How to Effectively Manage a Lambing Pen System
Lambing pens offer a multitude of benefits to breeders. Regina Harmse, who breeds Ile de France sheep in Mpumalanga, spoke to Annelie Coleman about how these pens can add value to any type of sheep production business.
For Regina Harmse, who runs Haras RCH Ile de France at the Uitgezocht farm near Ermelo, improving the quality of her animals is a non-negotiable. With around 1,000 ewes from the Ile-de-France region divided 50/50 between stud farms and commercial herds, she must carry out an intensive and manual operation to make a profit.
And for that, it is essential to maintain the highest possible lambing and weaning percentages. For this reason, lambing pens are a key part of his operation.
Common misconceptions about lambing pens are that a breeder can use them to turn bad dams into better dams, or that the system engenders maternal instinct in ewes.
Harmse says the truth is that a lambing pen system is an invaluable tool for raising a flock and increasing income because it allows a producer to increase weaning percentages and reduce cow mortality rates. lambs.
And while it doesn’t solve animal problems, a lambing pen system allows for easier selection of genetics for better mothering ability. She adds that it is the breeder’s job, after all, to notice ewes that show poor maternal ability and cull them accordingly.
A lambing pen system requires a short lambing period (a maximum of 35 days) to mitigate animal feed and labor costs.
According to Harmse, the majority of lamb deaths occur within the first three days after birth. Small lambs are ideal prey for predators such as jackals and black-backed caracals and, in the case of many communal farmers, wild dogs.
High concentrations of ewes in a single camp, the number of lambs born per day, and environmental conditions also contribute to lamb mortality rates. The more ewes there are in a camp and the higher the number of lambs born per day, the more detailed and complex management structure is needed. The ultimate goal of a well-functioning lambing system is therefore to score every ewe and lamb during the lambing season.
“The Ile de France breed is known for its ability to produce multiple births, which requires increased management and control. This is necessary for the long-term sustainability of the operation, as multiple births greatly increase reproduction and growth rates.
“Lambing pens allow the farmer to monitor lambs and ewes consistently and regularly. A very important aspect of pens is that they allow a lamb to suckle within three hours of birth, which is crucial for the bonding process between ewe and lamb,” she says.
Colostrum is the first form of milk produced by mammals immediately after the birth of their young. It contains antibodies that protect the newborn animal against disease and infection, as well as immune cells and growth factors that help activate the young animal’s immune system and ensure its health, growth and vitality. . The sooner a lamb ingests colostrum, the better.
With regular monitoring of penned ewes, any problems they may have, such as blocked teats, can be observed early enough to prevent permanent damage. Blocked teats are known to cause a marked drop in milk production and consequently a spike in lamb mortality.
Teat health is critical to the survival of ewes and lambs. Bacteria that enter the teat after feeding can cause infections such as mastitis. Keeping sheep in pens helps to detect diseases and other ailments early.
Harmse says the average lambing pen should be no smaller than 1.5m x 1.5m x 0.9m. A pen of this size will comfortably accommodate a ewe and her offspring. However, the actual pen size will depend on the breed of sheep and whether the ewe is carrying a singleton or multiple lambs.
Food and water containers should be secured to the pen wall to free up floor space for the animals.
The choice of building materials is up to the farmer; steel pens, for example, are stronger, but more expensive than those made of pallet wood. However, the main objective remains the same: to prevent the lambs from escaping.
In the case of pens with dirt or cement floors, Harmse recommends covering them with sawdust or hay, as they can become cold and damp. Wooden slatted floors can also be used.
“In my case, the enclosures are covered, and they have dirt floors covered in sawdust. Earthen soil is ideal for good drainage. However, enclosures should be cleaned and sawdust replaced regularly to keep the soil surface dry.
“It is also advisable to disinfect the enclosures with lime before adding sawdust or hay. The main point is that the enclosures should be designed in such a way that the animals are protected from the weather and in the shade.
“Flying and biting insects must also be controlled to protect animals from bacteria and disease.”
The umbilical cord is a potential problem in lambs and should be monitored and treated if necessary. The open navel can serve as an entry point for bacteria and a direct route to the liver. It is therefore crucial to properly disinfect the umbilical cord of a newborn lamb with iodine and to keep the pen hygienic.
