TwinnerI ran across this recent publication Low Input Lambing and Kidding, by Cornell University and found it to be really refreshing reading. It had my keen interest from the introductory paragraph describing one impetus for the study:

During a recent sabbatical in New Zealand, Dr. Michael Thonney, who is director of the Cornell Sheep Program, had been intrigued by the relaxed attitude lambing of New Zealand pasture based farmers toward lambing.

It goes on to say that their Extension program gets a lot of inquires from experienced sheep and goat farmers who are not seeking help with the day-to-day basics of small ruminant husbandry, but rather, how to make it be less labor-intensive. This white paper is an attempt to offer advice on that subject, based on a small study.

It seems there is increased attention on this topic in a variety of places. The way most people farm sheep in this country was designed for a certain set of circumstances: Midwest crop and cattle farmers with access to cheap grain who have spare time, labor and barn space on their hands in winter, and huge ranges to graze in summer. The traditional model works well for them- it offers them an extra crop to raise, one that takes good advantage of the available resources in their systems.

But it’s not a model that’s best-suited for everyone. People who don’t have access to cheap labor, cheap grain, or extensive indoor agricultural space will find that raising sheep and goats in the typical manner can turn out to be rather expensive, stressful, and time-consuming.

But, there is another way. Worldwide, people have been raising small ruminants in pastoral settings for centuries. The modern, intense, high-input barn lambing gig is only a niche, and has only been around for the last century.

The Cornell study makes several thought-provoking points:

  • Most people lamb on a certain schedule because of tradition, not because it’s the best schedule for their system or model
  • Losses in the single-digit percentage range are normal for almost all systems. Being present at every birth doesn’t ensure lamb survival. More time spent during lambing does not necessarily translate to reduced losses; and it directly correlates to more bottle lambs. (The data does not tell us why this is, only that it’s a fact.)
  • Larger herd sizes had a negative correlation to time spent per ewe: the bigger the herd, the less time each ewe was given. The researchers expected it to scale linearly, but it did not. It could be that with larger flocks, the farmer is a full-timer and there already. Or, with so many ewes lambing at once, the farmer multitasks better in a given hour. However, it could be that larger scale farmers just learn to stop worrying and futzing so much!
  • The most important factor in lamb survival and performance is pre-natal: ewe nutrition and management (read: vaccines, handling etc.) during pregnancy. This is where we should focus our energy to get improved yields, rather than on 24/7 monitoring of births.
  • Spotting and addressing problems early saves significant labor over finding them in the acute disaster stage. Watchful and observant shepherds catch bad things before they get worse.
  • Shepherds who are severely sleep-deprived from obsessive checking-up on pregnant ewes may have compromised mentation when they need it most: in dealing with a true crisis that requires analysis and logic. 
  • People who lamb in winter, and find it stressful and/or expensive should consider delaying lambing until spring, and doing it on pasture. Pasture lambing is less expensive in feed costs, and requires less labor.
  • There is a yield tradeoff for lambing later: fertility is lower for spring lambing as compared to winter lambing (163% vs. 183% mean percentage weaned in their study). But the decreased labor and input costs probably make it a worthwhile tradeoff for many people.

The Cornell article is worth a read in its entirety-it has a lot of advice on prenatal care, pasture lambing methods, and information on the mechanics of ewe-lamb bonding and grafting lambs. But, the bottom-line recommendation seems to be: first, feed and care for ewes carefully during pregnancy to set the stage for lambing to go well. Then, during lambing: get good sleep, relax and quit hovering and futzing so much; and just let the sheep do what they know how to do! EweWithTwins