What happens after a baby lamb is born…

Lambing (when the ewes (aka mamas) are having their babies) is always a fun and exciting season, albeit exhausting too. My parents are involved in the day-to-day tasks as the sheep ranchers, I get to help on weekends and when there are bigger tasks to do, like when we wean, tag, and worm the lambs.

Today I want to talk about what happens in the first few hours and days of the lambs’ life.

There are visual signs from the ewe when she is nearing lambing (I will go into that in another post), we keep a close eye on the ewes and check on them several times a day. Sometimes if we catch them early in the birthing process we will put them in their own private pen, and sometimes they have their lamb(s) in the bigger shed or outdoors, and we later move them into a private pen. We really try not to hover over them while they are birthing as it makes them nervous, and can delay the process. Instead we let them do their thing for about 30 minutes, then check on them, give them another 30 and check on them again. At this point if no progress is made we catch them and perform a pelvic exam to ensure the lamb is coming normally. A normal birth in the livestock world is both front feet and head coming first. Any other version of that usually results in us intervening.

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Source: Ethiopia Sheep and Goat Productivity Improvement Program (ESGPIP)

Also, depending on the age of the ewe and the size of the lamb she may need assistance having her lamb too. Unless there are complications we try to let her have the lamb on her own.

Once the lamb has been born, the ewe’s natural instinct is to get up and start licking the lamb off. This is a bonding process, but more importantly this dries the lamb, which is essential for survival if they are born outside in cold temperatures. At this point, if we see the birth we check to make sure that the nasal passages of the lamb(s) are clear and free of the amniotic sack or any any other blockages.

Almost immediately the lamb will try to start standing on wobbly legs to nurse. It is important that the lamb get the first milk (aka colostrum), which helps them get a good start on life. We watch closely to make sure they have figured out how to nurse. Sometimes they need a little help learning to latch on, and sometimes the ewe has so much milk that her teat is too big for the lamb to latch on, making it difficult for the lamb to nurse. Once the lamb gets older it has no problem keeping up with the ewe’s milk supply, but in the early days it can be challenging. Also in the first few hours we put iodine on the lamb’s navel, which helps decrease the chance of infection or illness. If the ewe is going to have another lamb, she will usually start birthing again shortly after licking the first one off. Sometimes however, she has a second one quickly and doesn’t have a chance to lick the first one off immediately. We hope that she comes back to clean both of them after the second one is born, if not we try to dry it off with an old towel.

As mentioned before, if the ewe and her lamb(s) are not already in a separate pen, they get moved to one. All pens have fresh straw, water for the ewe, and a heat lamp for the lamb. Also, when the ewe has finished lambing and taken care of her lambs (i.e. licked them off and let them nurse) we then provide her with hay, so can get her energy back up after the tough experience.

Depending on weather and how the lamb is doing, they will stay in this pen for about three days. Before they are turned out with the rest of the flock, the ewe receives her spring vaccinations and a paint number is put on her back that matches the number on the lamb’s eartag. The lamb will be weighed, given a unique eartag (that matches the ewe’s back number and her eartag number), and an elastrator is put on the tail. An elastrator looks like a green rubber cheerio. Essentially it cuts off the blood supply to the tail (or if applicable, the testicles – but that elastrator doesn’t go on until they get a little bit older).

At this point the ewe and her lamb are ready to join the rest of the flock. It doesn’t take long before the lambs are running and playing with other lambs and then eating hay out of the lamb feeders. At our ranch, the ewes and lambs are locked up at night to help keep them safe from predators (i.e. coyotes). We are careful to make sure these new little babies are in this space every night, as they start to learn the routine.

What didn’t I cover that you want to know more about?

sleeping-lamb


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Lambs: Weaning, Scrapie tags, and worming

This past weekend I headed out to the ranch to help wean lambs. Weaning just means that they have become old enough and/or weigh enough to be able to flourish on their own, so they are separated from their mothers. For lambs, our rule of thumb is 60 days or 60 pounds, meaning they must be at least 60 days old to be weaned or weigh at least 60 pounds.

The ewes (the mamas) can start getting thin at this stage because these bigger lambs are still nursing and the ewes have a hard time maintaining their body weight and condition with these big lambs nursing them. The lambs at this age and stage are also eating hay and can graze, so it is time for them to be weaned. Plus, in a few short weeks excited 4-H members will come and select the lambs they will raise and show this year.

We sorted the lambs into two pens, one pen held lambs that met the 60/60 requirements and the other pen held the lambs that still need more time. Twenty-nine lambs were sorted into our wean pen and everyone else was let out to go eat their morning hay.

Luckily we started early enough in the morning the ground was still frozen and we could get the horse trailer backed up to the shed. We have gotten so much moisture in the last month that there is mud that is at least ankle deep. Once the horse trailer was in place we let the lambs out of their pen and they ran right to the trailer and loaded (yay for this going so well).

