Preparing for Successful Lambing Seasons - Sheep & Goats [Skip to Content]

Sheep & Goats
Illinois Livestock Trail
Preparing for Successful Lambing Seasons
by A. Richard Cobb, Extension Sheep Specialist, University of Illinois

Preparation, patience and practice are three necessary ingredients for a successful lambing season. All are important and with each passing year producers can become better and more successful lambers.


It is important that you be prepared before your ewes begin to lamb. To be ready you will need to know when the first ewe can lamb. Calculating ahead 140 days from the date you turn the ram with the ewes gives you a date to be ready. Individual breeding dates for each ewe are great but your target date should be just before the first ewe can lamb.

Preparation for lambing should include the sheep, the facilities and the shepherd. Lets look at each one!


The nutrient requirements for the pregnant ewe will increase dramatically in the last six weeks of gestation. It is necessary for you to meet these requirements by increasing the amount of energy consumed by the ewe. This is best accomplished by feeding increased amounts of hay, corn, or a commercial mixture. The amount of feed necessary to meet these needs can be determined by reading publications put out by most state sheep extension specialists or the SID) handbook.

We shear our ewes before they lamb for a number of reasons. First, shearing reduces the amount of moisture that ewes bring into the barn. This will help to reduce respiratory problems for the ewes and their lambs as the barn will be dry. In addition, shearing allows us to observe the ewes more easily. It also allows lambs to more easily find her teats and not have to stick their heads under a dirty flank or perhaps to suck on a wool tag. Another reason for shearing is that you can put more sheared ewes in a given area than wooled ewes, this makes sense, they are smaller!

Shearing can be done anytime before lambing. A common recommendation is a month before lambing is to start. This isn’t always possible and we have sheared just days before lambing and not had problems. If you do wait however, it is extremely important that your shearer be careful and as gentle as possible.

When shearing in cold weather we have to make a commitment to our ewes to keep them as dry, draft free and comfortable as possible until they can grow back a protective coat of wool. We bed the pens a little deeper and eliminate any drafts on the sheep. If it is very cold, we will increase their feed for a few days to allow them to generate “internal heat. Never shear sheep during cold weather and turn them outside or deny them protection from the wind. To do so is cruel and foolish as well.

After shearing it is best to sort the ewes into groups as to expected lambing dates. This will allow you to concentrate on the ewes that are closest to lambing. If you keep individual breeding dates then this is easy to do. If not, then go through the ewes once a week and evaluate them. Move the ewes you think are closest to lambing into the lambing area. You will make mistakes, we always do, and so you will need to check all the ewes every day and night However, if you have the majority of your closest to lambing ewes in a separate area and you watch that area carefully, you will be aware of most births.


Having the facilities ready is as important as having the sheep ready. We must make the best of the situation each one of us has. It is important to be as sanitary as possible. This means cleaning the barn and spreading lime on the ground and bedding the pens before turning pregnant ewes into the area. Eliminate drafts in the lambing or birthing area. Remember, I am talking about the drafts at lamb level and not just at shepherd level.

Lambing pens should be set up and in place before the first ewe lambs. Lambing pen size is a function of the size of the ewes you have. In 1990 we ran a study comparing 4’x 4’ and 4’x 6’ lambing pens and determined just what you would think. Small ewes perform equally as well in both sizes of pens in terms of lamb survival. Large ewes perform better in larger pens particularly when producing multiple births. We have both size pens set up and mix small ewes throughout them. When a big ewe lambs, we make a point of putting her in a large pen. If you have small ewes then you should consider using 4’ x 4’ pens. You can put more of them in a given area than the larger 4’ x 6’, or a combination of the two. For those of you with large ewes, consider even larger pens. During the winter, our lambing pens are made of 4” plywood and they are solid sided. This is necessary to reduce drafts. During late spring and fall lambings we will switch to panels that allow more circulation.

Somewhere it is written that you should have enough lambing pens to allow you to house 10% of your ewe flock at a given time. You may get caught needing more pens but most of the time you can get by with this percentage. We have five adoption-lambing pens set up that we use a great deal. These are pens that have stanchions built into a solid partition so that we can graft a number of lambs each year. I would recommend to any shepherd that they have adoption or grafting pens ready when lambing begins. The ability to graft lambs, and the lamb reviver (tube feeder) are the two most important non-medical items a shepherd can have.

The question of heat lamps always comes up. I would say that heat lamps are important to have and necessary during cold weather. If you use heat lamps make sure to secure them in two different ways to prevent one from falling into bedding and starting a fire. Do not use bailing twine to secure heat lamps. We will turn a heat lamp on over a ewe and her newborn lambs during cold weather to give warmth and to aid in drying the lamb off. When the lamb is dry we turn the light off except in very cold weather.


I enclose this to remind you that you need to be mentally alert for a successful lambing season. Put as many factors as possible in your favor as possible. Read as much about sheep and lambing as you can get your hands on. Review favorite articles each year. Talk to as many shepherds as possible and listen to them. Incorporate what you think they do right into your program. By preparing you sheep, your facilities and yourself as well as possible each year will reduce mistakes.

If you are lambing for the first time, you are extremely excited about what is going to happen and want to do the best job possible. I will suggest that you form an alliance with a sheep producer in your area. Ask this person for advice or invite them to visit your farm and make suggestions for improvement Visit their farm and discuss how and why they do things.

