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Surviving Sub-Zero Lambing

Originally published in the Winter 1994 issue of The Fiberfest Magazine.

"The best laid plans of mice and men..." Who could have known back during the heat of August when the dance cards were filled out and the rams were turned into the unsuspecting lazy ewe flocks that five months later we would be in the throes of the coldest, most bitter winter in memory?

Lambs began dropping, as did the temperatures and wind chill. Our cold weather lambing began on January 9th, 1994, with a nice set of shiny black twins, and ended 30 lambs later on February 8th with twin ewe lambs. In between was just a blur of mind-numbing cold and blowing snow. But we never lost a ewe or a lamb and had no bottle babies.

Our barn is just a regular pole barn, 24 by 48 feet. It's not insulated; even the roof is metal. ventilation there is plenty. Beside the ridge vent running the entire length of the roof, there are gaps around the overhead door, the sliding door, the service doors, and the windows. By the end of January, the foot or two of snow on the roof did provide some insulation. Old towels and rags were stuffed to fill the biggest gaps. For the first time in 12 years the water hydrant inside the barn froze. Heat tape and pipe insulation remedied that problem.

Vigilance, speed, and organization are imperative to lambing in sub-zero temperatures. The first few weeks of life are critical for the lamb's survival. Ninety percent of lamb deaths occur before three weeks of age, most of these within the first 24 hours of birth. Starvation, hypothermia, and pneumonia account for most of the losses. Outside, with the wind howling, the snow blowing, and the temperatures no even reaching zero, drastic measures are needed for lamb survival. How quickly amniotic fluid freezes on a newborn lamb when the inside temperature registers 0 to 5 degrees from where it hangs on the feed-room door inside the barn! Ice crystals form almost immediately on umbilical cords, ears, and tails, so lambs must be dried quickly. Then the newborns must be warmed both inside and out, before their energy reserve is depleted.

When speed is imperative, stomach tube equipment should be at the ready. A package of nine-ounce Styrofoam cups really comes in handy. The ewe can be quickly milked into the cup, which will easily hold the five ounces (150 cc) necessary to get a newborn lamb going. When a lamb is born during sub-zero weather, everything must be ready. A little hang-on-the-fence carrier that can be brought into the lambing jug is perfect, along with a couple of clean, dry towels.

First, clear the nose, mouth, and face, making sure the lab is breathing and its lungs are clear. Help the ewe dry the lamb, allowing her to do a lot of licking and talking. You can concentrate on drying the ears, legs, and tail. Cradle the lamb in your lap while you snip the umbilical cord to about one inch and soak the stub with iodine.

Feeding by use of a stomach tube is a simple procedure. If you never tried it, learn how and don't be afraid. It is so easy to save a newborn lamb's life and much safer than trying to force the lamb to nurse from a bottle. If a lamb is strong enough to hold up its head up, then it is almost impossible to pass the tube incorrectly into the lungs. He'll struggle, cough, and fight to keep the tube from entering the trachea and lungs. Hold the lamb in your lap or in front of you on the ground. Insert the tube (without the syringe attached) into the mouth--the lamb will help by swallowing. Slowly pass the tube easily down the esophagus and into the stomach. The lamb will chew on the tube but will be in no discomfort. Attach the syringe filled with ewe's milk onto the end and gently empty the contents of the syringe. Remove the syringe from the tube, refill, and reattach as before. Usually this first feeding is enough to give the newborn lamb the strength and warmth to overcome the elements.

Large-sized disposable baby diapers have been a true life-saver. When put on upside down, they absorb any leftover moisture and help retain body heat. If you keep the vital area over the heart and lungs warm, the warmth is circulated via the bloodstream throughout the body. The diaper should be kept on the lamb overnight or until the lamb is dry and strong. Ignore the temptation to reuse the diaper on the next lamb. The new mom might not take kindly to the scent of another lamb on what she thought was hers. The diaper can then be replaced with coats made from recycled sweatshirt sleeves, or pant legs from sweatpants or corduroy jeans.

Listening for the sounds of a ewe in labor or mamma-talk on a two-way barn monitor is certainly better than getting up during the night, pulling on all those heavy clothes, and trudging through the deep snow drifts to the barn. After turning on the light, you see the peacefully sleeping sheep get to their feet with eyes blinking from the brightness, bleating "Is it breakfast time already?" With nothing going on, you turn off the light and drag yourself back to bed, only to repeat the procedure in a couple of hours.

The monitor is great until that one crafty ewe learns the sound of the monitor clicking on and begins bellowing so loud for her breakfast that it's impossible to hear if any ewe is in labor. Fortunately, not all monitors click.

Sometimes a birth is missed and you find a cold, weak lamb. These lambs are usually hypothermic (the have below-normal body temperatures) and must be warmed before you attempt to feed. Hypothermia accounts for half of all deaths in newborn lambs. A new, wet lamb can have a high rate of heat loss from exposure to the cold and a low rate of heat production. There are several ways to warm a lamb. Heat lamps and hair dryers are inefficient and sometimes dangerous. A warming box, if you have one, is good. Or the body of the lamb can be put in a plastic bag (leaving the head out, of course) and the bag immersed in very warm water (this will keep the scent from being washed off the lamb, so the ewe will be less apt to reject it).

The most efficient method for us was the following: wrap the lamb in a towel and transport it to the house in a strong cardboard box with handles or even an old ice chest (just keep the lamb from getting colder or exposed to a draft in transit). If dealing with a multiple birth, be sure to take all of the lambs. Lay the lamb on warm sheets or in a laundry basket near the wood stove. Gently dry with a warm towel until the lamb starts getting active and wants to go exploring. While this is happening, you can go back to the barn, milk the ewe into a cup, and feed the lamb with the stomach tube. Then put the lamb back in the box and return it to the ewe.

If, unfortunately, you should happen to find a lamb so cold and weak that it is unable to hold its head up, do not try to feed it with the stomach tube. In these lambs it is just too easy to slip the tube into the trachea and won into the lungs. The lamb will then drown. These lambs must be given an intraperitoneal injection of a warm glucose solution. This sounds scary and it is--but the lamb is already practically dead, so what have you got to lose? If you do lamb during cold weather, find out how to do this injection--either read about it in a reference book or have your veterinarian show you. This procedure may come in handy someday.

Hopefully the information shared in this article will help you survive expected or unexpected sub-zero lambing. Remember, the prompt use of a stomach tube and a disposable diaper, in addition to vigilance, speed, and organization, will prevent many problems and save many lambs.

Suggested Reference:

F. A. Eales and J. Small, Practical Lambing, 1986. Longman Group Limited.

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