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Kelsey helping make sure the lambs stay put

Now since we had them in a confined space (i.e. the horse trailer) we wormed them (they can get internal parasites from drinking out of running water sources, worming helps keep them healthy) and they got their Scrapie tags. Scrapie (pronounced scrape – e) is a fatal, degenerative disease of the central nervous system of sheep and goats, of which there is no cure. Other animal species can get a form of this prion misfolding disease too. In cattle it is bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “Mad Cow Disease”), in people it is variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD). The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has a national scrapie eradication program, and each state department of agriculture has a premise identification program. In the premises ID program, each animal rancher/farmer verifies what their address is and what species they raise. Before sheep (or goats) can leave where they were born they must be tagged with one of these tags, if there ever was a Scrapie outbreak, the animal could be traced back to its home ranch/farm. Fun fact – it is illegal to remove the Scrapie tag before an animal is harvested. That tag must remain in the animal’s ear for its entire life.

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Scrapie tags

Once each lamb had been wormed and tagged with the Scrapie tag, the lambs were taken to their new home. A pen near where they had always been. They will stay in this pen until they go to a new home with the 4-H members, until any replacement ewes are big and mature enough to rejoin the flock, or they are harvested for meat. In this pen they have access to alfalfa hay, grain, and fresh clean water, as well as two sheds.

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The weaned lambs settling into their new home

It usually takes a couple of days for the lambs and ewes to recover from weaning. The lambs learn how to eat hay and grain out of feeders and the ewes have a chance to start putting some weight back on that they may have lost while nursing. If the ewes get too thin they have a hard time cycling and breeding again.

Weaning lambs is a lot of work that requires all of us to get it done. But it is also rewarding because you can really see how well the lambs are doing and have pride in knowing that under your care they will reach their full potential.

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The lamb weaning and working crew

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Bummer becomes a Mom…

A bummer (in the agricultural world) is an animal that doesn’t have a mom, so it is cared for and fed by humans. Just over two years ago my Mom had a bummer lamb that we called “BumBum”. I wrote about BumBum at No holiday ‘bummer” for this gal.

BumBum never got another sheep mom, so my parents fed her and cared for her until she was self-sufficient and could eat hay, grass, and grain. She grew well and became a nice little ewe. My Mom decided to keep her as a replacement ewe. In Bummer lamb to replacement ewe: Transformation Tuesday I shared that story.

I am happy to report that BumBum has recently become a mom! She loves her lamb and is doing a good job raising it. It has been fun to watch BumBum make this transition over the last two years.

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BumBum and her lamb heading out to the pasture.

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Robot Butchers? Technology coming to your table

Recently, an article came across my desk from one of my meat industry news updates about JBS meat packing looking into using robots to process swine and lamb carcasses initially, with beef to eventually follow. In college I spent a lot of time in packing plants collecting beef carcass data, meat, and other tissues needed for samples. While I think it can be done, I think there may be some challenges (i.e. animal welfare, food safety, lack of human element) that will have to be overcome before we are ready to turn over meat processing to robots.

Below is a summation of articles from Harvest Media News and NPR on meat cutting robots. What are your thoughts about this high tech and revolutionary idea? 

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Beef carcasses. Source: Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants throughout the country employ about a quarter of a million persons.  Some of those workers that prepare the beef, pork, and chicken that ends up on dinner tables could eventually be replaced by robots. The world’s largest meatpacking company (JBS, the Brazil-based protein powerhouse) is looking at ways to automate the art of butchery.

Late last fall, JBS bought a controlling share of Scott Technology, a New Zealand-based robotics firm. While many manufacturers have gone to automated machines to process and package everything from food to furniture, the beef industry has held onto its workers. It takes thousands of workers to run a modern beef plant. In fact, U.S. meatpacking plants are expected to add jobs in the next decade, as the appetite for pork, chicken, and beef grows in the developing world.

Disassembly is the name of the game on the fabrication floor at the JBS beef processing plant in Greeley, Colorado. Workers hold a knife in one hand, and their sharpening steel is close to their side. Line workers are dressed in chainmail, a protective mesh lining under white jackets (frocks/smocks) and aprons. Deft cuts cleave bone and meat, turning a whole cow into neat and trim cuts like tenderloins, steaks, and roasts.

“There’s right now 850 people out in this building alone,” says plant manager Bill Danley as he weaves through the maze of conveyor belts, stainless steel slides, and bone bins. The plant is a far cry from your grandfather’s butcher shop, where a single person would need to know how to turn an entire animal into cuts of meat. Large beef companies like JBS, Cargill, and Tyson have turned each minute step of the process into a job. Danley lists some of the titles: chuck boner, tender puller, back splitter, knuckle dropper, and tail ripper. “There’s a lot of jobs out here that prep for the other person,” Danley says.

Each year JBS pays out more than $100 million in paychecks to its 3,000 employees. It’s a huge chunk of the company’s operating costs. That could begin to change with JBS’ new venture into the world of robotics. “This is a very innovative and exciting company that we invested in,” JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett says of the company’s investment in Scott Technology. “And we’re excited to see what they’ll come up with.”