While there is plenty of free information available through extension bulletins?’ magazines each shepherd should form an alliance with a veterinarian in their area. Ask a vet to visit your flock and make suggestions as to their care. Make arrangements with them for emergency care. It should be cheaper for you to load a ewe with problems into your truck and take her to the vet rather than calling for them to come to your farm.

Be aware that you are not going to save every lamb, but fight to do so. Arrange for people to help or spell you one night a week or try to get your family interested in your project Above all remember, never buy more sheep than your spouse can take care of.


We have talked about preparation. Now let’s talk about lambing. There is no one sure sign that a ewe is going to lamb. Some ewes will try to separate themselves from the flock while others will stand at the feed trough and cat while in labor. Some ewes will be very verbal while most will be silent. The only sure sign that a ewe is lambing is the passage of the waterbag. If it is clear and shiny then there is nothing to worry about at this point and you should allow her continue through the process. After twenty minutes or so she should be progressing to the point that you can see a couple of feet and perhaps a nose. Ideally, a lamb is presented head first with both) front feet beside the nose and head. This is the smallest position a lamb can be in for birthing. If the ewe has strained for a while and nothing seems to be happening, then it is best to examine the birth position of the lamb. Sometimes the nose will be presented and there will be no sign of the feet. If this is the case, then gently insert your clean fingers and circle them around the head. Many times the feet will be off to one side or on top of the head and just have to be straightened out for easy delivery. It is probably best for the lamb to go through the birthing process. This will help to stimulate the lamb. However, in the middle of the night the miracle of birth is not as appealing as a warm bed. In this situation, check the ewe and then pull the lamb. I suggest doing this as gently as possible and not necessarily as quickly as possible. Remember that the lamb is coming from an environment of over 100 degrees into one often below freezing. That has to be a tremendous shock to the lamb. We lamb all our ewes in a large pen and then move them to a lambing pen or jug only after the ewe is finished. As soon as the lamb is born, check that its breathing passageways are clear and that the lamb can breath on its own. I clean away any mucous from the face of the lamb and usually stick my finger down the throat to remove any mucous hiding there. I then observe to see if the lamb is breathing by itself. If it is then I leave the lamb and assist the ewe in the birth of its other lamb or move the ewe and her single lamb to a lambing pen.

We keep a wide mouth bottle of 7% iodine on the wall so that we can dip the navels of all lambs before they go in the lambing pens. I usually clip the umbilical cord using a pair of hand shears to a length of two inches and then dip the cord into the iodine, If the cord is extra thick, then don’t cut it short as it will bleed. Also, change the iodine frequently as the important ingredients are absorbed quickly into the navel cord. Don’t always wait until you have run out of iodine to change it. I like to see iodine on the belly of the lamb. This makes me feel that I have coated the entire navel as well as possible. The reason for using iodine is to dry out and seal the navel as quickly as possible and prevent any organism from gaining entry into the animal through the cord.

I usually strip the teats of the ewe while she is still in the large birthing area. It is at this time that you will find ewes that you should have culled last summer. This is not the time to find out. Cull poor bagged ewes when they need culling. After stripping the teats, I allow the lambs to nurse. The lamb will usually suck anything. I do not allow the lamb to suck my finger as I don’t want it to think that the teat is hard and stiff. Usually it is very easy to get the lambs going. It is extremely important that the lamb ingest Colostrum milk as soon as possible, certainly within the first hour or sooner. The instinct of the lamb is to nurse with its head up. Often the teat is lower down and you can help the lamb at this time as it is much easier to teach it to put its head down now then it will be later. Colostrum does not have to come from the birth mother to be successful in supplying energy and antibodies to the lamb. If a ewe does not have a lot of milk we will take some from another ewe that has lambed recently (6 to 8 hours). Frozen or fresh ewe or cow Colostrum can be used if necessary. Remember not to defrost in a microwave as this will destroy necessary vitamins. We will feed the lambs using a lamb reviver or stomach tube made from a catheter tube and a 60cc syringe. These devices are lamb savers of the highest order and two or three of them are definitely necessary in a shepherd’s war chest.

Holding the lamb gently between my knees I run the tube against the top of the mouth and down the esophagus. There is always the question if you are in the stomach or the lungs. If the lamb shows any discomfort I remove the tube and try again. Remember that 30ccs is an ounce. Pour two ounces into the syringe and allow the milk to flow into the belly of the lamb. I usually give the lamb four ounces at a time. If the Colostrum is very thick or viscous, I will insert a plunger into the syringe and gently push the milk into the lamb. Remember not to push any air that is — on top of the milk in the syringe into the lamb.

Once the lambs are fed we allow the ewe to mother them in the jug for two or three days. If the lambs are strong after that time we move the ewe with them into a larger mixing pen of four or five ewes and their lambs. We allow them to learn to coexist in this area and then move them into a pen with twenty or more ewes and lambs. They will stay in this pen until they are weaned.

I have just described an ideal birth and the chain of events it sets off in our barn. Any shepherd knows that it will not always be this easy. With time and numbers you will see just about every possible birthing position and problem. First time and inexperienced shepherds should not panic at this time but carefully investigate the problem and consult your books or call you friends or mentor. If the ewe is having problems that you cannot handle, call your vet for advice or load the ewe up and take her to the clinic. You will find that with time you become very proficient at delivering lambs. Problems that need surgery, such as a c-section, should only be done by a vet

In summary, I feel that you can survive a lambing season if you are ready for it by preparing your sheep, your facilities and yourself. Remember to have patience with problems and to put as many factors in your favor as possible!

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