Lambing FAQ

Archive-name: rural/lambing-faq
Last-modified: ron@auda.mlfarm.com, 19 Nov 1994
Version: 1.3

	       Frequently Asked Questions About Lambing

	Copyright 1992, 1994 Ronald Florence <ron@mlfarm.com>

1.  What equipment and supplies do I need for lambing?

    If everything goes right, and it does most of the time, you need
    nothing more than:

    - a pair of surgical scissors, available from a drug store or
      vet supply;

    - a wide-mouthed bottle of 7% iodine solution;

    - a clean, dry, bedded pen for the ewe and her lamb(s).  The
      dimensions can range from 4x4 feet for smaller breeds to 5x5 feet
      for larger breeds, with a water bucket and a hay feeder for each
      pen.  For a small flock, plan on one pen for every five ewes; a
      larger flock can get by with one pen for every seven ewes.  

    It's a good idea to have the following available, just in case:

    - a baby bottle (4 or 8 oz.); use a heated needle to expand the
      hole in the nipple;

    - a tube feeder; vet supply houses sell them, or you can buy a
      rubber catheter and large syringe from a drug store;

    - a hair-dryer and/or a heat lamp;

    - 60cc. syringes, 20ga. needles, and a sterile solution of
      electrolytes with 5-10% glucose added;

    - shoulder-length plastic examining gloves;

    - a rubber or plastic bowl and Ivory liquid soap or an
      obstetric/vaginal lubricant;

    - Penicillin & syringes, or antibiotic vaginal boluses;

    - frozen colostrum from an earlier birth, from a goat or cow,
      or an artificial colostrum mix;

    - warm, dry towels.

2.  How do I know when a ewe is ready to lamb?

    No two ewes manifest the same signs.  Some wander off to a far
    corner of a pasture, or find a corner of the barn where they can
    be alone.  Some will go off food.  Most will `drop': as the
    position of the uterus shifts lower in their bodies, hollow areas
    appear in their flanks; this is sometimes hard to see in older
    ewes, who are `dropped' most of the time.  Ewes usually `bag out'
    as milk develops in the udder within a day or two of lambing.
    When the ewe goes into labor, she may paw the ground as if digging
    a nest, and is often restless, getting up, circling or moving to a
    new spot, lying down, and repeating the cycle.  As she moves
    further into labor, you can see contractions, the water (amnion)
    will often break, and she may grit her teeth in pain.

3.  What do I have to do for a `normal' birth?

    Most ewes can handle things pretty well.  Within four hours of the
    onset of labor, the ewe will deliver a lamb and set to cleaning
    and mothering it.  The vigorous licking is important stimulation
    to the lamb, and helps trigger hormones that accelerate the
    development of milk, contractions for twins or triplets, and the
    afterbirth.  If you're there when the lamb is born -- and you
    should try to be -- clear any mucus from the lamb's nose and make
    sure it is breathing.  If it isn't, tickle the nostrils with a
    piece of straw.  If that doesn't work, grab the lamb by both back
    legs and gently swing it in a vertical circle over your head; the
    up and down movement of the diaphragm as the lamb swings is an
    efficient artificial respiration.  Some shepherds use oxygen or
    even mouth-to-nose respiration to start a lamb.  Most lambs need
    little help beyond a tickle with straw.  Then, allow the mother a
    few minutes to mother her lamb, before you CLIP, DIP, and STRIP.

    - CLIP the lamb's umbilical cord within an inch of the lamb's
    - DIP the umbilical cord in the iodine solution, making sure it it
      thoroughly covered with iodine.  Some shepherds use a Terramycin
      spray instead of the iodine dip.
    - STRIP the ewe's teats, to make sure the wax plug is gone and
      milk (actually colostrum) comes out.

    You may want to weigh the lamb, and on a very cold night, a
    hair-dryer on the lamb's ears, or a heat lamp, can help a chilled
    lamb.  Be careful with heat lamps: ewes knock them over, starting
    barn fires, and too much time under the heat lamp can encourage
    pneumonia.  For a really chilled lamb, some shepherds use a heat
    box with a hole for a hair-dryer, or a bucket of warm water to
    submerge the lamb (except the head, of course).  Try not to wash
    or dry the lamb too much; letting the ewe do the work stimulates
    the lamb and encourages bonding between them.

