We all love finding new lambs all dried off and nursing, but sometimes ewes need a little help to get there. In general, less intervention is better and if ewes are not having trouble, they will do better lambing and bonding with their lambs if you do not disturb them while in labor. Know what to look for as signs of distress and be sure to intervene sooner rather than later if it is needed.
Before lambing starts, make sure that you have some way lined up to be able to catch and restrain a ewe in distress. My favorite lambing tool is four panels cut from a hog panel (each section four feet long) that are tied together by baling twine. Two people carrying this can use it to corral a group of ewes in a corner and let out all the ewes you do not want until you are left with the ewe you want to work with. The panels can then be folded around the ewe to make a small pen to keep the ewe and her lambs in after your intervention and give them some time to bond before you need to move them. This pen is also valuable to put granny ewes in if they are bothering other ewes that are lambing.
Malpresentations are not uncommon. Correcting them is much easier and causes less trauma to the ewe if abundant lubrication is used, so make sure you have some OB lube and gloves on hand. I buy a gallon container of lube and pour some of it into a 16 oz squeeze bottle when needed. It is much easier to add more lubrication as you work and if you drop the bottle in a soiled area, you can easily dump out the leftover lube, wash and dry the bottle and refill with fresh lube to prevent contamination of your whole lube supply.
Do not routinely move your ewes into jugs while they are in labor. A study by Cornell found that they had more ewes with slow cervical dilatation and birthing difficulties on farms that moved their ewes into jugs at the first signs of labor.
Barn cameras with night vision are a great way to check on the ewes at night without disturbing them. Just like the shepherd, the ewes are sleep deprived if they get woken up regularly for lambing checks at night.
Keep a close eye on ewes that have had a vaginal prolapse during late pregnancy as they often do not dilate properly when they go into labor. Prolapsing ewe lambs can be a challenge if they need intervention during lambing. They do not know the difference between having a lamb and having a prolapse repaired, so they might have no interest at all in the lamb after having it pulled.
It can be beneficial (especially in first time lambers) to pull the lamb just half-way out, past the lamb’s shoulders, and leaving the ewe to deliver the back legs and pelvis herself to have better odds of good bonding with her lambs. Obviously, if you have multiple lambs interfering with each other by trying to come out at the same time (by far the biggest need for intervention on my farm) you cannot do this, but it works well for one lamb with a head/leg back or in shoulder lock. You can clean off the lamb’s face and make sure it is breathing before leaving the ewe to have it the rest of the way. If you do this, make sure you keep the ewe penned up and check back with her in case further intervention is needed. A ewe that has been in labor for a long time can become exhausted. In these cases, it is better to pull all the lambs all the way out from the start. Always pull backwards lambs all the way out as soon as possible; they will die if they start breathing with their heads still inside the ewe.
Once lambing starts, I separate my ewes into “already lambed” and “still to lamb” groups. This makes monitoring much easier, as the number of ewes to check gets smaller every day and all lambs in the “still to lamb” group are new.
Below are a few scenarios where intervention is needed to ensure a live lamb and a healthy ewe. Make sure you have an experienced fellow shepherd or a veterinarian available for help if you are new to lambing sheep.
- A pregnant ewe has a birthing sack hanging out (or just membranes if the sack has ruptured) but the ewe is not pushing or acting as though she is in labor at all
- A ewe that has been pushing hard or straining for more than 20 minutes but no lamb parts are visible
- A ewe with a lamb in correct presentation (feet out with head on upper forearms) but the ewe keeps pushing and lamb is not coming out any further
- Only legs are out, so forearms of the lamb are visible, but no sign of a head
- Only a head is visible with no legs
- Only a tail is visible
- Rear legs are visible (soles of hooves are pointing up instead of pointing down)
- More than two legs, or only one leg is visible
If you are new to lambing, have a conversation with everyone involved on your farm about what your options are if you are not able to resolve a lambing problem by yourself.
How long will you try before calling for help? Intervening causes inflammation and swelling, if you try too long before calling for help, you might end up with a situation where an issue that could have been resolved easily by a more knowledgeable person turns into a situation where you lose that ewe and her lambs.
Do you have a veterinarian or experienced shepherd that will be able to come to the farm on short notice? Unfortunately, veterinarians are not available everywhere. If you do not have an experienced shepherd friend, introduce yourself to the local dairy farmer or ask your neighbors if they know anyone local with livestock birthing experience.
If you cannot find a vet to come to your farm, will they see your sheep if you bring her to the office? Will they do it on an emergency basis if you have a problem outside office hours? Is there a veterinary school within reasonable driving distance? They usually have a production animal emergency service. If you have a place you can take a ewe in an emergency, do you have a way to load and transport her?
What are the costs involved in a c-section and is it something that you can afford? Even though it is not something we like to think about, make sure you have a plan for humane euthanasia if needed. Talk and think these things over before lambing starts, rather than having to make hard decisions in the heat of the moment at a time of high stress.
A Manual of Lambing Techniques is a very comprehensive guide with lots of information and illustrations on correcting malpresentations at lambing.
Below are links to a few videos of ewes delivering lambs. It is good to know what normal looks like, in order to more easily identify when intervention is needed.
This is a long video, but shows the whole process of a ewe having twins. You will see that each time that she lays down and pushes, she makes progress, the next time she lays down, there is more of the lamb visible. You will also see that a lot less effort is required to deliver the second lamb; this is normal as the first lamb has to open up the cervix.
The time limit above for intervention is for 20 minutes of straining like this ewe is doing between 4:42 to 5:06 in the video.
The first lamb is born at 12:40 and second at 24:07
You can see good mothering, and normal newborn lamb behavior.
At 0:51 you can see a lamb with just one foot and a head out. Note how swollen the lamb’s head is. This commonly happens when one or both front legs are back and the head is trapped outside. This can complicate resolving these malpresentations.
Starting at 19:00 you can see a ewe having a lamb in normal presentation, followed by an innovative way to move a ewe to a jug if she is scared of you.
Starting at 9:51 another lamb with only one foot and a head out, easier to see than the previous video. This ewe was seen having a problem much earlier so the lamb’s head is not swollen.
Starting at 1:40 you can see a nice up-close view of how the head and feet should be positioned for a normal birth. Starting at 5:22 you can see a lamb being born still inside the sac, this is also normal. If the lamb manages to come out past the shoulders without breaking the sac, you might just have to break the sac so the lamb can breathe.