By Poppy Frater

SAC sheep specialist

The two fundamental causes of lamb death are small size and insufficient colostrum. These two factors lead to lambs predisposed to greater infection, hypothermia and starvation risk.

At lambing time, the hope is you have lambs that are within the optimum weight range (4-7kg) as a result of feeding singles, twins and triplets, etc appropriately and maintaining their condition through pregnancy.

Nutrition also sets the scene for colostrum quality. Now, as we approach lambing, the priority shifts to ensuring lambs get that all important magic formula.

The best colostrum is that produced by the ewes in the flock – this colostrum will have flock specific antibodies. The best scenario is a healthy vigorous lamb that stands and suckles a ewe with plenty milk within half an hour. Environment does affect this process. If the ewe is stressed, she will take longer to lamb which affects her mothering post lambing and could affect the speed at which the lamb stands up. Minimise stress in the shed – avoid mixing ewe groups too much (they like familiarity), keep dogs out, maximise feed space, and consider stocking rate – to increase the chance of this ideal scenario.

The next best is milk from a well-fed single. A single ewe produces more colostrum than the lamb needs. This is ideal to provide to lambs without access to enough. Most people bring the lamb over to the single’s mother or hand milk. Oxytocin injection will help the milk let down to speed up the process, consult your vet on this. There are also new devices on the market to help milk ewes with a vacuum pump – considering the value of your time and colostrum – these devices may well be worth it.

Dairy cow colostrum is fine as long as they are free from Johnes and have been vaccinated, but of course this won’t have the flock specific antibody value. Finally, powered colostrum has its uses as an energy source but will not have the medicinal effect. Colostrum is everything. Too often, antibiotics are used as a precaution measure, when in fact, if the lambs are of a good size and have sufficient colostrum they have a much better start without antibiotics.

Poppy Frater, SAC Sheep Specialist