With lambs born in pens, this whole process is much easier.
Vaccination is essential to the health of the ewe (and its lamb) during gestation, throughout parturition and during lactation. Pregnancy suppresses the ewe’s immunity level, which reduces the protection she and her unborn lamb have against debilitating and deadly diseases.
During this period and throughout lambing, the ewe will be protected from the diseases against which it has been vaccinated.
When the ewe is vaccinated two to four weeks before lambing, maternal antibodies in the form of colostrum are produced in the udder. When colostrum is consumed by the lamb within the first 48 hours after birth, these maternal antibodies protect the animal from the corresponding diseases for 6 to 10 weeks. This is essential to protect the lamb from death and disease until its own immune system becomes fully functional.
For pre-lamb vaccine to be effective, it must be administered correctly, according to label instructions. Harmse advises farmers to use Multivax-P to prevent pasteurellosis, pulpy kidney, tetanus, malignant edema and black quarter, among other diseases.
She also recommends vaccination of Onderstepoort Biological Products against blue udder. No live vaccines should be used during pregnancy, as they could cause high fever, followed by abortions.
However, it is essential that ewes are dewormed approximately one week before lambing. Trace elements are essential to ensure high lambing rates and weaning weights, and the demand for manganese, zinc, copper and selenium in particular increases sharply during gestation.
These elements play a vital role in fetal development (especially during the later stages of pregnancy) and ultimately the survival rate of lambs, due to the high levels of these elements provided by sheep’s milk.
Physical condition and well-being
It is obvious that ewes full of lambs should be kept in the best possible condition. However, it does not make sense to start improving the condition of thin ewes during the last six weeks of gestation, as there is a good chance that this will lead to problems with lambing.
“What usually happens is the fetus gets too big to lamb safely,” says Harmse.
“The ideal is to provide the ewe with a ration of 450 to 500 g every day from the start of the lambing season, and to increase this by 250 to 300 g every seven days.
“The daily ration for ewes with one lamb should not exceed 1.5 kg, and ewes with several lambs should not receive more than 2 kg per day before lambing. Bypass protein should be provided late in pregnancy to improve maternal ability, increase growth rate, improve colostrum quality and prevent lambing problems.
For penned ewes, Harmse recommends a feed mix of 375 kg ground alfalfa, 350 kg
ground maize, 150 kg of Voermol Maxiwol concentrate, 50 kg of Voermol Procon 33 and 80 kg of Voermol molasses flour provided daily at the rate of 1.5 kg to 2.5 kg for each ewe.
“Because we synchronize breeding animals, we can determine which ewes were mated in the first and second mating cycles. As soon as the first ewe gives birth, she and the rest of her group are penned in, and the other lambs are born here.
“It is particularly important to house young ewes so that they get used to the environment, because they [tend to get more] stressed than mature ewes.
Change of scenery
The ewes and their lambs are put out to pasture as soon as they have bonded and the young are suckling well; it usually takes three to four days in the case of singletons and three to five days with multiple lambs.
The penned animals are released in small groups and gradually introduced into the larger flocks so that the lambs can get used to higher concentrations of animals and ensure that they can recognize their mother well enough to stay with them.
It is advisable not to keep lactating ewes in groups of more than 100 animals. In the case of singletons, ewes and lambs are initially kept in groups of 10 ewes for five to seven days, then moved to groups of 20 ewes for the next five to seven days. From there they are moved to groups of 40 ewes for another five to seven days.
With multiple lambs, ewes are kept in groups of five, 10, 20, or 35–40. According to Harmse, there should never be more than 200–250 lambs and ewes in a camp, regardless of the lambing system. .
Management and control
Developing and operating a lambing pen system is more expensive than most other lambing systems, and that includes the expense of animal feed. It is also more laborious. However, increased weaning rates mean a good return on investment.
Success or failure depends on proper control and sound management.
“The implementation of strict biosecurity measures is essential due to the significant increase in cases of cryptosporidiosis. This disease has taken its toll on the local livestock industry, and one measure that can be taken to prevent it is to not allow outsiders into the enclosures.
“Without a strict biosecurity system, it is virtually impossible to run a sustainable livestock business in South Africa,” says Harmse.