Lambing 4 - Helping the Newborn Lamb
Part 4 of a series of 5 articles:
The majority of lambs are born without any assistance, and within minutes of hitting the straw are up on their wobbly legs instinctively seeking the ewe’s teat! Some are a little slower and this can depend on breed, as well as how easily they have entered the world - while others just don’t seem to get going under their own steam!
Ideally, within an hour of birth, carry out a quick examination of the lamb:
- Are there any swellings on the lamb’s body, head or limbs – especially around the umbilical cord, which may indicate a hernia?
- Tenderness – especially on the ribcage and legs, may indicate fractures.
- Check the lamb’s rear end – very occasionally the anus is covered by a thin membrane, which will prevent it passing faeces.
- Make sure that the lamb is able to stand; any incoordination may be a symptom of underlying disease.
- Check the lamb’s lower jaw – if it is severely over or undershot, the lamb will have difficulty suckling and may need to be fed by stomach tube. In severe cases the lamb may not thrive.
- Examine the lamb’s eyes for a condition called ‘entropion’ where the eyelid is turned in, causing the lashes to rub the eye, which can ulcerate.
All of these conditions are potential welfare problems, but most can be simply treated by the experienced shepherd, or the vet.
Hypothermia is the greatest cause of death of newborn lambs, so if you see a young lamb curled up in the corner of the pen – don’t just assume it’s sleeping off a feed. Is its abdomen full or empty? Will it raise its head or stand? A lamb is born with a reserve of brown fat and carbohydrates that will maintain it for a few hours, but if it doesn’t receive sufficient colostrum (ewe’s first milk, rich in nutrients and antibodies), it won’t be able to maintain its body temperature and will be in danger of starvation and hypothermia. If the lamb doesn’t stand and suck successfully within 2 hours of birth, you should check its temperature – especially a small lamb that will lose heat at a faster rate. An electronic thermometer is easy to use and read, but make sure you have a spare battery handy! Use a little Vaseline on the probe, and then gently insert it into the lamb’s rectum.
The age of the lamb and its temperature will guide your course of action. Don’t attempt to bottle-feed a cold or weak lamb, as there is a danger of it inhaling liquid into its lungs, which will drown the lamb.
- If the rectal temperature is between 37.5-39°C, milk between 120 - 240ml colostrum from the ewe, (depending on the size of the lamb) and feed by stomach tube – repeat every 2-4 hours until the lamb is up and sucking from the ewe.
- If the temperature is below 37°C, and the lamb is LESS THAN 5 hours old, actively warm the lamb to 37°C before feeding by stomach tube.
It’s vitally important not to heat a limp lamb that is over 5 hours old, as its low blood glucose level would cause a hypoglycaemic fit and the lamb would die.
- If the lamb’s temperature is below 37°C, and it’s MORE than 5 hours old but able hold its head up – give colostrum by stomach tube, then warm to 37°C or more before further feeding
- If the temperature is below 37°C, the lamb is MORE than 5 hours old but unable to hold its head up – give an intraperitoneal injection of 20% glucose solution; then warm the lamb to 37°C before feeding by stomach tube. You should receive veterinary instruction before giving an intraperitoneal injection, as both the injection site and angle are critically important.
A 5kg lamb will need a litre or more of colostrum during its first 15hours of life – not only will this give the lamb considerable protection from disease, but also the high energy intake will enable the lamb to maintain its temperature. After this time, colostrum production ceases and the ewe produces milk. Therefore, if you have ewes with single lambs, it’s a good idea to harvest some colostrum for future emergencies: milk about 100 – 150ml colostrum from each ewe, put it into a sterile plastic container and freeze – then it can be gently reheated for use. NEVER boil or microwave colostrum, as this will destroy the antibodies and protein.
Lambs that have not received adequate colostrum, or not had their navels correctly dressed, or where hygiene in the lambing shed is neglected, are more susceptible to bacterial infections during their first few days and weeks of life.
