Lambs and Kids and Rain, Oh My!
by Carrie Bargren, DVM
Name six things that come to mind for the months of March and April: rain, March Madness, rain, spring flowers, rain and baby sheep and goats!! While it’s not exactly warm outside yet, we’re in the heat of the spring lambing and kidding season. Having a small herd of sheep or goats is becoming more popular, so it’s a good time to review the basics of newborn lamb and kid care along with the most common newborn health problems.
There are many factors that contribute to the survival of the newborn, including factors related to the newborn and its dam, the environment, animal management and genetics. The three most important factors are the newborn’s birth weight, the body condition of the dam and adequate colostrum. The majority of newborn losses (66%) happen during, before or shortly after birth and 15% occur within the first five days of life.
After a lamb is born, it should be kept in an individual pen with its dam for at least 24 hours, allowing time for them to imprint and avoid rejected lambs. A close eye can also be kept on the pair to watch for proper nursing and if there’s any need for intervention. The navel should be dipped in iodine or chlorhexidine solution, and the lamb should be making attempts to stand and nurse within 30 minutes of being born and should be successful within 2 hours. As with calves, colostrum is important for lambs, and if it becomes apparent that the lamb is unable to nurse or there doesn’t seem to be sufficient milk production, colostrum should be supplemented. The lamb should receive 110mL of colostrum per pound of body weight within the first 2 hours and a total of 440mL colostrum per pound of body weight in the first day. If the dam doesn’t produce sufficient colostrum, it can be taken from another ewe or a goat, either fresh or frozen and thawed. It’s a good practice to take colostrum from ewes that lose their lambs and freeze it for the future. While commercially made colostrum replacer works in a pinch, it’s not nearly as good as what the ewe makes herself.
A newborn kid (baby goat) should be closely watched for a normal breathing pattern and may need its nose and mouth cleared of mucus and amniotic fluid. Respiration is stimulated by the doe’s (mom goat’s) aggressive licking or by being rubbed with a towel. Dip the navel in iodine or chlorhexidine solution, and the kid should be attempting to stand within minutes of being born and nursing within a few hours. Kids should receive adequate colostrum in the first four hours. Dairy goats are given heat-treated colostrum and should be fed 10% of their body weight in colostrum in their first day divided into 3 to 4 feedings. Commercial colostrum replacers do not work well in goats, so a good supply of frozen colostrum must be kept available. Since the soil in Southwestern Wisconsin is Selenium deficient, the kids will need a shot of Bo-Se which contains Vitamin E and Selenium: 0.25mL for small-breed kids and 0.5mL for medium-large breed kids. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s more than enough.
The fresh ewe or doe should be checked for additional fetuses by ‘bumping’ her side and monitoring for signs of weakness that would indicate milk fever. The cleanings are usually passed quickly, but aren’t considered retained until 6 to 12 hours post-partum. Check the udder for good milk flow and any sign of mastitis before the newborn attempts to nurse. It’s best to keep the new family separate from the herd in a small pen for the first few days to monitor the newborns and ensure proper bonding before joining the herd.
The most common newborn health problems are hypothermia, starvation, and diarrhea. A key factor in preventing any of these involves quality colostrum in a timely manner.
Hypothermia: Newborn lambs and kids can’t regulate their own body temperature for the first 36 hours of life, and their tiny little bodies lose heat quickly. The normal temperature of a newborn is 102-104F. (Adult sheep are 102-103.5F and adult goats are 100.5-103.5F.) If their temperatures drop below 102, assume they can’t warm up without your assistance. In anticipation of cooler weather, use heat lamps and deep bedding in the lambing and kidding pens and put jackets or old toddler-sized sweatshirts or vests on the newborns. This is especially important with kids, as they only have a very thin haircoat. Also encourage them to nurse or tube feed them colostrum if necessary; they require calories to make heat!
Starvation: Anything that prevents the newborn from nursing can quickly result in starvation. This includes insufficient colostrum, a small or weak baby, too many siblings or an injury to the newborn. The dam might not have enough milk for her litter or develop mastitis. Encourage the starving newborn to nurse without competition. It may need to be tube-fed a few times to gain the strength to resume nursing on its own.
Diarrhea: Insufficient colostrum and a contaminated environment at birth can lead to diarrhea with subsequent dehydration and acidosis. Start with clean pens and good colostrum intake to prevent most cases. Affected newborns will need supplementation with oral electrolytes for hydration and to resolve acidosis. Calf oral electrolyte solutions work well as does children’s Pedialyte.
With any newborns, sick or not, watch them closely for the first 24 hours for correct nursing behavior and frequency. If the newborn isn’t nursing well, work closely with it and the dam for 24 hours before deciding to bottle feed. Some influencing factors are if the dam doesn’t have enough milk, it’s a large litter, if the dam rejects the baby or the dam unfortunately dies. The best newborn to bottle-feed is the smallest and weakest, as it would have trouble nursing without help regardless. If possible, identify those to bottle feed within 2-6 hours after birth, but allow them to nurse normally for good colostrum intake.
Feed the bottle babies a sheep and goat specific milk replacer (Land O’Lakes makes a good one) which has a high fat content. Cow replacers don’t have a high enough fat content, so they aren’t recommended. Follow the directions on the bag for mixing, amount to be fed and frequency of feedings. Meals will be small amounts and frequently: give 2-3oz every 2-4 hours for the first three days, then slowly start increasing the volume and spacing out feedings. After the first few days, the milk replacer
can be fed cold and creep feed (the sheep and goat equivalent to calf starter) can be introduced as well. When the bottle babies are four weeks old, vaccinate them for Clostridium perfringens type C, D and tetanus, boostering when they’re eight weeks old.
As the bottle babies get older, they should be consuming more solid foods and be weaned based on their weight rather than age. They should also be eating sufficient feed and hay to maintain caloric intake during weaning and be a minimum of 20 pounds for sheep and medium or large-breed goats, or 2.5 times their birth weight. Wean the bottle babies from milk abruptly and keep them on creep feed and hay for a week before turning them out on pasture.
Raising goats and sheep is a rewarding and adorable adventure but comes with its own set of difficulties and challenges, especially around lambing and kidding season. There are many wonderful resources available online for any experience level, including the University of Maryland Small Ruminant Extension Program at www.sheepandgoat.com, which we’d highly recommend! And don’t forget, your vet knows about sheep and goats too!