9th March 2021

Vet View: Health, Hygiene and Happy Lambs

Vet View: Health, Hygiene and Happy Lambs

by John Hamilton of Ark Vets

With lambing fast approaching, or already started for many, it is important to recap on the steps necessary for healthy lambs and a successful spring. The most crucial stage in a lamb’s potential development is within the first 48 hours after birth and getting this period right is critical in increasing the number of weaned lambs in the summer.


Colostrum is vital in lamb health and getting colostrum management right can reduce rates of neonatal disease such as watery mouth, joint ill and scour. Studies show that lambs suckling unassisted in the first fifteen minutes of life have a 90-95% chance of being alive 90 days later.

  • Lambs rely heavily on the passive transfer of protective antibodies in colostrum to give them protection against disease.
  • The ability to absorb the antibody proteins offered in colostrum reduces after 6 hours.
  • It is imperative lambs receive the right quantity of good quality colostrum quickly. 
  • A newborn lamb requires 50ml/kg of colostrum within the first 4 hours of life.


Good colostrum quality starts with good, conditioned mothers and there is a clear link between the ewe’s energy and protein intake over the last 3 weeks of pregnancy and colostrum production. Therefore, it may be prudent to discuss with your vet or nutritionist the best diet for housed ewes in the lead up to spring. Sheep should be body condition scored at least 6 weeks before lambing and action taken to ensure ewe’s are in appropriate condition; with lowland sheep between BCS 3-3.5 and upland sheep BCS 2.5.

Hygiene Protocol

Good hygiene in the lambing pens reduces early lamb losses and the incidence of neonatal disease. Bacteria builds up as lambing progresses and can infect a lamb through ingestion, the naval or through docking, tagging or castrating. Small steps can make a monumental difference -ensuring that feeding equipment is spotless and that lambing pens are disinfected and kept dry and well bedded goes a long way in having a successful lambing.

  • It is important lambs should have their naval dipped immediately after birth and then again 6 hours later. This plays a huge role in cutting down infection rates in neonatal lambs.
  • Castration and tagging equipment should be dipped in surgical spirit between lambs again to help cut down infection.
  • Individual pens should be cleaned between use. If this is not possible lime can be used between occupants with the pen re-bedded with ample straw.
  • Our practice ethos is to be able to kneel in the bedding of a pen without your trousers feeling damp. If this is not the case it may indicate poor drainage or less than adequate bedding. This can lead to increased infection rates and hypothermic lambs which suckle less unassisted.


It is important to have a straight forward plan in place to ensure the needs of each lamb are met and we would encourage you to discuss treatment protocols with your vet in a flock health plan ideally before lambing starts. All farm staff members involved with lambing should be aware of the hygiene protocols in place on farm.

At this time of year we often discuss with clients the role of antibiotics at lambing. Treatment of lambs with an oral antibiotic has its place but is not a substitute for good management. Antibiotic resistance is an increasingly major issue and prophylactic use should be reserved for higher risk lambs such as triplets, bad lambers and mismothered lambs. The use of systemic injectable antibiotics should be limited to clinical cases such as for lambs with active joint or naval ill or sheep who have suffered from a bad lambing or mastitis. Prophylactic use of these antibiotics where each lamb is injected is bad practice. There will always be lambs that do need treatment but the blanket use of antibiotics is not cost effective, has been shown to have little effect on overall lamb health, and dangerously increases the risk of antibiotic resistance on farm.

As spring progresses and outdoor lambing commences it is important to still consider the above principles.  Although generally easier to maintain increased hygiene standards outdoors there will still inevitably be problem cases which need to come indoors for assistance where the risk of exposure to bacteria is higher.  Hypothermia is more likely in these cases and therefore it is worth investing in a lamb warming box.

For more information listen to this week’s QMS podcast. John Hamilton of Ark vets emphasises the importance of good record keeping understanding where losses are coming from and put preventative measures in place. John is joined by Thomas Smith, shepherd at SRUC’s barony campus who has benefitted from this firsthand. Listen now to find out more on Apple Podcasts, BuzzSprout, Spotify or on the QMS website.



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