- Watery Mouth leads to a form of toxic shock caused by the decomposition of large numbers of bacteria in the lamb’s gut. The lamb will stop feeding, drool saliva, and have a bloated appearance caused by an accumulation of gas in its abdomen. The gut will make a ‘rattling’ sound if the lamb is gently shaken, giving rise to the common name Rattle Belly. Act quickly and treat affected lambs with broad-spectrum antibiotic as advised by your vet. Feed 200ml glucose/electrolyte solution by stomach tube every 6 hours, but don’t give milk. If you have an outbreak of watery mouth, ask your vet about using an oral antibiotic as a precautionary measure for all newborn lambs.
- Joint Ill results in swelling and pain in one or more joints. Similar bacterial infections cause Navel Ill, Liver Abscess and Spinal Abscess. All these conditions are potentially fatal. Treatment is intensive and prolonged antibiotic therapy. Prevention is always better than cure.
- Trace elements are vital to lamb health and vigour, and deficiencies can cause ill-thrift or even birth abnormalities in lambs, and metabolic disease in ewes. Thankfully, these are becoming rarer with today’s increasing emphasis on ewe nutrition during pregnancy.
- The Clostridial diseases are a group of diseases that the lamb of a vaccinated ewe is protected against during the first 8 to 10 weeks of its life. Vaccinating the lamb at around 6 weeks, with a further jab 4-6 weeks later boosts this passive immunity.
- Protection against Pasturella bacteria, which cause both pneumonia and septicaemia, is also provided by vaccination, which is usually combined with the vaccine for the Clostridial diseases.
- Diarrhoea in lambs is always a cause for concern – especially if tinged with blood. There are a number of causes of diarrhoea, but by the time investigations have been carried out, it’s often too late. One of the specific causes of scouring in young lambs is Coccidiosis, caused by a protozoan parasite, which destroys the gut lining. Lambs between 3-8 weeks of age are at greatest threat, especially if intensively raised indoors, or where young lambs are turned out on pasture that has carried older lambs, as it’s often the younger lambs in a group that will show symptoms. At the first signs of infection drench with a coccidiostat; badly affected lambs may need additional fluid therapy. It’s usual to treat all lambs in the group, as even those with no apparent symptoms may still pass high levels of faecal oocysts (eggs) and infect other lambs. Once a lamb has had the disease, or has been drenched with a coccidiostat, it will have lifelong immunity to further infection, but can still excrete eggs.
- Orf is a viral disease (so won’t respond to antibiotics) that causes blisters and scabs around the mouth, nose and occasionally on the lower limbs of lambs – and through their suckling, can also infect ewe’s teats. Although it usually clears up in 4-6 weeks, it can become so painful that the lamb won’t feed. Secondary infections can occur where the skin is broken, and in these cases an antibiotic spray can help. Always wear rubber gloves when handling an animal you suspect might be suffering from orf as it can be passed to humans. The virus can survive and overwinter in buildings, so thorough cleaning and disinfection of sheep housing can prevent future infection.
There’s a sad little postscript to this section, and that’s concerning the disposal of dead lambs. Remember, you have to use a recognised collector, as on-farm burial is not allowed. Be sure to dispose of all soiled bedding, and thoroughly disinfect all contaminated areas.
And finally – a few words about lamb poo: within the first few hours of its life, the lamb passes sticky, black faeces, called meconium. Occasionally, the lamb will get blocked (especially if it hasn’t had sufficient colostrum, which has a laxative effect) – and you’ll see the lamb straining without result. In this case, you may need to give it an enema, using a length of tubing and syringe to gently flush the rectum with warm water. Once meconium is passed, the lamb’s poo will be bright orange – this is nothing to worry about! By the age of about 10 days, it will start passing miniature sheep droppings.
More information on caring for your flock during the breeding season can be found on “The Breeding Flock” DVD.
Next month in 'Lambing 5':
This article first appeared in Smallholder Magazine, June 2012 - written by Carole Youngs of The Smallholder Series.