What to expect when your sheep is expecting
Lambing is an exciting time, but can also be a little intimidating for new sheep owners. Thankfully, nature and the ewe will do most of the work. But knowing what to expect and having the right supplies on hand will go a long way toward your peace of mind and your new lamb’s birth.
Your sheep's pregnancy
The gestation period for ewes averages about 140-145 days. Many ewes carry only one lamb with their first pregnancy, but most pregnancies result in twins – even triplets are not uncommon. Newborn lambs usually weigh between 8-10 pounds at birth, depending on the breed.
Preparing for a smooth delivery
As your ewe’s due date approaches, move her to the stall where you want her to give birth, if she’s not there already. Moving her after labor has already begun may lengthen the birthing process. Take extra care to keep the stall bedding clean and dry to provide a more sanitary location for the lamb’s birth. A couple of weeks before her due date is a great time to shear your ewe, as well. It will allow you to more clearly see signs of impending labor and provide a cleaner lambing experience. Perhaps most importantly, identify a good veterinarian or experienced sheep owner who can help with any complications that you don’t feel prepared to handle alone, and keep their phone number on hand.
Also critical in the last weeks is the preparation of the birthing kit. A well-stocked kit should include the following items:
- Flashlight: To better see all angles of your laboring ewe and newborn lambs.
- Several clean, old towels: To cover the bedding during birth, dry off the new lambs and clean up birthing fluids. Puppy training pads also work well as a birthing surface.
- Sharp Scissors & Dental Floss: For cutting and tying off the umbilical cords, only if needed.
- 7% Iodine Tincture and an Empty Prescription Bottle: For dipping the lamb’s umbilical cord. A pill bottle is a good size & shape for holding the iodine during dipping.
- Betadine Surgical Scrub: To sanitize supplies or your hands, should your ewe need birthing assistance.
- Sterile Lubrication: In case you need to enter the ewe’s vaginal opening to assist with the birth.
- Garbage Bags: For collecting afterbirth and soiled towels.
- Heat Lamp: For winter births, a heat lamp or hot water bottles can help keep lambs warm and protect against hypothermia.
- Bottle and Nipple: In case the lamb is not able to nurse immediately after birth.
- Colostrum Replacer or Supplement: For the first, most critical feedings if the lambs are unable to nurse immediately.
- Lamb Milk Replacer: For continued nutrition if the lamb is not able to nurse effectively.
- Electrolytes: To help reverse the effects of loss of body fluids due to diarrhea in newborn lambs and help rehydrate the ewe after laboring.
At about 135 days’ gestation, it is helpful to check in on your ewe every three to four hours to check for signs that labor is approaching, or put a video baby monitor in the birthing stall for more constant monitoring. Signs may be subtle and vary from ewe to ewe, but some common things to look for are:
- Restlessness: When labor is approaching, it can be hard for the ewe to get comfortable, and she may paw the ground.
- Separation: The ewe may start to pull away from the rest of the flock, if they are housed together.
- Darkening of the Vulva: The ewe’s vulva will swell and turn darker pink a few days before labor begins.
- Fuller Udder: The ewe’s milk will start to come in 1-2 days before she gives birth.
- “Dropping”: When the ewe looks more hollowed out, it may be a sign the lamb has moved into the birth canal.
- Signs of Straining: A sign that the ewe is having a contraction.
- Any Unusual Behavior: Any behavior that’s out of the ordinary for your ewe may be a sign that you are about to witness the miracle of birth!
Your role in the birthing process
Most ewes need little assistance with delivery. The entire birthing process may take up to 24 hours. If you see the water bag or evidence that it has broken, the lamb will likely be born within 30-60 minutes. If the ewe is carrying twins, both lambs should be born within 2 hours of seeing the water bag.
Your first peek at the lamb will probably be the nose and front toes – this indicates a normal birth position. The appearance of only the nose or only the hooves, or birth that does not seem to be progressing after 45 minutes may indicate the ewe may need some assistance, so it would be a good time to consult the veterinarian or experienced sheep owner you have identified.
After birth, monitor your ewe closely to ensure that she is able to clean and care for her lamb and begin nursing. The ewe’s licking not only cleans her new lamb, but also helps clear the newborn’s nose and stimulate respiration. For the first few hours, stand back and let the lamb bond with it’s mother and nurse. The ewe will pass her placenta or afterbirth anywhere from 2-24 hours after birth. Then you can move your ewe and her lamb to a lamb jug or clean stall.
Feeding in the first hours and days
The first eighteen hours is critical for the long-term health of your new lamb, and nature will tell him to seek out his mother’s teat as soon as possible to meet his nutritional needs. But if the ewe dies, is in distress, or otherwise cannot effectively nurse her new lamb, it is imperative to have bottles, nipples, and emergency nutrition on hand. Twins and triplets can also benefit from supplemental nutrition, as they may not be able to get enough nutrition from the ewe.
Colostrum, the thick, yellowish first milk provided by the ewe, jump starts the immune system by providing important antibodies that could not be passed to the lamb in utero. The body of a newborn lamb is uniquely suited to absorb these antibodies into the bloodstream via the intestines, but only in the first couple of hours after birth. Absorption of these critical antibodies helps set the stage for a long, healthy life.
The mother’s natural colostrum provides the best nutritional start for her newborn lamb because it contains antibodies that are specific to her flock and surroundings. But if the lamb does not nurse within 2 hours or you are worried it’s not nursing often enough or receiving adequate colostrum from the ewe, a colostrum replacer or supplement will help provide this critical immune support. Feed colostrum by bottle for the first 24 hours of life, according to package directions, if the lamb does not begin nursing properly.
Milk Replacer: On day two, if the lamb is still not nursing effectively, switch to milk replacer to provide the balanced nutrition needed for growth and development. Always choose a milk replacer that is specifically formulated for lambs, and follow the packaging mixing and feeding instructions carefully to provide proper nutrition.
Electrolytes: The birth experience exposes newborn lambs to various microorganisms that can cause digestive distress and cause diarrhea. Because diarrhea can easily lead to dehydration, it is important to supplement the mother’s milk or milk replacer with electrolytes to reverse the effects of body fluids. Be sure to feed electrolytes separately from milk or milk replacer products, and always follow package directions for best results.
With proper birth preparation, early monitoring and newborn nutrition, you will give your newborn lambs the best chance of a long, healthy life and be able to enjoy their presence for many years to come.