Managing small ruminants to reduce complications at parturition

Kidding/Lambing is a very stressful time for small ruminants. Proper management leading up to delivery can help to reduce complications.

Sheep and it's babies.
Photo by Mike Metzger, MSU Extension.

Pregnant animals have a few very important needs that are different from other livestock. The start of care for a pregnant animal should begin well before the actual breeding takes place. Does and ewes need to have an acceptable body condition score (BCS). BCS scores in sheep and goats range from 1 to 5. They need to be neither too fat nor too thin to be able to have a heat cycle, become pregnant and continue to support a fetus or multiple fetuses. This means that producers must have an adequate nutritional program in place for their breeding herd or flock.

Michigan State University Extension recommends that does and ewes have a BCS of 3.5 at the time of kidding or lambing. Signs of pregnancy toxemia are initially subtle and can include depression, lethargy, poor appetite and low fecal output. Urine can be tested with ketone test strips and the animals often have a sweet or acetone smell, although not all people can detect this smell. Early detection and treatment result in the best outcome of this disease. 

As the end of fall approaches most does and ewes are pregnant with parturition (kidding or lambing) occurring in winter and spring. Goat and sheep fetuses add 70 percent of their final birth weight in the last six to eight weeks of gestation. Twins and triplets are common in most breeds of sheep and goats. A single fetus can increase the dam’s nutritional requirements by 1.5 to 2 times during the last trimester. Twins and triplets increase the demands even more. 

Daily observation of animals and good records are management practices that will help producers to have a successful lambing and kidding season.  Early gestation nutrition is low maintenance. As long as hay or adequate pasture is available no additional nutrition is usually needed. During the third month of pregnancy check females for body condition score (BCS). On a scale from 1-5, provide supplemental feeding if doe/ewes are at a BCS of 2.5 or lower.  Also at this time animals should be checked for worm load either using FAMANCHA® scores or by fecal egg counts.

As the pregnant female’s nutritional requirements increase, her physical capacity for feed intake is reduced by the rapid expansion of her pregnant uterus. At this time supplemental nutrition in the form of grain or concentrates is often required or the dam will be unable to ingest the calories needed to support herself and her fetuses. The release of stored energy because of a negative energy balance will address her low blood glucose issues but not without side effects: by-products of fat mobilization called ketones can accumulate to toxic levels and suppress appetite. Once the animal goes off feed, death of the dam and fetuses from pregnancy toxemia can come quickly without veterinary intervention. Lack of adequate feeder space, timid animals, lameness or other health issues that keep animals from getting adequate feed and nutrition can also result in pregnancy toxemia. With proper management throughout gestation, pregnancy toxemia can be avoided.


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