There are two prominent schools of thought in sheep farming: One is in favour of the use of lambing pens and the other believes that ewes must lamb in the veld without human intervention.
However, circumstances have changed so much that producers can no longer afford to lose any lambs. On some farms up to 30% of the lamb crop can be lost to jackals. When this is converted into a monetary value, the damages can amount to several thousand rand.
Giepie Calldo, technical manager at BKB, was one of the first producers in South Africa to utilise lambing pens. He says the current economic climate forces producers to wean more lambs to cover additional on-farm expenses. Although there are several factors that can be controlled, a number of other factors are beyond a producer’s control, such as mortalities, abnormal weather conditions, predators, and labour. For this reason, producers should rather alter their methods.
Some producers believe that utilising lambing pens increases labour, but from experience Giepie knows this not to be the case. With good planning, the workload is almost similar to that experienced during the lambing season on an extensive farm.
Use of temporary facilities
Su-Maré Groenewald, technical advisor at Veekos, conducted a thorough study of lambing pens. She says sheep producers in the Northern Cape have been utilising lambing pens for years, mainly for two reasons: producing more lambs and speeding up genetic progress because it affords them more control over their flocks.
According to her, some producers use open storage areas in which to erect lambing pens; once the lambing season is over, the pens are dismantled and the area cleaned so that it can be utilised for other purposes. Producers erect pens in sheltered areas such as this, as it provides protection against wind, cold weather and predators, thus keeping both ewes and lambs out of harm’s way.
She adds that some producers, especially those who prefer setting up their lambing pens in the open veld, have permanent lambing pen facilities constructed from wooden poles.
Choosing the correct pen size
The size of lambing pens can vary. According to Su-Maré, the dimensions are usually around 1,8 x 0,9 x 0,9m and the pen can only accommodate one ewe. “However, it must be noted that pen sizes vary between different breeds and the frame size of ewes. It is also essential that lambs are prevented from crawling to ewes in adjacent pens.”
Giepie says producers can use their own judgment when it comes to size. Most important is that ewes are comfortable and that there is enough space in the lambing pen to accommodate lambs, whether they are single lambs, twins or more.
Material for lambing pens
Giepie says he initially used what was available on his farm. “My first lambing pens consisted of an odd mix of parts, but I wanted to do a trial run without it costing an arm and a leg. After the first try, my lambing percentage increased from 60 to 95% and I decided to spend more on this project and purchased better lambing pens. Today, my weaning percentage averages 135%.”
Producers use various materials for lambing pens, says Su-Maré. Panels are very popular, but it is best to enclose them with wire mesh to keep the lambs from crawling through; luckily, there are several well-designed options that keep this from happening.
Most panels are made from metal, making it very durable and easy to erect, dismantle, and store for the next time. Nowadays some panels are also crafted from recycled plastic.
Water supply and hygiene
Water plays an essential role when utilising lambing pens and the provision thereof should be planned in such a way that it cannot become contaminated since ewes prefer fresh, clean water.
Pipes must be cleaned regularly. Most pipes have plugs at the bottom which can be opened to allow dirty water to drain out. It is also preferable to have a central point from which to regulate the water supply. Some producers fit new sewage pipes along the row of lambing pens, with an opening in the middle of each pen from which the ewe can drink. It is vital, however, to place the water pipes high enough so that ewes cannot pollute the water with manure.
The late Dr Jasper Coetzee also referred to the fact that the lambing pens must be kept dry during the cleaning process, as wet manure is the ideal medium in which flies can hatch. His advice was to use a steel wire to pull a sponge or an empty orange bag through the pipe. This sponge or bag must fit snuggly in the pipe for thorough cleaning.
Bedding in lambing pens
According to Su-Maré, it is crucial that the bedding on lambing pen floors be kept clean. Producers, especially those who erect the pens in storage facilities with hard cement flooring, use sawdust or straw.
She recommends that lambing pens be left empty for two weeks prior to moving ewes into the pens. A week or two before they are moved, the storage area can be washed thoroughly with a chlorine solution and the bedding (straw or sawdust) can be put down once the floor is dry. This will prevent flies from laying their eggs in the bedding.
She also says the bedding should be dense enough to form an insulated layer that helps with temperature control during lambing. “However, it is essential to clean lambing pens once a week in order to keep them as hygienic as possible.” This also goes for removing placentas from the pens as soon as possible during the lambing period.
Providing the right nutrition
According to Giepie, balanced nutrition is essential for producing good quality colostrum that will, in turn, equip the lamb with the immunity it needs. Another important point is to make use of a lambing pen ration, which should be provided during the adaptation period to ewes on natural veld or pastures from six weeks prior to lambing.
“It takes approximately 21 days for the micro-organisms in the rumen to adjust to different rations. The pregnancy status of each ewe, i.e. whether she is carrying a single lamb, twins, triplets or quadruplets, must be taken into account.”
Su-Maré agrees that correct nutrition is essential. Ewes usually receive a balanced barley mixture and, to prepare them for lambing, lambing pen pellets five days prior to being moved to the pens. These pellets are fed for up to three weeks after lambing to promote milk production.
Ewes should also receive 3kg of feed every morning. “The reason for feeding them every day is that the workers will be able to spot any complications with either ewes or lambs right away,” she explains.
After lambing, the lambs are given creep feed while the ewes are put back on the barley mixture after three weeks. She advises farmers not to place feed troughs on the ground so that there is enough floor space for the ewe and lamb/s.
A good place to start
It is often difficult to switch from an extensive to an intensive system. The easiest way is to start on a small scale with the ewes that yield twins and triplets, and to first sort out the teething problems. Once you have everything under control, you can expand the system. – Koos du Pisanie, Stockfarm
For more information, contact Giepie Calldo on 082 772 4541
or Su-Maré Groenewald on 071 388 2249.