Ladies in Waiting - The Best Care for Your Pregnant Ewes
I’ve always been fond of easy to remember dates, especially when it comes to key times in the shepherd’s year, in this case, tupping and lambing: the ram goes in with a bang on Fireworks night (5th November) and the lambs are born on April Fool’s Day (1st April). What could be simpler? So the critical period between these two dates are what this article will focus on, the care of the in-lamb ewe through winter.
A little extra TLC during these critical 147 days will help ensure that the ewes sail through their pregnancy without any problems and deliver their lambs with the minimum of intervention by the shepherd.
Whether you have 3 or 300 ewes, they all need careful management – and this is the period when the shepherd must be aware of each individual ewe’s needs, as well as managing the flock’s increased health requirements through the winter months. Even the smaller flock keeper, or those keeping pet sheep that don’t produce lambs, will need to spend a little bit more time making sure they are all properly fed and protected from the worst of the winter weather.
Shelter From The Elements
The shortening daylight hours in autumn have quite a profound effect on our sheep; not only is this their natural season for breeding, but it also stimulates the growth of their winter fleece. This dense growth of wool will keep the sheep warm and dry in all but the harshest of winters, but they will still appreciate the provision of some shelter: good thick hedges or stone walls will act as wind-breaks, and sheep will always congregate under trees – both for shade in summer and for shelter from rain and snow in winter. Sheep undoubtedly find extreme weather stressful, so if your fields lack these natural features you might think about providing a simple field shelter to give them a dry lying area and enable them to escape the worst of the weather.
FACT: A sheep’s winter wool grows through its summer coat and, at the same time, the old summer coat will start to weaken. If the sheep is under stress, due to poor diet or extreme weather, the fleece will sometimes ‘felt’, also called ‘cotting’. This is why sheepskins sent for tanning must always be processed before winter sets in.
Body Condition Score
Getting the ewes in good condition prior to tupping is important to stimulate ovulation, so that she will sail through her pregnancy and produce a pair of healthy lambs for you. The key to this is learning to condition score your sheep on a regular basis, so that you can adjust their nutrition accordingly, depending on how fat or thin they are. It will take a ewe approximately 6 weeks to add one BCS, so the sooner you start to monitor their condition the better they will fare.
This is one of the most valuable techniques to learn, as it will enable you to quickly assess the fitness of each individual sheep so that you can adjust their feed (energy) intake and ensure that breeding ewes are in the best possible condition for each stage of their pregnancy. It’s also useful to monitor non-breeding sheep during the winter, as it can be tricky trying to judge by eye alone their degree of fatness or thinness beneath a thick winter fleece!
To assess the BCS, restrain the sheep, and place your hand firmly on the lumbar area of the spine – this is the area immediately behind the sheep’s ribs. Sheep are scored on a range of 1-5, with 1 being near-starvation and 5 being very fat. Ideally, when the ewes are mated, they should be at BCS3.5 – this means you can clearly feel the spine and bony transverse processes to either side with a medium pressure, and if you place your fingers on the base of the sheep’s tail you’ll feel each individual vertebra with a firm, but light cover of fat. Do this every time you gather the ewes, and record details of any that are over or under the target score. If any individuals are repeatedly under target, it may be worth investigating other possible causes such as poor dentition or lameness, either of which will affect her ability to feed herself properly, let alone a pair of twins.
The Three Stages of Pregnancy
The ewe’s pregnancy comprises three distinct phases (called ‘trimesters’), and at each stage there are specific tasks for the shepherd. Most of these are about ensuring the ewes have the correct nutrition to enable them to conceive, bear and rear their lambs.
The first trimester of pregnancy, called the implantation stage, covers the 40 days following conception, and is quite a delicate period during which the ewes should be disturbed as little as possible. Good grazing should provide sufficient nutrition to maintain the ewes’ condition at this time, so aim for a grass sward height of 6-8cms and if it falls below this level supplement with good quality hay. So, apart from an unobtrusive twice-daily check, they’re best left alone.
During the first two weeks of pregnancy the embryos ‘float’ in the uterine fluid, and if the ewes are stressed in any way, losses may occur at this time. At the third week, the ewe’s placenta develops and the embryo becomes a foetus, sharing the ewe’s blood circulation from which it derives oxygen and nourishment.
The second trimester, from 40 to 105 days into pregnancy naturally coincides with the time of year when grazing is sparse, the days are short, and the temperatures are low. Thankfully, ewes are well adapted to cope, and thrive, in these conditions despite their pregnancy. The lambs’ growth is slow during this period, and a lamb destined to weigh 5kgs at birth may weigh only 500gms at mid-pregnancy. Unless the grass is badly frosted or there is snow on the ground, the ewes don’t need any supplementary feeding at this stage. In fact, it will do them no harm to lose up to half a condition score – but don’t let them put on weight now as this may predispose ewes to prolapse later in pregnancy.
However, if access to grazing is limited by heavy frost or snowfall, feed some good quality hay on an ad-lib basis, preferably from a covered hayrack, to maintain their rumen function. Feeding hay from the ground is very wasteful, so a good hayrack will eventually pay for itself! In cold snaps make sure the ewes’ water trough doesn’t freeze over; they need a constant water supply for healthy digestion.
This is the ideal stage in the ewe’s pregnancy to scan the ewes in order to determine whether they are carrying a single lamb, twins, or even triplets – hopefully not more!
Scanning Ewes: Taking the guesswork out of lambing
- By knowing the number of lambs each ewe is carrying, the shepherd can feed ewes in the last stage of pregnancy according to foetal load, which will help ensure easier lambing and more viable lambs
- If barren ewes are identified, they can be removed from the breeding flock
- If triplets are detected, you can plan to foster one onto a single-bearing ewe
- … and if you need to assist at lambing, you’ll know how many lambs to expect, which helps when you’re trying to identify which legs belong to which lamb!
The other essential task at this stage, ideally 4-6 weeks before lambing, is to give the ewes their annual vaccination against Clostridial disease and pasturella, and you should include all other non-breeding ewes, and the ram, in this annual regime.
The third trimester, from 105 days to birth is the time when the unborn lambs put on a tremendous growth spurt! At the same time, the ewe’s udder is developing, and she starts to produce the nutrient-rich colostrum that is essential to her newborn lambs. To enable her to maintain her own body functions, as well as the needs of the growing lambs, she requires nutritional support at this time. If there is a shortfall in her energy requirements, she may become dangerously ill. Equally, any overfat ewes at this time can suffer from metabolic disease and problems at lambing, so it’s essential to condition score, aiming to reach lambing at BCS3 for lowland flocks. Hill and primitive breeds tend to have a much lower lambing percentage than lowland flocks, which means their energy requirements are lower. The primitive breeds, such as the Soay, Portland and Manx Loghtan usually have a single lamb and therefore any supplementary feeding should be minimal.
As a ruminant whose natural diet is grass, the ewes’ digestive system will take time to adapt to a new diet, so it’s important to introduce high-energy cereal feeds gradually. Feed these in addition to their usual grass and hay rations that keep the rumen functioning.
FACT: Towards the end of their pregnancy, ewes carry the greatest foetal load in relation to their own body weight when compared to any other mammal.
This article was originally written by Carole Youngs for
Practical Sheep, Goats & Alpacas Magazine.