Practical tips to maximise survival at calving and lambing time

Tuesday 26 March 2013
Practical tips to maximise survival at calving and lambing time

With calving and lambing time looming (and with some farmers having started already) it seemed like a good time for a reminder of the practical things that can be done at this busy time to maximise young stock survival.

So the Burnley and Pendle Group's last meeting in early March welcomed SAC Consulting’s beef and sheep specialist Rhidian Jones, who covered a lot of information in a short space of time for the 22 farmers in attendance. Below are some of his key points to take away.


Common issues at lambing

Rhidian JonesRhidian started with sheep by asking the group what sort of problems they commonly encounter at lambing time. The state of the weather is one factor which has a massive impact on lamb survival but is beyond anyone’s control, however factors that are within our control include hygiene, body condition/over-fit ewes/nutrition, vaccination, lack of colostrum, abortion, joint ill and antibiotic use.


Avoid effects on future production

Although lamb deaths are inevitable they are a direct cost both in terms of reduced output and also carcass disposal, as well as increased labour/time requirement. Additional costs will be incurred if ewes are poorly and inevitably die.

Weak lambs cost more in terms of time and labour to get them going and turned out and these lambs are less likely to thrive later in life and will have impaired immunity to disease. Lambs suffering with joint ill or swayback early in life will always tend to be a problem and are often kept on the farm much longer to try and get them finished.


Record lamb deaths and reasons why

Although it is a job that no-one likes doing as it really brings it home how many lambs you are losing, it is vital to keep good records of lamb losses to help identify where the main problems are occurring and if there is a specific reason why that can be treated / avoided next year.


Most mortality occurs at this time

A recent HCC (Hybu Cig Cymru) lambing survey showed that 49% of lamb losses occur between lambing and 48 hours after which just shows how crucial good management at this time is for the profitably of your flock.


Nutrition is key

Although Rhidian pointed out that the talk was not only about feeding, he highlighted the fact that ewe nutrition was probably the most important factor influencing lambing success. It is vital that the ewe is fed well in the latter stages of pregnancy as the foetus will put on 75% of the final weight in just the last 6 weeks of pregnancy.

Ewes should be fed according to litter size, body condition and stage of pregnancy as this will have a major effect on lamb birthweight, birthcoat, vigour, colostrum quality and quantity - hence lamb survival. Feed in late pregnancy should be high quality (high energy concentrates and a good source of digestible undegradable protein) as intake is constrained due to reduced rumen size in late pregnancy. Rhidian suggested feeding ewes an extra 200g/day of soya in the last three weeks before lambing.



Many farmers vaccinate against clostridial disease pre-lambing. This should be carried out ideally 4-6 weeks before lambing - any earlier and the concentration of antibodies in colostrum will be too low to transfer immunity to lambs, and any closer to lambing will be stressful for the ewes.



Studies have shown that over 50% of cases of abortion have no diagnosable cause, which is not all that helpful in planning for future years! Rhidian suggested that where possible any aborted foetuses and placenta should be submitted to your local labs for testing to determine the cause and help with planning ahead both for this year and future years.


Lamb hypothermia

Hypothermia can be caused either by rapid heat loss from a wet new-born lamb in cold conditions, or by starvation whereby the lamb does not take in sufficient colostrum to generate heat.

A key piece of kit to help remedy this problem is a good thermometer to measure lamb body temperature. If it is below 37oC then the lamb should be dried, fed using a stomach tube to ensure they get adequate colostrum and then sheltered (possibly in a heat box or other alternative). An intraperitoneal  injection of glucose can be given to revive the lamb and provide a quick boost of energy – one of the members of the group commented that they have used this technique in lambs and it is amazing how quickly a lamb can be brought round. The use of lamb macs to keep new-born lambs warm when they are turned out was also suggested.



Rhidian stressed the importance of adequate colostrum intake as being key to minimising a number of health problems in lambs including joint ill and watery mouth. The colostrum should ideally be from the lamb’s own mother or failing that another vaccinated ewe in the flock. Powdered colostrum is essential to have about at lambing time to feed any underfed or orphan lambs but make sure that it has a high IGG (immunoglobulin concentration). 

IMPORTANT:   If using frozen colostrum thaw it out gently in warm water – do not microwave it as the immunoglobulin proteins will be destroyed.


Turning out ewes and lambs

For those that lamb indoors, turning out ewes and new lambs is essential to make room for others to lamb but it often means that lambs can be turned out in less than ideal conditions.

To maximise the chance of lambs surviving they should at least be dry and suckling well and if possible turn them out early in the day when the weather is more likely to be slightly warmer. If the weather is really cold and windy, groups of ewes and lambs can be put into larger bonding pens to clear out space in the individual lambing pens.

If providing shelter outdoors take care as congregation of a lot of ewes in a small space can lead to smothering of lambs and/or infection build up. Ewes don’t really need shelter and they will provide any shelter that their lambs need.



This is something that can be easily forgotten when lambing is in full swing and everyone is busy, but it really pays dividends in terms of lamb survival as it prevents disease building up as lambing progresses.



Many of the issues experienced at lambing time are also common to suckler cows, namely nutrition both pre and post calving and colostrum intake.

To put a financial value on the cost associated with post-natal calf losses the difference between rearing 86 calves per 100 cows and 93 calves per 100 cows equates to in the region of 98,000 calves nationally with a value to the industry of over £120 million. That’s a lot of potential savings to be made!

Rhidian then talked in more detail about the importance of colostrum:



Other practical advice offered by Rhidian included:

- If cows and calves have to be housed, provide an area for calf refuge where calves can lie in a clean well bedded area away from the cows and feed barrier.

- If your calving pattern is tight make sure you have plenty of calving pens available and clean them out between each cow.

- If you need a calf to foster onto a cow that has lost hers DO NOT buy one in from another herd – this is a major source of infection (scours, pneumonia, BVD, Johnes, IBR etc). If you have any twins use one of these calves or alternatively take a calf from a cow that will be culled and then cull the cow whilst she is in good condition and worth more.

- Keep good records at calving time to provide useful information in the future.


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