Farming sheep is fraught with difficulties, as any farmer will tell you. Keeping sheep fed, watered and healthy is no straightforward process, and one of the largest issues facing sheep farmers is the loss of lambs during pregnancy or after birth. Representing a huge cost in lost potential, lamb loss is something which farmers are endlessly trying to reduce.
In recent years, lambs have fetched as little as $2 per head, and with those unsustainably low returns, farmers were flocking from sheep farming in droves. As a result, Australian lamb stocks reduced to an incredibly low rate. Lately, increasing demand for lamb has sent prices through the roof, and this has seen a bit if a resurgence in the industry. Still, in order to remain viable, limiting lamb losses is critical. One UK study surmised that the cost of each lamb loss on British farms was as high as £24 (or around AUD$41).
Reasons for lamb loss
There are several common causes for lamb loss during pregnancy, and shortly after birth. The causes are specific to each farm, and cannot be applied broadly to a region. Perhaps one of the only causes which universally affects farms in certain regions is that of winter exposure. For lambs born before or during winter, their survival hinges on being fit enough to survive the conditions. However, lamb loss due to climate conditions is only one of the issues facing farmers. The others include:
- Dystocia (or difficulties during birth)
- Exposure to the elements
- Starvation or lack of care from mother
- Predation by other animals
Prevention of lamb loss
While farmers may not be able to control factors such as the weather, mothering of lambs or birthing difficulties directly, there are a number of preventative steps which can be taken to reduce the likelihood of still birth or early-life death of lambs.
Farmers who provide appropriate shelter for their sheep and lambs, especially during the winter months, are able to negate many of the effects of inclement weather, and thus, prevent lamb deaths due to exposure. Providing shelter also gives sheep a fighting chance at raising their lambs to good health, as their comfort and health directly influence survival of lambs.
Strategic feeding and nutrition
Dystocia can occur if sheep are fed too heavily during the later stages of pregnancy, resulting in larger unborn lambs. This puts stress on the mother and lamb during the birth and can result in the death of one or both of them. Ewes with underdeveloped pelvic regions, due to insufficient nutrition (and therefore stunted development) also experience difficulty in birthing lambs. Ensuring that ewes are fed appropriately both throughout their pregnancy, and beforehand gives both lamb and mother the best chance of a successful birth.
Adequate and appropriate nutrition is another factor that, while complicated, can greatly reduce the occurrence of lamb loss. Lambing paddocks require sufficient pastoral coverage to provide nutrition for ewes throughout their pregnancy, and preferably in the immediate stages before pregnancy. Nutritional robustness will ensure that the mother is able to provide adequate milk to the lamb in its infancy, and will also result in healthier newborn lambs. Throughout suckling, ewes also require substantial nutrition in order to produce adequate milk before weaning occurs. Underfed ewes will often abandon their lambs, as will those who have been interfered with by predators or even humans.
Foxes, wild dogs, feral pigs and even crows can prey on lambs in their infancy, especially if the lamb is underweight or weak. Unfortunately, keeping predatory specials out of farms is a process laden with challenges. Generally, shooting, trapping and baiting for predators (those which are pest species) requires a community effort from surrounding farms and properties to have any real success. Furthermore, farmers can ensure that their paddocks are as secure as possible with quality fencing and regular maintenance.
Finally, moving vulnerable stock into more secure paddocks, closer to farmhouses and employing the use of guard animals can greatly reduce the risk of predation on lambs and sheep.
Lamb deaths and targets in Australia
According to The Border Mail, lamb deaths in Australia each year are substantial enough to fill 45 Olympic swimming pools. That figure represents a huge loss in income potential for Australian farmers, and could clearly do with some improvement. Sheep Connect SA have prescribed some guideline targets for lamb and ewe loss which are considered acceptable for farmers who are making concerted efforts to prevent lamb loss:
- Percentage of twin lambs surviving – 80%
- Percentage of single lambs surviving – 90%
- Percentage of ewe deaths – 3%
- Percentage of ewes not rearing lambs – 5%
These simple and effective strategies in lamb-loss prevention, while traditional and low-tech in nature, represent tangible benefit to farmers who invest wisely across several techniques. With lamb prices rising astronomically in the last couple of years, farmers who take measured steps to reduce their lamb loss are set to cash-in on this once-more lucrative market.