    When the ewe is finished lambing, which can take a while for twins
    or triplets, gently drag the lambs into the lambing pen.  The ewe
    will follow the trail of smells in the bedding.  She will want a
    bucket of water (warm if possible, adding a few tablespoons of
    molasses will encourage her to drink) and a nice tab of hay.  She
    won't need grain for a day or two, but should have free choice hay
    and plenty of water.  When you spot the afterbirth, usually from
    an hour to eight hours after birth, remove it from the pen.

4.  How do I know if the ewe is going to have twins or triplets?

    Sometimes you can tell in advance from the size and shape of the
    ewe.  If another lamb is coming, the ewe may get restless again,
    walking away from her lamb, or lying down with contractions.  The
    second (or third) amnion may break with another flood of fluid.
    If a bag of reddish fluid and a white worm-like tissue appears, it
    probably means she is not going to have any more lambs that year.
    Sometimes the only way to be sure whether there is another lamb is
    to physically examine the ewe with a glove and lubricant.  Unless
    something seems to be awry, it's best not to interfere.

5.  What do I do if the ewe rejects her lamb?

    Some rookie mothers don't know what to do; they drop a lamb and
    walk away as if they had just pooped.  Putting the lamb in front
    of their noses, or putting them into a pen with the lamb is
    usually enough.  You may have to help the lamb nurse the first
    time.  It usually works better to nudge the lamb from behind, the
    way a ewe does, than to drag it to a teat.  Tickling the lamb's
    bottom when it has the teat in its mouth is often enough to get it
    sucking.  A wagging tail on the lamb, or the belly going in and
    out, is a sure sign the lamb is getting milk (actually colostrum
    the first day).

    Some mothers will reject a lamb, often one of twins or triplets.
    If you hold the ewe so the lamb can nurse, either manually or by
    putting her in a stanchion, after several days the ewe will
    usually begin to accept the lamb.  The key for the ewe is the
    smell of the back end of the lamb; after a few days, the ewe will
    detect her own milk in the lamb's feces.  Another trick is to
    bring a dog into the barn.  Often, the instinct to protect the
    lamb from the dog is strong enough to reestablish the bond of ewe
    and lamb.  If the mother bashes the lamb as well as not allowing
    it to nurse, you may have to take it away and bottle feed it.

    Grafting a lamb to another mother, because the first mother lacks
    milk or has too many lambs, is tricky.  There are many techniques:
    bathing the graftee in amniotic fluids from the new mother, a
    stanchion for forced nursing, tying the feet of an older lamb so
    it won't seem too active, skinning a dead lamb (the way you skin a
    rabbit) and placing the skin over the lamb you want to graft.
    Some shepherds have had luck inflating a balloon in the adopting
    ewe's vagina, which apparently tricks her into thinking she is
    giving birth again.  Whatever the technique, it takes patience and
    luck.  Sometimes a ewe will initially allow the lamb to nurse,
    then later figure out that it isn't her lamb and reject it.

    If there is any chance a lamb may end up a bottle baby, it is a
    good idea to give it a bottle or two fairly early.  Lambs that
    have known only a ewe's teat sometimes are tough to train to a

6.  What if the lamb can't or won't nurse?

    Make sure the ewe has colostrum by milking each teat.  If the ewe
    wasn't shorn before lambing, or crutched, you may need to use hand
    shears to clear some of the dung locks away so the lambs can find
    the teats.  Lambs aren't the brightest little creatures, and will
    often suck away on a tag of wet fleece instead of the teat.

    The lamb may be too small, too cold, or too weak to nurse.  Put
    your finger in the lamb's mouth to see if it is strong enough to
    suck.  If it sucks on the finger, milk 2-4 ounces of colostrum
    from the mother into a baby bottle.  Then, using a nipple that has
    had the hole widened with a hot needle, feed the lamb two ounces
    at a time.  One or two feedings of colostrum may be enough to jump
    start the lamb.

