambs must be near where her waters burst - and it can be very frustrating if you don't understand this. You can end up stressing the ewe so she'll end up leaving the lamb(s). So, let a ewe lamb where she has chosen, and leave her alone her for at least a couple of days before shifting her to another paddock. Research has shown that ewes with strong maternal instincts will hang around the birth site for at least a couple of days."
    I have read before that ewes bond with the birthing site, but I routinely move ewes and newborns to a jug! Perhaps I have contributed to the few cases of lamb rejection that we have experienced.

    The BASIC RECORDS lamb info that I keep-

    Lamb ID#, Dam ID, Sire ID, a “mothering” score for the dam (“+”= good, “0”= indifferent or slow to mother, “-“ (minus sign) means bad, cull), Date of Birth, Birth Weight, Birth Type (Single, Twin, Trip.), Color, Sex, Conceived (#1 means born in first 21 days after ram turned in, #2- born after first 21 days), Live (livebirth- Y for yes, N for no), Raised (1 for sing., 2 for twin, 3 for trip) Weight 1, Weight 2, Weight 3 (usually 60, 90, and 120 days) and Disposition (meaning sold for meat, sold for breeding, kept in flock). Other good information to record is pounds of lamb weaned and FAMACHA scores.

    I made an Excel Spread Sheet to record this info for each year. I usually do the weights at the same time as worming and vaccinating the lambs, so I note that on the sheet, too.

    I also have an individual sheet for each breeding ewe that contains her pedigree and production info, where I list ID numbers for her lambs born, birth dates and weights, lamb sire ID, and ewe yearly fleece weights. This sheet goes with the animal if it is sold.

    When giving the lambs an ID number, I like to incorporate the year they were born in the first 2 digits, so 9608 was the eighth lamb born in 1996, and 0403, the third lamb born in 2004. I ear tag ewes in the right ear, rams in the left.

    (See LAMBING RECORDS FOR RAISING PERFORMANCE RECORDED SHEEP by Hope Yankey for more on record keeping)

    The majority of lamb deaths occur in the first week, frequently from "SME" complex. That stands for Starvation, Mismothering and Exposure. Other causes can be starvation due to sharp teeth in lambs, or starvation because the newborn has not passed the meconium (first tarry feces) and is constipated. An enema works wonders in this case. Sometimes a ewe will start rejecting a lamb that she has been mothering just fine- if this happens, check the lamb for sharp teeth, which can be filled down with an emory board or metal file. I have had an occasional infected navel or tail dock, also, and these can be life threatening.
    Common causes of death in older lambs are parasites, pneumonia, and predators.
    To prevent losses from parasites, do fecal testing, check lower eyelids for signs of anemia (see FAMACHA scoring) and talk to you vet about effective de-worming programs.
    Keep an eye on the lambs in the hot summer months for signs of pneumonia- sluggish lambs, lambs MAY cough, have a mild nasal discharge, rapid and difficult breathing, temperature over 104°F. They are often thin, weak, and relutant to nurse. Your vet has some new antibiotics that are very effective. When I had a case of pneumonia, my vet told me to give the lambs 1/2 cc of BoSe at birth, and again at 3-4 weeks since we are in a Selenium deficient area. He told me that this helps their immune system. Raising lambs outside in the fresh air, rather than a "tight" barn, may be the best way to prevent pneumonia.

    * LAMB CARE- Vaccinate with CD&T at 4, 6, and 8 weeks, deworm starting at 6 weeks.

    I think that three enterotoxaemia shots are cheap insurance. Have fecal tests done to make sure that your worming program is effective. There are kits that you can buy to do your own fecal tests. Rotational grazing and renting clean pastures can reduce the need for worming. I have little experience with these, though.

    Adapted from Care of Ewes and Lambs at Lambing Time
    By: Helen A. Swartz, Ph.D., Missouri State Sheep, Goat & Small Livestock Specialist

  • 7% Tincture of iodine -for disinfecting lamb navels.
  • Eartags -for lamb identification.
  • Lubricant (K-Y Jelly) -when assistance is needed by the ewe.
  • Elastrator bands -for docking and castrating.
  • Stomach tube and 60mm syringe-for lambs unable to nurse.
  • Balling gun -for boluses, capsules and pills.
  • Bottles and nipples -for orphan lambs.
  • Sulfa -for infections and treating Coccidosis.
  • Antibiotics -for infections.
  • Pepto-Bismol -for diarhea.
  • Mineral Oil or Enemas -for constipation block.
  • Drenching syringe -for deworming.
  • 3cc, 10cc and 25cc syringes and 18 -20 ga. needles -for various treatments.
  • Nylon rope or equivalent -for pulling lambs.
  • Knife -for foot trimming.
  • Shearmaster -for crutching and shearing.
  • Rectal thermometer -for sick animals.
  • Heat lamps, paper towels and rope halters.
  • Scale and Lamb record notebook!
  • Homemade milk replacer recipe:
    1 qt. whole milk, 3 oz evaporated milk, 1T powdered buttermilk. Mix, refrigerate.

    Homemade electrolyte recipe:
    1 quart water, 2 ounces corn syrup (not table sugar), ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda.
    Combine all ingredients, feed electrolytes instead of milk replacer for a day or until the scours have stopped. When re-introducing milk, feed diluted milk at first, and slowly bring it back to full strength.

    See my Sheep Links, Lambing and Lambing Problems, for more info.


    Jim and Martha McGrath
    178 Lough Rd.
    Franklin, WV, 26807
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