We are three weeks into our lambing season and have received many different questions regarding what we do to help the ewes and their lambs during and after birth. While we await our lambs from the final four ewes, let's talk about what it takes to care for the flock with wee ones in it! And a quick word of warning that I have included a video of our ewe Freddie delivering a lamb. I'm warning you just in case that might make one a bit queasy. The lamb lives and is now one of our yearling ewes named Velma! Huzzah!
First things first, lambs will be born when they are ready and that means it could be any time of the day or night. While most of our lambs are born between 4:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., there are always a few born during the night. We will walk through the flock around 10:00 p.m. and at that time we can often tell if all is quiet or if a ewe may be in labor. (It is also a nice time to witness sheep cuddles and feel like being in the barn when you would rather be in your bed does have its perks.) If we suspect a ewe to be in labor we will do a barn check around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. Otherwise, we will return again to walk through the flock and check for ewes in labor or new lambs at 4:30 a.m. Checks throughout the day occur often as water and hay needs are increased and we are at the barn throughout the day.
If new lambs are found and all appears to have gone well, we let the mother continue to dry them off and let the lambs nurse before moving them into a jug (refer to the previous post). If it is cold or poor weather, a lamb appears chilled, or a mother is having difficulty with the birth then we will intervene immediately. If the ewe needs assistance to deliver the lamb, we will examine her to see if a lamb is not positioned correctly for birth (dystocia) or if a hoof is caught on the pelvic wall and is delaying the birth. Adjustments or repositioning will be done, and we will pull the lamb out for her.
Nearly all of the births happen correctly and on their own, but once in awhile a ewe will need help to deliver in order for us to save the lamb. If a newborn lamb has aspirated amniotic fluid during a difficult delivery, we will use a bulb syringe to help clear their airway.
We will also use towels to help dry off lambs if needed. It is important, however, to allow and encourage the ewe to lick the lamb dry as this is a bonding activity for the ewe and the lamb.
Once we have the ewe and her lambs settled in a jug, we provide the ewe with a warm bucket of water with molasses in it. This helps to replenish her energy after labor. They will often drink an entire bucket (two gallons!) in one fell swoop! While she eats hay and a small ration of grain, we begin working with the lambs. We weigh each lamb so we have a base weight. Knowing this birth weight helps us to know if each lamb is gaining weight over the next day or two. If they are not, it can indicate a problem nursing or with the ewe's milk production. Then we check their eye lids for entropion. This is when an eyelid is turned in causing the eyelashes to rub and irritate the eye. If an eyelid is turned in, it can gently and easily be pulled into the correct position. Left unchecked and this can cause an eye infection and over time the need for veterinary assistance to correct the eyelid. Next we spray the umbilical cord with 7% iodine to disinfect it and prevent a bacterial infection. The iodine will also help to dry the cord. Lastly, we will watch for the passing of the ewe's placenta. Should it be retained it will be a health risk for her and will require a veterinary consult. This is a rare occurrence, but one that is more easily addressed the sooner it is noted. The lambs will begin feeding usually within an hour after birth. We keep watch as we do other work so we are certain each lamb has nursed and that their mom has settled into caring for them.
When all of our work is completed with the ewe and her lambs, we make detailed notes in an app on our phone as well as a dry erase board in the barn. These notes include the date of birth, ewe that gave birth, sex of the lamb(s), color information, and birth weight for each lamb. Easy access to this information helps us to know if there might be a problem. If someone needs medication or additional feedings these can be tracked easily on the dry erase board and phone notes. By keeping notes available and current in several forms, anyone helping with chores knows what has been completed and when. It is also an up-to-date resource should we need to consult with a veterinarian.
Throughout the next week we monitor the lambs' weights and make certain the ewe's health and demeanor are steady and strong in light of her new responsibilities. During this week, each new lamb will receive an ear tag to identify them within our flock. These tags will also be required by law for any sheep who will travel across state lines to join new flocks, and for any of the animals we send to butcher. In addition, it is at this time when we band their tails to shorten them. Docking tails on wool sheep helps to protect their overall health as any infection or fly strike issues in that area can be life threatening. We leave a length of tail so they can still wag it to shoo flies and when they are happy to see us bring dinner. Leaving the tail a little long will also keep nerve endings intact to minimize the potential for prolapse issues when they become moms. We also take a series of pictures to document the color patterns of each lamb and so we can use several of these photos to register our lambs as a purebred Romeldale CVM sheep.
In spite of the loads of work which surround lambing season, we purposefully spend time sitting with the ewes and their lambs. Time spent with the flock just to visit helps not only to socialize the lambs to people, but it helps us to know what "normal" is for each sheep. Purposefully observing the flock on a regular basis is our best defense at catching a problem quickly. The minute we look into the flock we will know if something is wrong and we can quickly work to help that animal. Flock time to scratch the ewes faces and watch the lambs run and play is also fuel for the soul when your body has a hard time finding rest!!!