Lambing Up Close

this ewe is about to drop lambs

Lambing is in full swing here at EEC Forest Stewardship, and our ewes are doing an amazing job of bringing forth the next generation of healthy Katahdins. I’d like to take a moment to walk us through a typical lambing, and what to look for in a pregnant ewe who is giving birth. I’ll note that our chosen breed- the hair sheep we raise for meat, Katahdin, are excellent mothers and usually need no help in lambing. This is not typical of many sheep breeds, who have been selected for lambing numbers and size, rather than what’s best for the mother- no surprise there. Katahdins typically drop two lambs, and are fully capable of birthing and suckling the babes without any help. Ewes who drop more than two ends with one needing bottle raising, as the two stronger lambs will push the weaker one off the teat, slowly starving it if humans intervention does not occur. At EEC, we breed for twins with small heads, and allow natural weening at five months- no bottle babies.

When ewes are close to giving birth, a lot of changes start happening to signal labor. The vulva swells up and dilates. The tail gets stiff and bent at a strange angle, and the ewe will often start pawing the ground and not eat. She’ll lay down and kick, trying to get the fetus lined up with her canal to make birth easier. Look for these advanced signs to know when it’s time to put your ewe into her own private birthing pen for safety and comfort. Giving the ewe her own place to give birth allows her space without other sheep butting in, and the privacy with her new lambs to get acquainted. This bonding time is especially important with new moms, as they are often traumatized in their first birth and can be afraid of the baby at first. Instincts will kick in fast though, as a new mom’s utters swell up to a painful state which only a suckling lamb can relieve.

Hattie is down and in contractions

The greatest lesson I’ve learned in helping with lambing is to stay out of it. The ewe has a heck of a lot more instinct in this than me, and I’ve never given birth, so I let the pregnant ewe call the shots. She does seem to appreciate my support, and I’m on hand with a dry towel to help get the lamb warm on colder days- though many lambs come at night, so during lambing season, I get a lot less sleep. I can’t imagine farms where someone has thousands of sheep. You’d literally not get any sleep during the lambing season, and since most commercial sheep farms are wool producers with genetic selection for as many lambs as possible, there will be constant need to assist, and even surgery to save lambs and ewes, what a nightmare. In our small flock, each ewe gets personal attention and so far, we’ve had no major complications in lambing- thank you good genetic selection of Katahdins.

If you’re the type of person who worries and has to step in, you’re bound to create more stress on the ewe than she needs. I stay out of the pen and watch from near by, letting the ewe know I’m there with gentle words of support and calming, but I do not get into the birthing pen with her. She’s stressed out enough without me bumbling in. I provide fresh bedding, clean water, and unlimited food for when she’s ready to eat again. Sometimes, you can tell a ewe is about to drop because she stops eating. Hattie’s a well established matron in the flock, and she’s dropped twin girls three years in a a row, making her the herd’s most prolific ewe. I chose to document this lambing as a guide for other sheep enthusiasts- and especially for people seeking a good breed with easy lambing. The hair breeds- and especially Katahdins- are it for low maintenance birthing.

In the 9 years of raising capable mother ewes, we’ve only had two lambs rejected and culled at birth- that speaks to the advantage of having good mothering genetics, which most hair breeds posses. Culled lambs are still put to great use- being a rare delicacy in our culinary celebration of lamb. In both instances, the ewe completely abandoned the lamb shortly after birth- one case was due to low milk output and a very hard winter, the other, which happened in this recorded experience, was due in part to birthing fluid getting into the lambs lungs and stomach during birth, a common cause of lamb mortality. For large industrial lamb productions, tubing the sick lamb can raise survival rate, but can also be extremely invasive to the little animal, also resulting in the need to bottle feed. Mom had already buried this sickly lamb in the bedding and moved on to her surviving lamb within 8 hours of giving birth. The ewe is a veteran mother, and knew way more about what was up with that lamb and why it was not worth keeping.

