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Preparing for Lambing and Calving

19 April 2023

Next Generation Newsletter

This article is produced as a part of the FAS Next Generation Newsletter. Subscribe now to receive the full report in your inbox quarterly.

In the run up to lambing and calving, the Aberdeenshire, Inverness-shire, and Morayshire groups all held meetings on this theme.

There are many obstacles between scanning and turn out of a live lamb or calf that can negatively impact on flock/herd output and profitability, including dam nutrition, neonatal care and management, abortion, parasites, and disease. The loss of one lamb is estimated to be ~£100, while for a calf it is ~£1000. Almost all neonatal deaths in lambs and calves occur in those which have not had enough colostrum.

Lamb sucking a ewe

Many will have seen or heard of #ColostrumIsGold, a popular hashtag on social media around lambing and calving over the last few years, and the Qs of colostrum – quickly, quality, quantity, squeaky clean, and quantify. Colostrum is the first milk produced in the first 24 – 36 hours after birth and contains all the fat, protein, growth factors and immunoglobulins (tailored immune cells) that a new born lamb or calf needs for warmth, growth, and initiating their immune system. Unlike humans, lambs and calves are born effectively with no immune system as cow/sheep antibodies cannot pass across the placenta, making good colostrum ingestion essential to protect against infection with bacteria from the lambing and calving environment.

An average 5 kg lamb needs 250 ml (50 ml/kg) and an average 40 kg calf needs 4 L (10% body weight) in the first 2 hours. This equates to about 20 minutes of vigorous sucking in those on their mothers but if there is a poor suckle reflex at 10 minutes old then supplementation is advised. Further feeds should be provided over the first 24 hours of life so that lambs receive 1 L of colostrum (200 ml/kg) and calves receive another 4 L within 12 hours of birth. Colostrum quality and the ability to absorb immunoglobulins declines with time after birth. Ideally all lambs and calves should get their colostrum from their mother, but this is not always possible and in these circumstances another ewe or cow from the same farm is the next best option.

Within a herd/flock there can be wide variation in colostrum quality, as studies have shown about 25% of colostrum samples provide inadequate levels of immunoglobulins. Poor quality colostrum has been associated with dams in poor body condition score and inadequate pre-calving/lambing nutrition, especially protein levels. Using a Brix refractometer can be a quick and cheap method of indirectly assessing the immunoglobulin content of colostrum. Brix refractometers with a 0 – 32% scale can be found online for under £20. Good quality colostrum should have a Brix reading of <26% and poor-quality colostrum is <22%. Colostrum can be stored in the fridge at 4°C for up to 1 week or frozen at -20°C for up to a year. Some infectious diseases can be spread through colostrum, so take care with disease status when storing colostrum in your herd/flock or sourcing from other farmers.

Powdered colostrum contains less than half of the immunoglobulins of ewe/cow colostrum but can be a lifesaver in an emergency. There is no legal requirement for companies to test or disclose the immunoglobulin levels in powdered colostrum as they are marketed as supplements but looking at the ingredients list can given an indication of quality. The immunoglobulins in powdered colostrum are typically derived from colostrum, cheese whey, or egg. Ingredients are listed by order of inclusion so pick one with colostrum as the first ingredient as there is no real correlation between quality and price.

Thorough cleaning and disinfection of equipment for harvesting and storage of colostrum in addition to good pen hygiene will reduce the level of bacterial challenge lambs and calves encounter.

Top tips for a successful lambing and calving:

  • Body condition score ewes and cows regularly.
  • Best colostrum comes from cow/ewe but powdered suitable in an emergency.
  • When selecting a powdered colostrum, look for one with colostrum as the first ingredient.
  • Monitor colostrum quality in your herd/flock with a Brix refractometer.
  • Speak to your vet about metabolic profiles and blood sampling to assess pre-lambing/calving nutrition and colostrum absorption.

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