JBS is looking at how robots could fit into its lamb and pork plants first, Bruett says. Sheep and pigs tend to be more uniform than beef cattle. “Now when it comes to beef packing, beef processing, the fabrication of the animal, it’s very difficult to automate beef processing,” Bruett says. The various breeds of cattle brought into the plant also complicate the future of robots in meatpacking. Some days the plant breaks down the long, lanky bodies of Holsteins. Other days they’re working on sturdy, thickset Angus and Hereford. Robots would need the ability to adjust to the spectrum of cattle breeds.

The meatpacking robots of today use vision technology to slice and dice, but the key to butchery is touch, not sight. JBS’s beef division president, Bill Rupp, says right now, robots just can’t feel how deep a bone is, or expertly remove a filet mignon. “When you get into that detailed, skilled cutting, robots aren’t there yet. Someday, I’m sure they will be,” Rupp says. “It can’t do the fine cutting that you see on the fab floor, that’s one of the big challenges right now.” Robotic technology doesn’t have the fine motor skills that come easily to humans and there isn’t room for error. Some of the cuts being boxed up bring upward of $14 per pound, Rupp explains, so the key is being able to leave it on the meat and not on the bone. “I mean that’s how our business works.”

The technology isn’t quite ready for a massive roll out, but could the economics of widespread robotic use in the beef industry ever work? Not any time soon, says Don Stull, an anthropologist who spent 30 years studying the cultures of meatpacking towns at the University of Kansas. “Workers are really cheaper than machines,” Stull says. “Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers. As long as there is a steady supply, workers are relatively inexpensive.” There’s a stream of immigrants and refugees, most from Somalia, Rwanda, El Salvador, and Guatemala, ready to put on the chainmail and pick up the knife, Stull says. In large, modern plants, companies pay less because the skill needed to work on the fabrication floor is so low. Some jobs take less than a week to fully master. Turnover in the industry is high, Stull points out, because of the physical demands. Slicing meat all day can lead to repetitive injuries. JBS employs an athletic trainer to keep employees limber and fit. Stull says it’s still common for workers to transfer jobs at the same plant to make better money or to just avoid falling apart. “After you do the same thing thousands of times a day, six days a week … your body wears down,” Stull says.

While the industry says it has dramatically improved on worker safety over the years, meatpacking jobs consistently rank among the most hazardous in the country. Workers stand along conveyor belts on raised platforms, adjustable based on each person’s height. Those platforms were a big step in improving ergonomic conditions for workers, Danley says. Increased automation could ease some of those injuries.

Meat processing makes up a huge portion of Great Plains communities’ rural economies, what happens inside meat processing plants affects not only the companies involved, but the very culture of rural America.

Until technology catches up in both skill and costs, meatpacking companies will continue hiring workers to turn cattle, chickens, and hogs into cuts of meat.

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Source: Stephanie Paige Ogburn/KUNC

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Care of baby lambs in freezing temperatures

Much of the U.S. has experienced some unusual and aggressive weather in the past week. At my family’s ranch we got about 5 inches of snow, followed by freezing temperatures. It has been a few years since temperatures have dipped down around zero!

 When it gets that cold, it can be hard on everything – people, animals, vehicles, equipment, etc. Drastic changes in weather and barometric pressure can also mean more baby animals may be born. Sure enough, my Mom’s ewes started lambing again.

To ensure both mamas and babies remain healthy and warm during these extreme temperatures we do several things. First, the sheep shed receives fresh straw regularly to give all of the ewes and lambs a dry, warm place to lay.

 Next, when a ewe starts lambing she is given a separate pen with plenty of straw and a heat lamp for the lambs.  In this pen she also receives hay and water regularly to ensure she is producing enough milk for her lamb(s). In these pens we can also keep a close eye on them to make sure everyone is healthy.

 The ewe and lamb(s) will stay in these pens until the lamb(s) are strong and healthy enough to be able to handle the elements or until the weather becomes a little more baby animal friendly. The ewe will also put off heat with her thick wool coat.

 During extreme cold weather events, if animals do not receive enough energy from their feed they can loose body condition, lactation may decrease, and they may struggle to stay warm and be comfortable. We ensure that all of the animals in our care continue to have access to plenty of fresh clean water, but also plenty (and extra) of feed.

Luckily this extreme cold spell only lasted about 3 days, and our morning temperatures for now are back in the low 20s. Despite the increase in the morning temperature, the care of the animals remains a top priority for us and other livestock ranchers and farmers around the country.

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Thirty Days of Food with Prairie Californian: Leg-of-Lamb Marinade

Jenny at Prairie Californian always has the most amazing recipes complete with excellent food/drink photos. Additionally, she also writes frequently about farm life and the crops her and her husband grow in North Dakota. If you aren’t following her, you should be!

In Jenny’s 30 Days of Food series occurring right now (November) she is featuring an agricultural food product, showcasing the families that are growing/raising it. I am a big fan of lamb, as my family has raised it for generations. Learn more by visiting Leg of lamb marinade featuring Agricultural with Dr. Lindsay.

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