The surviving twin, poking a hoof into the world far right above, is still doing great weeks later, and bonded with another lam about her age. The first few hours after birth are the most touch and go, but as I’ve already said, the Katahdin excels at this instinct. She’s right there cleaning off the afterbirth, talking to the lamb, and the lamb is talking back. Smell, sight, and sound are all imprinting in these beginning moments that form the bond between ewe and lamb. Sometimes, especially with new moms, the ewe will have a fear reaction to her lamb. This does make a lot of sense- the ewe just went through a very painful experience and the only thing around to have caused it is the new baby lamb. That thing hurts, get away from it! This has only happened a couple of times in my flock, and the answer is to make sure the ewe and lamb are separate in their own space together, then give it a little bit of time. If the mom is still not letting the lamb approach to suckle, tie the ewe to a side of the enclosure with food and water reachable, but so she can’t move around to avoid the lamb. After the lamb suckles, thus reliving the ewe of her swollen utter pain, instinct usually kicks in, and the ewe will let the lamb suckle.

Newborns never look pretty, it’s a violent messy process to give birth- so it seems- and amazes me every time the ewe goes through the pain and struggle, then cleans off the messy lamb while her own blood runs down her back legs. I sometimes come with a warm towel to help clean up, but our Kangal, Gill, does the best cleaning up without wasting a drop of after birth or blood. At first I thought this was a risky thing- the dog licking blood off a sheep, but he’s completely in tune with the whole process, and ewes will actually back up against the fence to let him lick them clean. He’s not only getting a nice snack, he’s also getting a lot of sensory inputs about the ewe, her lamb, and general flock health. The sheep know and trust him, and he sees the flock as his pack. I’ve written about this relationship before, but again, The Kangal has many thousands of years instinct with sheep, and it’s still alive and strong in them today.

Sometimes the ewes get all the placenta and afterbirth cleaned up, sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s important to locate the afterbirth to make sure it all came out of the ewe or she can get sick and even die. This is rare, so I don’t want to spend much time on it. The ewe will paw and move around after the birth like she’s still giving birth, but that’s here clearing the rest of the afterbirth out of her body. I will pull the gory mess out if she does not eat it, and feed it to Gill. He loves it, and gets more info on the lamb that way too. If it stays in the pen, a smell forms, and bacteria which is not conducive to hygiene. The smell is a huge lure to predator animals, which are very aware of new baby animal arrivals. Especially in barns, where the smells are compounded. We’re diligent about getting bloody towels and bedding out of the lambing pens fast to prevent odorous attractions.

Even when you do everything right, and the ewe is an experienced mamma, failures can occur. These are hard lessons, but sometimes, you have to realize that things are out of your hands. With these twins, the first born never got on her feet. She didn’t suckle, or even talk with mom to start bonding. Look at the difference between these two lambs born only a few minutes apart. The one on the left has it’s head up, found the utter, and has received colostrum. This is imperative for the lamb within it’s first few hours of life. That colostrum is the lamb’s only chance at healthy immune system, working gut, and nutritional jump start. Without it, the lamb will eventually die. You can feed a colostrum supplement, and in large commercial farms, this is done. We could have intubated the lamb and poured the life saving liquid down its little gullet. That still would have only helped, not guaranteed the lamb’s life. I put a heat lamp on the little thing and waited. Within another eight hours mom had buried the sickly lamb and focused on the healthy one. It was hard to accept, yet the ewe knew, and so did I.

I picked up the sickly lamb and gave her a good look over. She was struggling to breath, chilled, and too weak to stand. It was not a quality of life I wanted to extend into more suffering. Killing a baby animal is hard, harder than many other tasks of livestock tending. It’s not something I have to do often, otherwise I would not be able to raise animals. I might one day loose the ability to cull when I need to, and when that day comes, I will retire from livestock farming. I can only imagine what professional slaughterers on the industrial kill floors go through. It’s inhumane for the people as much as the animals, and is not what ethical animal husbandry should look like. This is a very charged topic, so I’ll stick to lambing and reaffirm the responsibility of animal breeders to know when and how to dispatch something if it’s suffering a slow death. After showing gratitude for the lamb’s life, through brief, I slaughtered it. Another half hour of processing and the succulent meat went into the pot to bake. This is the full cycle of life all on one day. The other lamb continues to thrive with her mother and a growing herd of new lambs at EEC Forest Stewardship.

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