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Winter Lambing Survival Tips

With today’s temperature at -20 low, and newborn lambs in the barn, I thought it might be a good time to talk about lambing in cold weather.

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Life in Wisconsin

I wish I could say I have a huge barn that I can put all the sheep inside with a deep bed of straw during lambing time, but it simply is not so. My lambing barn will hold about 14 lambing jugs and that is jam packed full. Such that to get to the pens on the far side I must climb through some others. It is far from ideal, but it has worked for many years.

sheep in barn

In the Lambing Barn- Still Plenty of Room

red barn with sheep

The Lambing Barn

Early Arrivals

I did not plan to be having lambs born here, in my setup, in January- it was not my choice. There are times that Mother Nature takes these things into her own hands and gives the ram a supernatural ability to fly over fences, plow through them, or at times there is no evidence of just how these things happen. This year happens to be one of those years. I have been moving my planned lambing later and later over the last few years. Now it is end of March, early April. Unfortunately, not every got the memo and now the task at hand is survival of the little woolly, wet, deliveries that arrive unplanned.

Useful Lambing Supplies

lambing tools

A Few Helpful Lambing Items

Some items that I find very useful winter items are:

· Hairdryer

· Old Towels

· Stomach tube

· Colostrum substitute/ milk replacer

· Homemade lamb coats

· Ability to make decisions very little sleep

Time is Important

I have a three and a half sided shed where many of the lambs are born, the other choice seems to be next to the round bale feeder outside. It is my job to patrol these areas every three hours or so. In this weather a lamb has less than an hour from birth to death without some help. Normally very easy births that would require no assistance in warmer, balmy 32-degree weather are at risk without help.

newborn lamb with mom

Newborn Lamb and Mom

The lamb has very little fat reserve and once they are born if they do not get a meal quickly, they do not have the energy to even get up to try. If the lamb is small or when there are twins that keep the mother more occupied, it becomes even more crucial to be present. With a three-hour window even the first-time mom that gives very little sign of labor starting, can deliver the lambs and it still gives me time to arrive to help before the lamb is too chilled.

First Steps

In the ideal situation, I arrive just after the lamb is born and the mother is cleaning it off. The first thing I do is to move mother and lamb(s) into the lambing shed. I always have an empty pen ready with deep straw.

Once they are in the pen, I grab a towel and dry the ears, it doesn’t take much for them to freeze. If they freeze, they may swell with fluid and some part of the ear may be lost later. If they are frozen do not rub them, I will hold them between my warm hands to try to thaw them. You can also put them in warm, not hot water if they are in the house. I occasionally have had some lose the end of their ear, but it doesn’t happen too often.

After the ears are dried, I help mom with the rest of the lamb. Rub vigorously over the damp wool to dry it. This also gets the lamb interested in getting up to nurse.

I dip their navel in iodine and check their eyelids quick too while I am drying them. I look to make sure the eyelid is not rolled in so that the lashes are against the eyeball. If it is, usually just a quick stretch will pull it out and they generally are fine. Sometimes this can take a couple times before they stay where they are supposed to. If they refuse to stay out it may need medical attention so it doesn’t blind the lamb and would be considered a genetic defect.

Tube Feeding

stomach tube for lamb

Lamb Stomach Tubes and Syringe

All this activity takes less than a couple minutes and it is on to the important first meal. I strip the teats on mom to make sure there is a flow of milk. If the lamb is ready to nurse and seems vigorous, I will point it in the right direction and be sure that it finds the teat. More often in this cold weather I prefer to tube feed them their first meal. That way I know they have enough, and it will give them the energy to figure out the whole nursing thing.

For the milk, if mom has a good supply and is reasonably cooperative, I milk a couple ounces from her to feed the lamb. If it is a new mom that is a bit nutsy or if mom is hard to milk, then I use commercial colostrum for the first feeding. In an emergency I have even used just milk replacer, it is just 2 ounces and it will soon have colostrum from mom.

I usually put the milk into a bottle and put it in my inside coat pocket to keep it warm while I put the stomach tube into the lamb’s stomach and attach the syringe. Then pour 2-3 ounces of the warm milk into the syringe and wait for it to run into the lamb’s stomach. Do not force it. In some cases, mom’s milk is so thick I have added warm water to it, or it will not run through the tube.

Inserting the Stomach Tube

This can be very scary the first couple times.   I remember a professor that was giving a talk saying that if you have the tube all the way in, it is in the stomach not the lungs. Check the length of the tube held up to the lamb, see where it falls when stretched to the full length. I like a tube that is a little stiffer. I keep it in my inside coat pocket, so it stays soft in the cold before I need it. Hold the lamb across your lap. Insert the tube into the lambs mouth along the side and gently push it back into its throat and continue to push the full length of the tube in. If there is resistance try again. It should slide in fairly easily. Once it is all the way inserted some other things to consider, is the lamb crying- then it is not in its lungs- proceed. If you blow into the end of the tube can you feel it gurgle in the stomach- it is not in its lungs-proceed. If you cannot get the entire tube in then you need to start over.  I have never got milk in a lamb’s lungs using a stomach tube. I have, however, had a lamb drinking from a bottle suck milk into its lungs, so sometimes for a weak lamb it is the better option. Place the syringe on the end of the tube. Hold onto the lamb so it cannot jerk away, and pull out the tube when you begin to pour the milk. Allow it to slowly drain into the lambs stomach, do NOT use the plunger on the syringe to force it. Once the syringe is empty bend the end of the tube so that air cannot enter the tube while you pull it out. This will prevent any remaining milk in the tube from running out as it passes the lungs on the way out. Even if you don’t know how to use it, it is a good tool to have, in a situation where there are no other options it is worth a try. This is often when we learn new skills, when we must.

