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Project provides valuable lessons at lambing time (Research Brief #10)

Posted February 1993

A livestock and forage production project at the Hayward Agricultural Research Station provided researchers with some valuable lessons at lambing time.

The purpose of the five-year project was to establish a low-input, labor-saving sheep and beef cattle operation and assess whether a family could make a living on such a farm in northern Wisconsin.

The project, which ran from 1985 to 1990, was conducted on a 480-acre farm near Hayward, Wisconsin. Businessman Norman Ackerberg donated the farm to the UW Foundation in 1985 to use for agricultural research.

Project researchers chose a sheep and beef cow/calf operation as an alternative to dairy cows because of the lower investment needed for housing, equipment, and machinery. The combination of sheep and beef maximizes forage use, helps spread income risk and labor, and could make optimum use of existing equipment and facilities.

During 1986 and 1987, lambing took place in an old dairy barn with a low ceiling. The barn held just 80 ewes at one time, while the farm had more than 300 ewes. This meant a long lambing season for the shepherds. In 1988, lambing was moved to a 200-foot by 40-foot pole shed to accommodate more ewes at once. During the year, 585 lambs were born from 320 ewes, with about a 3 percent loss during lambing.

Lessons at lambing

The Hayward researchers used four different lambing or systems in the project. Some of the lessons they learned at lambing include these:

  • When lambing more than 300-plus ewes, it’s best to concentrate lambing of the older ewes in a short period, preferably during favorable weather unless facilities allow otherwise. Lambing the ewe lambs should follow
  • Lambing on pasture in late May or early June requires a field with shade and where the ewes can isolate themselves behind a rock, bush, or log when lambing.
  • Lambing on pasture in late May or June requires the least labor in wintering the ewe and at lambing time if the lambing percent is less than 150.
  • Lambing in a barn lot and “drifting” the newborns off daily to pasture works well in May through June unless there is too much rain or hot weather. During these periods, shelter is needed. This method is preferred to pasture lambing with very prolific ewes.
  • Lambing in January with barn temperatures below freezing requires excessive labor and round-the-clock observation.
  • Moving 3- to 4-day old lambs and their dams any distance, such as to another building, is time consuming.
  • About one-half more lambs per ewe are needed to lamb in January to February than May to June to cover extra feed, labor and shelter costs.

Seasonal variation in lambing management

The following are some of the advantages and disadvantages that the Hayward researchers learned about lambing at different times of the year.

  • Advantages were:
    • Spread out labor during winter and did not interfere with field work or calving.
    • Lambs generally reached market when prices were the highest.
  • Disadvantages were:
    • o Required the most labor due to colder weather and dry lot feeding. Lower lambing percentage was born.
    • More difficult to shear before lambing because of weather.
    • Cost the most to feed ewes and lambs.

Lambing in March-April

  • Advantages were:
    • Highest lambing percentage born.
    • Weather was more favorable, therefore less labor was needed compared to lambing earlier.
    • Lambs made the best use of early summer pasture.
  • Disadvantages were:
    • Lambs reached the market when prices were usually lowest.
    • Weather conditions fluctuated, and there were more respiratory problems.

Lambing in May-June

  • Advantages were:

    • Required the least labor along with fall lambing.
    • Makes good use of pasture,leading to the lowest feed cost.
    • Lambs were sold on a better market in early winter.
    • Avoided creep feeding and lambs finished in fall with cheaper grain.
  • Disadvantages were:
    • Lower lambing percentage compared to March-April lambing.
    • More disowned lambs.
    • Lambs stressed by heat, cold and/or rain.
    • At times interfered with field work.
    • Increased danger of fly strike and internal parasites.

Fall lambing (mainly October)

  • Advantages were:

    • Least labor required.
    • Lambs sold on good market.
    • These lambs were a bonus.
  • Disadvantages were:
    • Very few ewes lambed. All January-February lambing ewes were exposed for fall breeding. This totaled approximately 400 ewes during 1986-1989; yet only 76 lambed with an average crop of just 1.29 lambs per ewe.
    • Ewes lambed later the next spring.

For more information on this research, contact:

Art Pope
Department of Meat and Animal Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 263-4315

Published as Research Brief #10
February, 1993