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Pasture Vs. Shed Lambing

By Denice Rackley

Profit margins are slim in livestock operations; it only makes sense to match the sheep and lambing system we use with our goals, objectives, resources and market. Shed lambing and pasture lambing both have advantages and disadvantages; it is up to each individual to choose the best system for their operation.

Every year on livestock operations we anticipate the arrival of new life. Months of work go into planning so that we can be as prepared as possible for our busiest season. I have been raising lambs for more than 20 years. I have shed lambed in January and February in South Dakota and Indiana and also pasture lambed in Indiana in April

Dr. Bob Leader, D.V.M. says, “From a profitability standpoint the single most important decision you can make is when to lamb. That is because the costliest animal to feed is the lactating ewe.”

ewe with newborns
Shed lambing and pasture lambing both have advantages and disadvantages; it is up to each individual to choose the best system for their operation.

There are many factors to consider when deciding which system of lambing will work best for you. Climate, feed costs and available labor are should be weighted heavily. Disease and predation should also be taken into account, as well as available markets and market highs and lows.

Shed Lambing

Most sheep in the United States are raised in smaller farm flocks where shed lambing is the norm. Shed lambing can be most advantageous with out-of-season or early lambing and highly prolific flocks. The use of barns can ensure successful winter lambing that would not be possible otherwise.

Due to more intensive management, the system can be more effective at controlling losses. Treatment of ewes and lambs is simpler; vaccinating is easier, and often there can be a high percentage of lambs successfully weaned. Shed lambing allows for quicker access and intervention — you have more control or at least can attend to problems quickly when they arise.

Typical lambing barns should house at least 10 percent of the flock. Ewes are shorn two to four weeks prior to lambing. Some are brought inside to lamb and remain there until grass is available; others simply lamb inside and are then moved to another area.

Most lambing barns are set up where a drop pen is used for ewes that are close to lambing. Depending on the size of the flock, there can be several drop pens to contain a certain number of ewes helping to lower chances of mismothering or ewes stealing lambs.

Once a ewe has lambed, she and her offspring are typically moved into jugs (individual pens for the family). The ewes and lambs can be processed in the jug — tagged, banded and/or dewormed — whatever your particular protocol is can easily occur while the family is confined together.

The ewe’s bag can be checked to make sure she has milk and both teats are functional. Bonding is easily accomplished as well.

Most producers will take families from the jug in 24 to 48 hours and move them to a mixing pen containing pairs. This allows them to further bond and learn to find each other when they are in a flock setting.

Bottle lambs are almost inevitable so it is best to have an area set up ahead of time for them as well. Every step of the process can be observed for potential problems and adjustments made as needed. In a barn it is relatively easy to take a lamb from its mother if she cannot feed it and give it to another ewe or keep a family in a jug longer to make sure all the lambs are doing well.

The disadvantage of a shed lambing system is the high capital investment for barns, pens, corrals, water, feeding equipment and barn cleaning equipment. Feed costs are significantly higher if you are caring for ewes lambing in winter versus spring. Creep feeding of lambs raises feed costs as well. Shed lambing systems are also very labor-intensive.

You are checking ewes and lambs every couple of hours and carrying feed to individual pens, feeding inside as well as cleaning and bedding pens. Mortality in lambs is usually the highest in the first 30 days, and more animals grouped together increases the chance of disease.

The most common problems are mastitis for the ewe and pneumonia and scours for lambs. Keeping things clean and draft-free and not overcrowding goes a long way in keeping everyone healthy.

Pasture Lambing

Pasture lambing has the advantage of needing significantly less in the way of capital investments. Ewes lambing on pasture have their feed at their feet so it does not need to be brought to them. Barns are not a necessity because pasture lambing is best done when temperatures are above 45°F. Natural shelter is usually sufficient for newborn lambs, but a contingency for foul weather is helpful.

ewe with lamb
The author uses sheep spray paint for identification, placing the birth number on the ewe and lambs.

Ewes on pasture getting daily exercise have less dystocia problems. Mismothering is also significantly reduced because a ewe that is lambing will distance herself from the flock and can remain undisturbed.

Labor requirements can be significantly lower in pasture lambing systems. Most who pasture lamb do not check pastures after dark. My experience has been that most of the ewes will lamb in the early morning or during daylight. It sure is nice to be finished at sunset and not feel like you need to go out in the middle of the night.

Lambing later in the spring can take advantage of improved fertility for both the ram and ewe. Delaying breeding until the middle of breeding season can result in a 5-10 percent increase in the number of lambs born. Lambs born in later spring can benefit from spring, summer and fall forages, significantly decreasing the cost of finishing.

Pasture lambing’s disadvantages include more difficult treatment for both the ewe and lamb because it is not as convenient to catch and treat them as it is with shed lambing.

Ewes with lower milk production or bad mothers will be evident without the hands-on care and supplementation shed lambing requires, thus they can be culled from the operation, improving the remaining flock. Predators can be a huge detriment when lambing on pasture. Processing ewes and lambs and record-keeping can be more challenging with pasture lambing because you need a way to keep the family together while working with them.

I believe pasture lambing requires a better shepherd with good skills, and an experienced lambing dog makes a world of difference. Pasture lambing requires more attention directed at pasture maintenance for the ewes to milk well, lambs to grow and parasites to not become a large health issue.

Set Stock & Drift Lambing

Set stock and drift lambing are two common ways to address pasture lambing while maintaining the health of the flock, adequate nutrition and getting the most of your pasture.

Some producers find set stock pasture lambing works well for them. A certain number of ewes are moved to a lambing pasture with ample grass and remain there until the group is finished lambing. Once the lambs are a week old or older it is relatively easy to move everyone and begin pasture rotation to take advantage of the spring growth of grass and decrease parasite exposure.