    If the lamb is too weak to suck on your finger, tube feed two
    ounces of colostrum.  You can buy ready-made tube feeders from vet
    supply houses, or make your own from a surgical catheter and a
    large syringe.  Lubricate the tube with oil or warm water, measure
    how much tube it takes to reach the lamb's rumen, and slide it
    down gently.  Stop frequently and hold a wet finger over the other
    end of the tube; if you feel air coming out, you're in the trachea
    or lungs; pull out and start again.  A really weak lamb may be
    dehydrated.  You can inject 30-50 ml. of 5-10% dextrose solution
    subcutaneously, in three or four spots (10 ml. each) along the
    back and sides to rehydrate the lamb.

    Whatever procedure or combination of procedures you follow, the
    lamb needs feedings of colostrum for the first eight to twelve
    hours.  If the mother doesn't have any, use frozen colostrum saved
    from a ewe with a single lamb, colostrum from goats or cows, or an
    artificial colostrum.

7.  How can I tell if a birth isn't going right?

    If a ewe has been in labor for four hours without dilating enough
    to deliver a lamb, if the lamb appears in an unbroken amnion, or
    if you see indications of a presentation other than the normal two
    front feet and the nose of the lamb together, the ewe may need

    If the cervix of the ewe remains tight after prolonged labor,
    careful manual massage may help, or she may need an injection of
    Oxytocsin to induce contractions and to relax the cervix.  If the
    lamb seems to be coming, and the presentation is correct, rolling
    the ewe on her side, or onto the other side, can tip things enough
    to ease the birth.

    If a lamb appears in an unbroken amnion, use a fingernail to
    gently break the the sack AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE.  The danger is
    that the lamb will take a breath inside the sack and drown.

    If the presentation of the lamb is wrong, you will need to help.
    Make sure your fingernails are cut short, put on one or two long
    obstetric examining gloves, and lubricate your gloved hand and arm
    in warm water with dissolved Ivory soap, or with an obstetric
    lubricant.  The ewe should be on her back or her side, with an
    assistant holding her back legs.  Even ewes who are normally shy
    are often cooperative when you're helping them with lambing, but
    you want to hold her still.  Ease up when she has a contraction,
    so you aren't fighting her; the contractions are strong enough to
    clamp hard on your arm.  You will be working by feel, so try to
    imagine what is connected with what as you GENTLY work your
    fingers into the vaginal canal.

    Some presentations are relatively easy.  If one leg and the head
    are in the birth canal, you can usually turn the lamb slightly and
    ease one shoulder out.  If the lamb is in breech position (fanny
    first), pull it out quickly so it doesn't drown in amniotic fluids
    when the cord breaks.  If the presentation is head first without
    the front legs, don't try to pull the lamb out.  Instead, gently
    push the head back in and sort out the hooves so they come out the
    canal with the head.  Sometimes twins are tangled.  Gently sort
    the head and hooves of the twin closest to the cervix into a
    proper presentation.  It's a good idea for a person with a
    relatively small hand to do the job.  Above all, be GENTLE; the
    tissues are delicate, and perforation of the uterus or birth canal
    is almost certainly fatal.  Some presentations, like a transverse
    lamb at the cervix, are jobs for an experienced vet.

    If you have intervened, even with a sterile glove, you probably
    want to give the ewe either a uterine antibiotic bolus or an
    injection of Penicillin afterwards.

8.  What do I do if the ewe prolapses?

    There are three kinds of prolapse that can affect a ewe.  During
    gestation, the growth of lambs can cause the vagina or rectum to
    prolapse, an unfortunate consequence of large lambs and good
    nutritional programs.  An occasional bulge of pink flesh that
    emerges from the vulva when the ewe lies down and retracts when
    she gets up and walks around may not be cause for concern, but
    keep an eye on her.  If a grapefruit-sized mass of red flash
    protrudes and stays out, the ewe needs immediate attention.

