Last week I took a bit of blogging space to just be quiet for a while. This week I’m back with more lamb pictures to wrap up our Lambing Help series, and I’ve got pictures from Speedracer’s Skylander birthday party coming up as well!
I’ve been diving into some homesteading details lately and sharing about what lambing really looks like, out in the field, around here. Everyone manages their livestock differently, so this is not meant to be a “how-to” series or a recommendation. It’s simply meant to be a snapshot of “real life” out in the grass around here. Read Part 1…What Does Normal Look Like? for a background setting. Then we’ve also talked about hard labor, and pulling a lamb. Today we’re talking about weak lambs and failure to thrive.
Some Common Problems…WEAK LAMBS
Assuming that all goes well with the momma, and you have a normal delivery, sometimes things still aren’t right. This is a hard thing to face when it comes to farming. “Weak lambs” are lambs that just generally fail to thrive after birth. We’re talking about the first 48 hours here. They may be slow to get up, slow to nurse, or slow to start wobbling around with the rest of the lamb flock.
There’s two basic cases–the lamb just needs a jump-start and then he’s fine (as in the case last week of a hard labor or during a particularly severe weather birth) OR the lamb doesn’t make it, usually because of an underlying issue.
Unfortunately, these days, we find that most weak lambs here are case #2. Thankfully, it really isn’t very common.
Just as easy labor and deliver is normal around here, so are healthy lambs. They are usually up, wobbling around, and nursing within 30 minutes. They are usually on their legs strong and galloping around in 48 hours–one reason we band tails young is because after 3 days you can’t catch the little guys!! They usually join the flock “gang” within 5 days, with much momma-bellowing following after them! If you walk up to a normal lamb that is napping, they will jump up, bright-eyed and scamper a little ways off, look up and start bawling for their momma, and skedaddle over to her–all in seconds!
Weak lambs don’t do those things. They nap more than others. They stick closer to their mommas. They don’t “run” from you when you go in the field, and sometimes won’t even get up when you walk up to them. They’ll act sleepy and confused when they do get up, like they’re not sure what’s going on. It’s particularly noticeable with twins. Twins tend to nurse together for the first week or so (and at least 60% of the time after that too!) so if one is laying down while the other is nursing, something is usually wrong.
In the case of a weak lamb we’ll pen them in the shed with their momma (and any siblings). Lambing pens are called “jugs,”by the way–I have no idea why. We’ll make sure the baby is dried off vigorously with a warm dry towel (the rubbing stimulates the lamb to get up and nurse, like the momma’s licking) and try to make sure they’re up on their feet and nursing. Momma’s not crazy about all this fussing but once she’s installed in the pen with food in front of her, she tends to relax.
We make sure the momma has extra feed, electrolytes in her water, and good alfalfa hay so she’s capable of doing her job the best she knows how, too. We plug in a heat lamp for extra warmth. Once we’re sure the baby has gotten to nurse once or twice, we’ll give a dose of SURVIVE! for vitamins. Sometimes the taste will suppress appetite, so we try to wait until we’re sure they’ve gotten a colostrum nursing in. Then we watch.
At this point, within 12 hours one of two things is going to happen…the lamb is going to improve–usually quickly!–or he is going to continue to weaken. We’ve had both happen. If the lamb improves, they’re usually out of the pen within 3 days and going on as normal. And 3 days is usually pushing it–I just tend to be over-protective.
If the lamb does not improve, is not nursing regularly–or if the lamb never seems to get a good nursing to start with–we move to more serious action. Usually involving a washtub and heat lamp in our living room! We’ll feed powdered colostrum–mixed with water, just like baby formula!–by bottle if the lamb has a sucking reflex. Or by drenching syringe if there’s no sucking, but definitely swallowing.
If there was no sucking or swallowing, we would use a stomach tube.
This is a heartbreaking fact of farming to me, but the fact is that usually little ones that aren’t up nursing alone within the first day simply don’t make it. I believe there is usually something deeply wrong with them that we can’t treat and I’m very grateful that we don’t normally face this more than once a year–or less!
Several years ago we struggled with more weak lambs (several a year, in fact) and traced it back to suspected White Muscle Disease–a vitamin and mineral deficiency. We think it might be due to significant reductions in natural selenium, calcium, and vitamin E in our soils after years of row-crop farming on this property. We’ve been able to develop a nutritional program that includes additional protein and mineral supplements as part of our “pre-natal” care routine and have not had a definitive case in several years–although we also keep injectable vitamin E in our lambing medicine cabinet just in case! We still occasionally struggle with “pre-natal” calcium issues, but have learned to see and treat them quickly with our vet and they have not translated to any lambing problems.
As I mentioned before, all of these “common problems” are really NOT that common–at least they haven’t been for us. It’s not normal for us to have more than one or two “problems” a year–and that’s out of an average of 20+ lambs a season!
Be sure to come back for the rest of the Lambing Help series…
- Part 1: What Does Normal Look Like?
- Part 2: Common Problems We’ve Faced.
- Part 3: When to Call the Vet.
And if you’re looking for more specific information, here’s our very favorite sheep books–the ones we keep close by all year long!
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