Labor reduction makes lambing easier
During lambing, the priority for sheep producers is to successfully deliver a thriving lamb crop.
Philip Berg and Mike Caskey of the Pipestone Lamb and Wool Program in Minnesota discussed a number of ways that producers can reduce labor during lambing to increase success during a recent American Sheep Industry Association webinar.
“When we start to use lambing pens, we would not like to spend time feeding, watering and bedding lambing pens,” said Caskey. “Rather, we should spend our time making sure our lambs are nursing, bonding with the ewes, healthy and off to a good start.”
Because lambing occurs during the cold months of January and February for many producers, Berg said that a warm environment is important.
“We don’t want the lambs to chill,” he explained, “so we use warm housing that is above freezing temperature, which is more favorable to lamb health.”
A well-insulated barn aids in retaining heat, requiring minimal heating aside from the heat produced by shorn ewes, Berg said.
“The biggest problem we have is ventilation,” he continued. “Closing a building to maintain heat is a huge mistake.”
Additionally, it is important to have plenty of space for ewes and lambs to move.
“We estimate that ewes need 12 to 16 square feet of building space,” Berg said. “Ewes and their lambs tend to require 20 to 25 square feet of space.”
Berg further noted that he recommends utilizing more space, rather than less, when possible.
“If we reduce space, we will run into more health-related issues and more lamb injuries,” Berg said. “Also, we use 1.5 to two square feet of creep space per lamb.”
Flow of lambs
Berg also noted that the flow of sheep through a lambing system is very important.
“As we move sheep through the system, it is important to focus on the shortest distance from the drop area to the lambing bins,” said Berg. “We want to keep the distance as short as possible to make the flow as easy as possible.”
Berg encouraged producers to evaluate their system to attempt to achieve that goal.
At the same time, Berg recommended that producers should locate artificially reared lambs in a high traffic area.
“We need artificially-reared lambs in an area where we can quickly and easily access them,” he said. “Once we have started them and they have figured out how to nurse, we can move them, but initially we want them in a high traffic area.”
Depending on the facilities available, Caskey encouraged sheep producers to best utilize their barn space by analyzing the flow of lambs further.
“Each person has their own building and situation,” said Caskey.
For example, arranging lambing pens along the outside walls with drop pens and grouping pens in the middle is the best way to utilize a narrow barn.
“In our cold climate, it may not be ideal to have lambing pens along the outside wall,” he said. “It is more space efficient to have the lambing pens along the outside walls, though.”
In the center of the barn, it is also important to divide drop pens using gates through the middle to separate ewes further.
“In all of our lambing barns, we only put 25 ewes in a pen, so it reduces the odds of more than one or two ewes lambing at night and mis-mothering,” Caskey said. “No matter where our ewes are at, it is a short distance to the lambing jugs.”
In a larger barn, lambing pens down the center of a barn is feasible, with drop pens on the outside of the barn.
The most important thing, emphasized Caskey, is a short distance between the drop pens and lambing jugs.
“Producers spend valuable time feeding, watering and bedding,” said Berg. “We can reduce labor in accomplishing these tasks to allow producers more time to tend to lambs.”
To reduce the amount of time required to water lambs and ewes, Berg suggested utilizing water tubes.
“Watering tubes are a practice that almost all of our producers have in place,” he said, noting that the tubes are easy to fill, can provide water to multiple lambing jugs and are easier to clean.
“Water is our most essential nutrient, and we want to provide clean water,” Berg explained. “These water tubes help us to reduce labor.”
The water tubes are lengths of six-inch pipe with holes cut into the top.
“For the water openings on top, we learned very quickly that we should cut a fairly narrow opening in the top, so we retain the volume of the tube,” he said.
The tubes are suspended above the ground, so ewes can drink without filling them with straw and manure.
“We suspend the tubes 24 to 27 inches in height, which varies based on the size of the sheep,” he said. “We want them as high as they can be so the ewes can still drink.”
Water tubes, said Berg, can be placed along outside walls to serve one row of pens or in the center of a building, serving two rows of lambing jugs.
Tubes are filled quickly and easily using a hose or a float system.
“Because of the climate here, most of our producers don’t use a float and hydrant because they have to shut off the hydrant so it doesn’t freeze,” said Berg.
Additionally, removing the end caps easily empties water tubes for cleaning.
Producers can save time, said Caskey, by utilizing self-feeders that are easily accessible to ewes.
“There are feeders that can feed long-stem hay and grain, and we can self feed, as well,” he noted.
Some feeder options, he noted are simple.
“Some producers simply use five-gallon pails filled with pellets and grain,” said Caskey. “We can self-feed those, and it will hold enough for four or five days.”
He also noted that ewes should have access as soon as they hit the lambing pens.
Utilizing feeds such as soybean hulls and dried distiller’s grains is also advantageous, so producers have to worry less about acidosis.
At the end of the day, Caskey said, while there are options to reduce labor, each operation is different.
“Each producer has to work with the buildings that they have,” he commented. “Hopefully, the flow of sheep works well, and it is easy to move ewes and lambs. Less labor in a system allows the producer to focus on what is important – saving lambs.”