    To treat vaginal prolapse, pen the ewe and raise her rear legs
    (standing her back legs on a bale of hay works) to relieve the
    pressure.  Wash the protruding flesh with mild soap and water and
    replace it gently, watching out that your fingernails don't tear
    the tender flesh.  There are three options for holding the
    prolapse in place.  You can take stitches in the top and bottom of
    the vulva, using a quick-release knot that can be pulled out at
    birth.  _The TV Vet Sheep Book_ (Farming Press Ltd.) recommends
    this technique and shows how to do it.  Another choice is the
    plastic prolapse retainers sold by the vet supply houses; the
    instructions say to tie twine from the ends of the retainer to the
    ewe's wool, but it is easier and more secure to put a bell collar
    on the ewe and run tight twine ties from the collar to the
    prolapse retainer.  A third option is a twine harness for the ewe,
    a procedure described in Ron Parker, _The Sheep Book_ (Ballantine,
    1984).  Many shepherds believe the tendency toward vaginal
    prolapse is hereditary and a good reason to cull the ewe and her

    A ewe can prolapse the entire uterus after birth.  This is a
    situation for a vet, but in a pinch you can carefully wash the
    protruding uterus, sprinkle it with sugar to make it shrink, and
    carefully replace it.  The ewe should be treated with antibiotics
    afterward.  A partially expelled afterbirth looks much like the
    inside of the uterus.  Be careful not to confuse them.

9.  What medications do the ewe and lamb need after birth?

    Ewes are susceptible to a rise in worms after lambing, and should
    be given a dose of wormer the next day.  If you had to intervene
    to assist with the birth, the ewe may need an antibiotic series.
    If the afterbirth isn't expelled within twelve hours, you may want
    to give the ewe an injection of Oxytocsin.

    Local conditions will determine what, if any, medication the lambs
    need.  If you didn't dip the navel in iodine immediately after
    birth, you may want to give the lambs a precautionary injection of
    Penicillin.  If your pastures and feed are selenium-deficient, and
    you've had lambs develop white-muscle disease, you may want to
    inject lambs with BOSE (Selenium & vitamin E supplement); the
    minimum recommended dose of 2ml. may be too much for a newborn.
    If you've had pneumonia problems with lambs, you may want to
    administer PI-3, a nasal vaccine approved for cows, at birth.  If
    the ewes weren't vaccinated with CD/T before lambing, you should
    vaccinate the lambs early; otherwise, wait until the lambs are at
    least a month old before their first vaccination with CD/T.  The
    tetanus part of CD/T may only be necessary if you have equines on
    your farm or other indications of tetanus.

    Watch for entropion, a turned-in eyelash (usually the lower) that
    irritates the lamb's eye and produces profuse tearing.  Some
    shepherds recommend injecting 0.5ml of Penicillin into the lower
    eyelid to force the lash away from the eye.  An easier procedure,
    which often works, is to manually roll the eyelash out several
    times a day while the lambs are in the pens.

    A few days after birth, and before the lambs are out of the
    lambing pens, you will want to band or cut the tails, apply ear
    tags or tattoos, and possibly castrate ram lambs that are not
    going to be bred.

10. How long should the lambs and mothers stay in the lambing pens?

    A veteran with a strong single lamb could come out after
    twenty-four hours.  Rookies, and ewes with multiple lambs, should
    stay in for two or three days, until the ewes have thoroughly
    bonded with their lambs.  Sometimes, if you let them out early,
    the lambs can get lost, or ewes can forget their lambs in the rush
    for feeders.  You might have to put them back for another day or
    two.  If you have a large flock of rambunctious ewes, you may want
    to move new mothers and lambs to a calm nursery area for a few
    days before they rejoin the flock.

    After the ewe and lambs leave the pen, clean it out as much as
    possible, lime thoroughly with hydrated lime, and rebed with fresh
    straw before the next tenants move in.

11. What do I do with orphans (bummers)?

    Lambs without mothers, or whose mothers don't have enough milk for
    them, can be raised on milk-replacer.  For the first twelve hours,
    the lambs should have only colostrum.  Then, one option is to put
    them in a pen with free-choice cold milk-replacer from a bucket
    with nipples.  The other choice is to feed warm milk-replacer from
    a bottle, which will allow the lamb to stay with its mother, who
    may have some milk.  The lamb will probably learn to sneak milk
    from other mothers too.  For the first few days, the lamb
    shouldn't get more than four ounces per feeding, six times a day.
    You can then gradually increase the amount and decrease the number
    of feedings per day.  After two weeks, two or three bottles a day
    is plenty.  Baby bottles work best for little lambs.  Later, beer
    or soda bottles with lamb nipples are fine.  More than 12-16
    ounces in a feeding is likely to induce scours.  Unless you like
    chasing lambs all hours of the night with a bottle, encourage
    bottle babies to eat grain and leafy alfalfa in the creep as young
    as possible, so you can wean them early.

