Relaxed Ltd: celebrating smallholding
Relaxed Ltd: celebrating smallholding
Relaxed Ltd: celebrating smallholding
Relaxed Ltd: celebrating smallholding
Relaxed Ltd: celebrating smallholding uk
Relaxed Ltd: celebrating smallholding uk
Successful Breeding (Part Six) - by Jack Smellie
Your Pregnant Stock
Celebrating Smallholding
A vaccinated mum will pass on some of the immunity to her newborns via the colostrum, covering them until they are old enough for their own vaccinations
(4-6 weeks)

In the sixth article of this series, we now turn our attention to the world of breeding sheep and goats.

At this time of year, the excitement amongst many smallholders is definitely increasing as lambing and kidding times fast approach. For some, it has already started but for many of us with smaller numbers and with more traditional breeds, lambing and kidding are planned for early spring. This is because, in theory, this gives both the mums, and in due course the lambs and kids, access to lush spring grass, more daylight hours and overall better outside weather! (She writes as Storm Eleanor rages outside the window!!)
It can be a magical time: the culmination of a year's work, of keeping parent stock in fabulous health, and fields parasite and weed-free, all destined (we hope) to give the newly born youngsters the best start in life!! It can of course also be heartbreaking with ill-health, deaths and unexpected/unwanted outcomes.

Several times already in this series we have asked what successful breeding actually is. The answer is surprisingly multi-layered. In part, success can only be measured against your intended outcomes (if you wanted a future breeding male for example, then a majority of female births may not be deemed successful). It also has to be based on the long term and not those first 24 hours (crucial though they are), or even those first few weeks. Obviously we all aim for happy, healthy offspring but deaths are inevitable; understanding why, learning from them and moving on will ensure better success next time (either because you will know how to avoid the death next time or because you will accept it was unpreventable).
We believe, however, that the real ‘key' to successful breeding is to really enjoy it. Without that the whole experience will just be way too stressful. And to enjoy it, you need to be prepared, and to be prepared you need, in our opinion, to understand a fair amount about what is actually going on. And in thus being prepared and aware, you will enjoy it far more: all delightfully cyclical!
This article, (in two parts), will discuss how to look after your pregnant stock and then deal with the birth and those first really crucial 24 hours! We will be focusing mainly on sheep and goats where there is a lot of common ground both in how to manage them and how they each give birth and nurse their young!

Body condition scoring out in the field in a secure enclosed space, keeping stress to a minimum’ (photo credit Hayley Simpkin)
Celebrating Smallholding

To scan or not to scan
Now, you may or may not have had your pregnant ewes and nannies scanned - there are however good reasons why it is a sensible thing to do. First and foremost, scanning will tell you (usually fairly accurately) how many youngsters are developing. This is important for three main reasons, one being so that you can adjust your feeding regime. Animals expecting singles will (in theory) require less feed, animals expecting more than twins a lot more. Too little or too much can result in either lambs or kids that are just too big to be born naturally or very undernourished mums that put everything into their growing foetuses and nothing into themselves. Twin lamb disease (which can affect goats too) occurs when an undernourished ewe's own fat reserves are broken down in her liver into units called ketones. If the ewe doesn't receive additional energy supplies to top her up, these ketones can then go on to poison her blood, which can then lead to death. The second reason why scanning is useful is so that when the animal gives birth you know how many to expect and so can intervene if required. Knowing a ewe or nanny is, for example, just going to be giving birth to a single essentially gives peace of mind; likewise you know that any expecting triplets may need additional help post birth with a potential bottle-feeding routine needing to be put in place! The third reason for scanning is because it can give you reasonably accurate birth dates (if you don't already have them from using a raddle)!
Scanning may also result in the knowledge you have a barren animal and at that stage decisions can be made as to what you want to do about this, rather than waiting another two or three months and then wondering whether the animal never was pregnant or maybe reabsorbed or aborted!!

The successful outcome we all hope to achieve if we have looked after our pregnant stock as well as possible (photo credit Dave and Debbie Church)
Celebrating Smallholding

