I LOVE and HATE baby season, and it's in full swing here on our farm. Here is one little piece of evidence for my feelings, our gorgeous little black lamb we named Dandelion Dahliasdottir, born one week ago. She's small and spunky, looks just like her mom except more compact, and her mom is weirded out by letting her nurse. So, we isolated them together with plenty of shelter, food, and water. Her mom Dahlia still wasn't feeling it and Dandelion has become a bottle baby.
Isn't she cute? She's super sweet and loves all the attention we give her. Without careful watching, we would have lost her.
I've read a fair deal about lamb mortality in commercial operations and have heard of losses around 33-34%! Wow! Finding info on kid mortality is harder because they don't ranch them the same way as sheep. There was a common theme about lamb losses: the ranchers didn't like it and didn't like dwelling on it because it's depressing. It seems so unnecessary. My worst year was my first year when I had all yearling ewes (first time moms) and I was at 14% without much experience in how to prevent deaths. I knew they needed to get colostrum within two hours and the sooner the better. I also didn't live on the farm that year. After that, I've lived out here with them and been under 8%. My goal is to decrease that number every year.
While I will cover some pointers later, the basics are:
1. Make sure the new babies can find their dam's teat and suckle. Some moms are masters from the get go and others don't have the right sense - or it's weird to have a lamb nurse - and just don't get it. There is the occasional weak lamb, but usually they've been pretty good. I do chalk up a minor loss to developmental defects that aren't compatible with life once they're born. It happens in all species. But, it's vital they get on their feet and eat. If they can't suckle, they need two ounces (60 mL) of warm colostrum given by bottle or tube them and give it to them by tube. (I used a Foley catheter - it's not hard to do and has saved lambs on our farm.)
2. If it's cold, they may become hypothermic quickly and that will kill them. Their moms clean them up, but they may still be quite cold, which is made worse by being wet. Get them out of wind, rain, and snow. If able, give them a heat source like a heat lamp. If they aren't chilled, they shouldn't need to be heated, just helped to dry and maintain their body temperature. We also give them jackets made from sweatshirt sleeves if they're particularly tiny or it's especially chilly. Their head goes through the wrist (the cuff is a collar) and I cut holes for their front legs. I cut a slit so it's open around their belly and they wear it like a modified cape. This allows the boys to pee without wetting their jacket.
3. Make sure mom is okay. She almost always is, but I've been caught off guard a couple of times. She can also get chilled and appreciates warm water, especially if it's sweetened with a touch of molasses. Don't pull on the afterbirth - it needs to detach naturally to avoid bleeding.
4. Document the baby and tag it if you have others it might become confused with. Knowing who belongs to who is helpful. I record the date, gender, and if the birth was unassisted or not. If you're not there when they are born, the wetter baby is usually the last one. If one has a puffy muzzle, that's pretty much always the first one (a consequence of blazing the trail for the other). This year, I'm getting a bunch of adjustable puppy collars each with a pet tag numbered 1-100. I'll explain more about my reasoning in another post.
5. Keep watching the babe and mom for ongoing health. Check multiple times a day for several weeks. Skinny babies mean they may not be finding the teat or getting what they need. If mom is grinding her teeth, she has moder to severe pain. If she's groaning or grunting, she's in very severe pain. I almost always notice drooping ears in sheep, tucked ears in goats, and lethargy if something is wrong. If mom goes off her feed, call the vet RIGHT AWAY. The clock is ticking as she may have an infection or retained membranes (not delivered everything). This can kill her quickly. If she's off her feet and won't stand, it is honestly probably too late, but I try anyway. I start IV fluids and antibiotics, a benefit of being a nurse. Catching things early by careful watching makes all the difference.
Most of the time the babies and mom do just fine. I have come out to check on them many times to find a new little family happy and healthy. That's the part about it that I love. Babies are happy. The girls seem to really enjoy having little ones around.
Wife to Brandon, mother to Tess and Liam, farmer, entrepreneur, cook & baker, nurse, and accountant who loves to try new things, travel, and work toward greater self-reliance.