    Some lambs need a little help but not a complete bottle regimen.
    The runt of triplets, or even of twins, may need a bottle or two a
    day to keep up.  You can usually see when one lamb isn't getting a
    fair share; hungry lambs are often hunched up, they cry; if
    they're really hungry, their mouths will be cold.  Sometimes a
    bottle or two will get them going again, or they may need a bottle
    or two a day.

12. What care do lactating ewes need?

    A good ewe pours so much of the nutrition she consumes into
    producing milk that it is difficult for her to maintain her
    weight.  You want to give her energy-rich grain, a pound a day for
    ewes with singles, as much as two pounds per day for ewes with
    twins and triplets, along with free-choice of the highest protein
    hay you have, such as good leafy alfalfa or early-cut timothy, and
    plenty of clean fresh water.  If you're lambing in late spring,
    the ewes may do fine on fresh pasture.  You should also check the
    udders of the ewes daily, watching for signs of mastitis.  A hot
    red bag, or a cold blue bag, are bad signs.  If you detect
    mastitis, treat as soon as possible with antibiotics, both
    systemic and applied directly by teat infusion.  It may help to
    milk out a bad teat.

13. Are there any human health concerns related to lambing?

    Pregnant ewes fed on silage are susceptible to listeriosis, also
    called `circling disease,' which can cause abortions.  The
    organism which causes listeriosis is transmissible to humans.  The
    UK Department of Health recommends that pregnant women avoid
    contact with pregnant ewes, lambing, newborn lambs, milking, and
    afterbirths in sheep flocks susceptible to listeriosis.

    Toxoplasmosis, a coccidial organism carried by domestic cats, can
    cause late abortion in ewes or result in dead or weak lambs.  The
    coccidia can cause encephalitis in pre-natal children. Pregnant
    women should avoid contact with the aborted lambs and with cats
    that might carry toxoplasmosis.

14. Do I need a barn for lambing?  What about lambing in the pasture?

    Pasture lambing, with the potential savings of equipment and
    labor, is more and more popular, now that the demise of the Wool
    Incentive Act has lowered the margins for sheep farming.  A
    pasture is a clean environment, and except in the most extreme
    weather, a well-fed ewe can take care of her lambs on a pasture.
    You should check on newborn lambs to make sure they're nursing,
    and perhaps to dip their navels in iodine.  You may want to erect
    a temporary lambing pen for the ewe and lamb(s), or bring the ewe
    and lambs into a shelter for the first few days.  Other ewes who
    have not yet lambed may try to `adopt' the new lambs, and fighting
    marauders off can exhaust a ewe who has just delivered.  Newborn
    lambs are also prime prey for coyotes.  A temporary shelter or pen
    also gives you a chance to watch for nursing problems, scours or
    other neonatal concerns, and keeps the lambs nearby for
    injections, tail docking, castration, and ear tagging.

15. Why do ewes need help lambing?  Wild animals do it without help.

    Sheep aren't wild animals anymore.  The sheep we raise have been
    bred to produce multiple-births and big, fast-growing lambs.
    Usually, they can give birth without help, and do a marvelous job
    of taking care of their lambs.  When the lambs are too big, or if
    there are more lambs than the mother's milk can support, we help
    out.  In return, we get the pleasure of watching the miracle of
    birth and one of the strongest and loveliest bonds in nature.

16. Who wrote this FAQ?

    The author is Ronald Florence <ron@mlfarm.com>, who raises
    Cotswold sheep in Stonington, Connecticut.  Additional material
    was contributed by Warner Granade <jwg2y@virginia.edu> and Paul
    Isaac <paul@terminus.ericsson.se>.

				Ronald Florence