Cold, wet start to spring brings health concerns for sheep and lambs

PUBLISHED: 07:46 06 April 2018 | UPDATED: 07:46 06 April 2018

Sheep during the snowy weather at Ketteringham. Picture: iwitness24 / Steven Austin

Sheep during the snowy weather at Ketteringham. Picture: iwitness24 / Steven Austin

(c) copyright

Severe winter weather and a wet start to spring in East Anglia has put pregnant and lambing ewes under additional health pressures, says RACHAEL PORTER.

Ben Crowter, Westover Veterinary CentreBen Crowter, Westover Veterinary Centre

Following the cold and wet start to spring, a Norfolk-based vet is urging sheep producers to be extra vigilant for signs of disease in ewes and lambs.

“The severity of the weather in late February and March took everybody by surprise,” says Ben Crowter, farm animal clinical director at Hainford’s Westover Veterinary Centre.

“Some of our sheep producers have struggled to cope with the challenging conditions, particularly in terms of meeting pregnant and lambing outdoor ewes’ nutritional requirements.

“If ewes take a nutritional ‘knock’ at this point in their production cycle, and fall into a negative energy balance, it becomes a vicious cycle. Loss of appetite and reduced activity decreases feed intakes and exacerbates the problems.”

Josie Hatch, regional ruminant technical sales advisor for CargillJosie Hatch, regional ruminant technical sales advisor for Cargill

Mr Crowter adds that the nutritional stress that ewes are under in the run up to and around lambing is often underestimated and, if ewe nutrition is inadequate, there are knock-on consequences for the lambs too.

“The ewe is likely to produce poorer quality colostrum, and lambs can be weak and slow to suckle,” he said. “Lambs are born with no immunity and so they depend entirely on immunoglobulins in colostrum. If they don’t get enough then they’re vulnerable and exposed to infection.”

Cargill’s regional ruminant technical sales advisor Josie Hatch said many of her sheep producer clients across East Anglia have been feeding extra forage to both pregnant and lactating ewes, in a bid to combat the recent harsh weather conditions.

“It’s certainly not been a typical start to spring – weather in the region is usually considerably warmer and there is usually some grass growth by now,” she said.

“Grass has been under snow and ice for a couple of weeks, which isn’t much of a problem for sheep as they will dig down for grass. But the issue this year is that still isn’t much grass due to the cold snap delaying growth.”

Offering ewes access to hay, silage, and any other forages or “buffer” feeds has been, and continues to be, vital. “Forages should be mould-free and ideally fed in a round feeder to stop the sheep and lambs from trampling on it,” she said.

Ms Hatch added that if colostrum quality is poor, then using a colostrum replacer is well worth the investment. “Ensuring that new-born lambs receive plenty of good quality colostrum – either from their dam or as a replacer product – is the first vital step towards protecting them against disease in early life,” she said.

“That’s a given, whatever the weather during lambing, and it should help to ensure that the recent adverse conditions have a limited impact on the region’s 2018 lamb crop.

“Starter feed should also be offered to lambs – in a creep feeder to prevent ewes from having access to it. This is essential for lambs’ rumen development and a smooth weaning process.

“Creating straw islands –a bale of straw in the field for stock to shelter from wind or to climb to get away from wet and icy conditions – is also great for ewes and lambs. Both will also like to nibble on it.”


• Feed good quality colostrum, containing 50g/litre or more of Immunoglobulin-G (IgG), at a rate of 50ml/kg live weight per feed at birth – and then every six hours for the first 24 hours. Hygiene during collection, transfer and feeding colostrum is critical to lamb survival.

• All lambs’ navels should be dipped with a 10% iodine solution as soon as possible after birth (within 15 minutes), ideally with a second follow- up dip four hours after birth.

• Creep or starter feed should be offered ad libitum. This should be 16pc or 18pc protein and offered from three days old, or after the colostrum phase, to kick start rumen development. Little, fresh and often is the best approach and refused feed should be fed to older stock.

• Ad-libitum access to fresh, clean water is also vital. Remember to break the ice on frozen troughs in cold weather. Water should be offered, from birth, at an easily accessible height from birth. Both water and starter intake drive rumen development in lambs pre-weaning.

• Lambs should also have access to good quality straw. Avoid long green hay as this can lead to depressed starter feed intake, delayed weaning, and pot-bellied lambs.

• Lambs should be closely observed for any signs of ill health. One third of lamb losses occur due to infections, so focus on colostrum feeding and hygiene protocols.

• Lambs should be weaned when they are 2.5 times their birth weight (9-10kg) at around seven weeks of age, and when they are consuming 250g of starter feed a day.

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