Lamb Coats

If the lamb is a smaller lamb, a twin, or seems slow to get going I will put a lamb coat on them. In my house old sweat shirts and sweaters, even big wool socks do not get discarded, they find a new life as lamb coats.

lamb coat

Sweat Shirt Sleeve Lamb Coat in 5 Minutes

Making the Lamb Coat

1.       Cut the sleeve off the shirt at just above elbow length. The cuff of the shirt becomes the head/neck hole for the lamb. (For extra large lambs you may need to remove the ribbed cuff, so it is not too tight.)

2. About 3” back from the cuff cut a hole on the underside of the coat to put the lamb’s front legs through.

3. Measure back another 1-2” and cut the remaining bottom of the coat out, tapering it around to the top. This will allow the navel area to be uncovered, but the strip of material will hold it round their belly.

sweatshirt lamb coat

Completed Lamb Coat- Ready for Service

Now the lamb is dry, fed, and wearing a coat and ready to spend some time with mom.

lamb with coat

Lamb with Lamb Coat, Ready for the Outdoor Weather

Don’t Forget Mom

There are a few things mom needs now, some water- warm if you can with a little molasses is really a treat. I like hanging buckets with snap clips (snap clips better than baling twine and duct tape on my farm) this way the lamb can’t get into it and mom doesn’t immediately dump it over. In -20 weather I refill water 3 times a day.  She would also like a nice flake of hay to munch on. I wait until day 2 to give any grain. You don’t want too much milk right away, the lambs are not ready for high production yet.

It is a good time to leave them alone for a couple hours. I used to think I had to witness the lamb nurse. I found that some lambs were so frustrating and no matter what I could not manage to coax them to the teat. Now I tube feed them and walk away for a while. It is an unusual situation when I return, and they have not figured it out on their own. I don’t wear the lamb out trying to force it and my frustration level remains low.

Chilled Lamb

What if you didn’t find the lamb right away and it is hypothermic? In this case time is very critical. If the lamb has any life left, then there may be a chance to save it.  I take the lamb into the house. I have a homemade hot pack that is just made from cotton cloth with rice inside it sewn into a pillow. It can be microwaved for a couple minutes to heat it up. I put the hot pack in a zip-lock bag, wrapped in a towel next to the lamb, then wrap all that in a couple more towels. Now the lamb is placed in front of the wood stove. If the lamb is chilled but still moving around this will usually be enough to warm it up and then tube feed it before returning it to mother.

lamb by wood stove

Lamb Happily Soaking up Some Heat

A hair dryer blowing into the tented towel can also be helpful to add extra heat.

If the lamb is unresponsive then I take it in and fill a bucket with warm water and put the lamb into the bucket holding its head above the edge. This takes a little time, and water may need to be continually added to keep it warm. I usually pull a chair up to the laundry sink for this. You could use a kitchen sink, but not everyone wants a slimy newborn lamb in the kitchen sink. Eventually, when you stick your finger into the lambs mouth you will find that it is beginning to warm. At this point the lamb can be moved to the hot pack near the fire and tube fed. Usually once they warm up, they will start to look for mom and with milk in their tummy can regulate their temperature.

One possible downside to the water method is that it can wash the odor off the lamb and the mother might reject it. Then at least you have a live bottle lamb vs a frozen dead lamb.

About Bottle Feeding

When I have a bottle lamb there are some precautions that I like to take. Be careful to mix the ,milk replacer at the same temperature and quantity. It can also improve gut health to add a teaspoon of yogurt to the milk. In nature lambs do not drink a full bottle a few times a day, they get a few sips here and there. It is not natural to fill their bellies. For the first few days they should be fed small amounts every few hours.

How Much to Feed?

Lamb Weight x 16oz= weight of lamb in ounces   lamb weight in ounces x 20% = number of ounces per day

Divide number of ounces per day by the number of feedings to get amount per feeding.

Example 8-pound lamb x 16 = 128 ounces 128x.2= 25.6 ounces per day

Number of feedings:

Days 1 every 2 hours

Day 2-7 every 4 hours

Day 8-16 every 6 hours

Day 17-30 every 8 hours

Day 30-weaning every 12 hours

A week or two before weaning they should be eating other food well, I cut down to 1x day feeding to start to wean them off bottle.  

I often hear people that lose bottle lambs say that it must not have had colostrum, but more often I believe it was clostridium that killed them. If they usually happily eat their bottle and suddenly want nothing to do with it there is cause for alarm. They probably have an upset gut.  I have started giving a dose of Clostridium Perfringens C & D ANTITOXIN to any bottle lamb as preventative. This is different from the C/D & T toxoid that is used to vaccinate the lambs later. The antitoxin is a preventative before they have immunity from the toxoid vaccination. You can add it to the bottle or give it as an injection. I am sure it has saved several of my bottle lambs. If the lamb does not take a bottle, then I usually dilute the replacer with more water to make it easier to digest and work the amount back up as they tolerate it. A tablespoon of Pepto Bismol in the bottle can also help calm an upset stomach.

I think it is always best for the lamb to remain with mom if possible. They learn to be a lamb from mom. Even in the cases of no milk, little milk, or triplets I prefer to leave the lambs with mom and supplement feed them. Mom may get a little frustrated when the lambs all come running to you, but she still provides a good role model to teach them how to be a sheep. In the case of triplets, I will usually supplement them so they still nurse from mom, but she may not have enough to feed the whole group. In this case I try to choose girls to provide the extra feedings to. Once the boys have been bottle reared, they must be wethered or they pose a danger to the shepherd later in life.

I hope some of these tips help you with your lambs. If you have tips to share I would love to hear them! In the mean time it is time for my 3 hour check…

sheep in snow

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