Erin Campbell-Craven, Livestock Educator, CCE Ulster County
With birthing season already started or just around the corner for most goat- and sheep-raisers, now is a good time to make sure you are prepared for the most common issues that you might run into with newborn lambs and kids.
Problem: Lamb/kid is stressed by cold weather
What to do: A lamb or kid that is suffering from hypothermia or close to being hypothermic will be weak and hunched up, with cold ears and mouth, and little to no suckling reflex. If the lamb or kid is wet, it should be dried off, and then warmed with a hairdryer or placed in a warming box, which is a small enclosed area with a constant source of heat, such as an electric blanket or hot water bottles. Once the lamb or kid is warm, make sure it receives colostrum or milk (see next paragraph). Moving the lamb or kid to a warm environment and making sure it is fed are both vital to making sure the lamb’s/kid’s temperature gets back to normal (around 101º-103º).
Problem: Lamb/kid is having trouble nursing or refusing to nurse
What to do: It is vital that newborn lambs and kids receive colostrum (milk produced in the first 48 hours after birthing which is high in antibodies) within their first 8-12 hours of life, or their chances of surviving will be halved as they will have limited defenses against disease and infection. Colostrum is also a high-fat energy source that keeps lambs and kids from losing too much body heat in their first few hours of life. When you see lambs and kids struggling to nurse, or notice that a new lamb or kid has empty, concave sides a few hours after being born, first make sure the lamb or kid is warm or dry, then make sure that the mother has milk to feed the offspring by milking each of her teats. You may need to assist the lamb/kid in finding the teat by holding its mouth to the teat and expressing a small amount of milk directly into its mouth. If the lamb/kid is too weak to stand and nurse, milk out colostrum from the mother (best) or use a colostrum replacer and bottle-feed the lamb/kid 2 ounces every couple of hours until it is strong enough to nurse on its own. If the lamb or kid is too weak to suck, use a syringe to squirt milk directly into the mouth but make sure not to squirt milk into the windpipe and the lungs. An extremely weak lamb/might also benefit from adding a spoonful of molasses to the milk to provide a quick energy boost in the form of sugar.
Problem: Lamb/kid is being rejected by mother
What to do: Sometimes a mother is reluctant to care for a new lamb/kid: wandering far away from it, butting or kicking it, or not allowing it to nurse. This can happen when lambs are weak, born later in a litter, when there are other mothers and offspring around and the mother becomes confused as to which offspring belongs to her, or if the mother is a first-time birther. The mother and offspring might need to be placed in a “jug”, or small individual pen, to keep the mother from leaving the lamb or kid and allow the lamb or kid to nurse, which will also stimulate the release of maternal hormones. It might also be necessarily to hold the mother still or restrain her in a headgate to allow the lamb/kid to nurse for first few times after being moved to the jug. The mother and offspring should not be left in the jug longer than a few days, or the lamb/kid might have trouble distinguishing its mother from other adult animals when reintroduced to the flock or herd, as a result of only ever encountering one adult of its species. It is important to closely observe the lamb or kid after placing it in a jug with its mother to ensure that it is nursing – watch for nursing activity (latching on to the teat and receiving milk will usually cause the lamb or kid to wag its tail) and a full stomach. If the mother refuses to accept the lamb or kid, you may be forced to bottle-feed – for more info on artificial rearing rejected kids and lambs, including detailed feeding directions, see: http://www.sheepandgoat.com/articles/artificialfeeding.html
For a list of best practices to follow before and during lambing and kidding, see the February 2014 issue of Livestock 360. For more helpful info about caring for newborn lambs, go to http://www.sheep101.info/201/newborns.html
And, as always, make sure you have the contact info of a reliable veterinarian who is knowledgeable about sheep and goats BEFORE you run into any health problems! The worst time to be struggling to find a veterinarian to assist you is when you are in the middle of a health crisis.