Body Condition Scoring
But, you must not feel you HAVE to scan your stock. Those of us with small numbers (this year we are kidding just three goats and have six in-lamb ewes) may feel it is an unaffordable expense or that we would rather ‘wait and see'. However, in this case, we would say it is crucial to be able to body condition score your females and so base your feeding regime on each individual animal's condition. Easy with six, not so easy with sixty! Body conditioning is based on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is seriously underweight and 5 is seriously overweight. During a sheep or goat pregnancy, you need to aim for a 3/3.5. There are plenty of videos online and intricate diagrams that show how to body condition score but essentially an animal with a score of 3 has a smooth rounded feel to the spine, a good covering of fat on the loin and a light pressure is needed to feel the ends of the ‘traverse process' (the end ribs). If you can get used to feeling your animals on a weekly/fortnightly or so basis, you will quickly detect any that are either losing weight or putting on too much. Goats give more of a visual indicator because of their lack of a thick fleece but it is still useful to feel them. Also with goats, if they are becoming undernourished, their coat will often lose some of its gloss and shine and it will feel dryer!
It's also important to get to know your own animals really well and this applies if you have six or sixty and whether you have scanned or not. Often we look at our individual nannies and ewes and simply by looking can tell something is not quite right.

Heavily pregnant stock will need frequent checking
Celebrating Smallholding

70% of growth in just six weeks
The last six weeks of foetal growth, approximately the final 30% of the total pregnancy time, are crucial because a staggering 70% of the growth occurs in this time. This therefore is the time when your feeding regimes and body conditioning really need to be vigilant. Many people choose to house their animals at this time in order to keep an eye on them and ensure that they don't have to deal with bad weather and/or searching for food at a time when their growing foetuses are going to be at maximum demand. Again, whether you lamb indoors or outdoors depends on you, your animals and your land and of course the weather. Some of the more primitive breeds such as Soay may not do well being restricted indoors, whilst some of the less hardy breeds may not do well being left out. Stress is a major issue to be aware of as an anxious in-lamb or in-kid animal can lose condition quickly and worse case scenario, abort. Thus whatever systems you set up for the last six weeks of pregnancy, they need to suit you ‘and' the animal so stress is kept to a minimum and you can manage the set-up as easily and calmly as possible.
Four to six weeks before birth, sheep and goats can be vaccinated against the clostridial diseases (pulp kidney, tetanus, struck and lamb dysentery). Sheep can also receive protection against Pasteurella (goats can too except a goat's immune system is different to that of a sheep and vets will often advise not to give too many vaccines at once to a goat). Whether you vaccinate or not is a personal choice but one to be made having spoken to your vet. The idea behind the vaccination is that it protects the sheep and goats AND then some protection is also passed on to the new-born via its mum's colostrum!!

Fresh, new grass in early spring and a perfect time to have young stock on your land
Celebrating Smallholding

Own systems
We all develop our own systems when we lamb and kid and as our experience grows, these (should) change and develop. Talking to your vet and having more experienced help at hand (or at the end of a phone) is highly recommended. As D-Day approaches, you want to feel as in control as it is possible to be…

We end this first part with a few pearls of wisdom from fellow sheep/goat keepers up and down the country:
Mark Hughes:
Know your animals: Understand the breed and its origins/purpose. Use this to design a husbandry regime that is tailored to them and not to you. Understand each individual over time, keep extensive records and don't be afraid to cull animals that present problems (this is true for any health issue but applies to lambing too). You positively select for straightforward lambing!
Katy McDermott:
I lamb indoors, on a very small scale, a flock of rare breed Leicester Longwools. It's away from home so we find good worklights and a huge decent flask are very helpful. Just vaccinated heptavac today - always 1st Jan so I can remember the date easily! Proper MOT for ewes, wool cut back from bum to near teats so lambs find teats easily.
Dawn McHugh (Carmarthenshire):
Before lambing and kidding is due to start, get together a birthing kit, colostrum in case its needed, torches, hot water bottles, vet telephone numbers where everyone can find them. Check and re-check you have everything you will need.
Justin Willett (New South Wales):
I have found making sure my does have the right amount of feed the 4 weeks prior to kidding vital in healthy kids. I also dose the does 2 weeks out with a high energy mineral drench. Have found the kids leap out then.
Julia Edmunds (Wales):
Don't be complacent with expectant mums! We hoped a lovely mixed breed goat we had would end up in kid but she showed zero signs of carrying. Then all of a sudden she was huge. Then she was skinny as a rake again... then huge... then not.. to the point I was convinced she wasn't expecting and had just eaten a little too much. One beautiful sunny day, having given her no extra feeding, I arrived at the field to find her with 3 stunning triplets! Not all animals pregnancy symptoms are the same, some carry hidden. If in doubt, get them scanned and be prepared! Luckily she chose a sunny afternoon so babies were warm and clean!

Next time: those final few days, the birth and those first crucial 24 hours!!

Next article in the series: Successful Breeding (Part Seven) - Lambing and Kidding

This article and images © Jack Smellie 2020       An adapted version was first published in the March 2018 edition of Country Smallholding

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