Most producers practicing drift lambing move ewes that have not lambed to new pasture daily, leaving behind ewes with newborn lambs. This allows the new family to bond in the lambing bed the ewe has chosen. In a couple of days these new families are gradually grouped into pastures together. Some producers move the ewes with one- or two-day-old lambs to new pasture, leaving the ewes yet to lamb.

This method of drift lambing has the advantage of moving new families to the best grass available. Drift lambing makes checking for new lambs easier since there are not older lambs in the pasture, and it can limit ewe access to newborn lambs so they cannot steal them. Many people who use pasture lambing methods employ guardian dogs that remain with the flock 24 hours a day to protect them from predators.

Combining Methods

I use a combination of methods that works for me and my flock. I shed lamb if I lamb before April. Ewes are vaccinated for C/D/T about a month before lambing and ideally shorn, but it can be difficult to find a stretch of dry weather here in Indiana. Shearing before lambing keeps the barn drier, shorn ewes take up less space; it is easier to see what is going on without the wool; and the lambs have better access to teats.

When the ewes do not have wool they will prefer to lamb indoors if given the option, thus the lambs are born where it is warmer and dry.

As the ewes bag up they are brought closer to the barn for access to an indoor drop area. The sheep being close at hand makes anything I need to do simpler. I do not have jugs set up, but I have a couple of pens if I need to provide a quiet place for new mothers and their lambs. My older ewes usually do not need to be separated.

I use Border Collies, even in the lambing barn, to assist me. My flock is acclimated to the dogs, and I choose the best dog to help with a particular chore when needed during lambing. I do not have another person available so the dogs are my other set of hands.

After a ewe has lambed I check bags, making sure I get milk from both teats, and lambs are banded and given identification. I use sheep spray paint for identification, placing the birth number on the ewe and lambs. If the ewe has twins she gets a dot of paint on both hips to indicate she has two lambs, and one of the lambs gets a dot on its rump to differentiate it from its sibling. I change the paint color that I use every few weeks, enabling me to tell at a glance who belongs with whom, how many lambs a ewe has and approximate age of the lambs.

ewe with lamb
I use sheep spray paint for identification, placing the birth number on the ewe and lambs.

I have had small lambs with ear tags get their heads stuck in square mesh fence, even with 2-by-4 squares, and because of this I let the lambs grow a bit before I put permanent tags in their ears. The darker paint colors last about three weeks so that gives me some time. I record the ewes’ tag number and information about the birth and lambs in my lambing records. The number on the lamb’s tag is determined by the year they are born followed by their paint number.

If I am keeping twin lambs the second one gets a 2 at the end of the number. For example, 6352 would be a twin born from the 35th ewe to lamb in 2016. This allows me to look back to see who the mother was and trace the parentage even further.

When a ewe loses a tag I usually know what year she was born, and she gets a new 2 number tag if I am not sure of other information. Raising commercial lambs makes the need for identification important, but not critical. Here in Indiana we can have extended periods of rain in late winter so the barn provides needed shelter.

As soon as there is adequate grass, pairs go to pasture during the day and may be brought in at night with the help of Border Collies, depending on temperatures, grass growth, weather and any issues with the lambs.

My barn is rather small; in order to expand my flock I added ewes that I pasture lamb in April. Those ewes are shorn with the others and vaccinated on schedule. They remain in the winter pasture and are moved as they lamb. This works for me because the winter pasture is easy to observe and close to the barn if I need to assist a lambing ewe.

Newborn lambs are banded and identified and the family is moved to an area with fresh grass and trees for shelter with the help of my dogs. I enjoy pasture lambing — I do not have the added chores of cleaning the barn or carrying feed to individual ewes.

I can spend my time directly involved with the sheep. I check for lambs first thing in the morning, a couple times during the day and about 30 minutes before dark.

All the processing work I do is a bit weather-dependent; if it is a wet, chilly day I take that into account and will not band lambs because they can lay on the ground for an extended time and get chilly.

If you band male lambs right before you move them some will lay down, kicking and carrying on, not moving with mom, so you have to decide when it is best to band and move the lambs.

The lambs can move faster than I can, and this makes them hard to catch if I wait more than a day or two. Sometimes I band and put marking paint on them several hours before I plan to move them; other times I do it at the new pasture gate. I trust my ewes to remain with their lambs after they are moved.

Most lambs do not worry so much about banded tails. Every ewe is a bit unique, so I take that into account as well. Most of my ewes will calmly move away from a dog with her lambs, making putting her into a fresh pasture easy, while others are more concerned by the dog, and both the dog and I walk behind the family, heading them in the correct direction.

Other ewes will follow the lambs if I carry them, and the dog brings up the rear, ensuring the ewe is following and not tempted to head back to the place she lambed. Once the group is finished lambing pastures are rotated where the families have access to natural shelter for the next month and are then moved to more open pastures fenced with portable electric netting.

I employ livestock guardian dogs to protect the flock from coyotes and vultures. I use Great Pyrenees that are with the flock all day, every day, and the Border Collies assist me in the movement and management of the flock.

We are fortunate in the United States to have such diversity; diversity of environment, breeds of sheep, markets, production systems and producers themselves. Taking a hard look at your situation, the resources and advantages you have, as well as potential challenges, will enable you to choose between shed and pasture lambing.

Both systems have their advantages, and it comes down to what works best for you. You can always take a bit from both systems, tweak it and make it your own.

This article appeared in the August 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Denice Rackley has run a commercial flock of sheep since the mid-1990s. Degreed in biology, an associate in veterinary technology, certified in canine massage, she worked as a registered vet technician and runs her own grooming business, raises and trains Border Collies and organizes herding dog clinics, lessons and demos. Reach Rackley by phone at 605-842-6321.