Organic Broadcaster

Prepare livestock now for healthy birthing season

By Lauren Langworthy, MOSES

Lauren Langworthy welcomes a new lamb to her flock. Photo by Caleb Langworthy

My husband and I have a mid-sized flock of sheep on our farm in west-central Wisconsin. This time of year, the ewes are happily awaiting spring lambs. While we expect the majority of births to happen quietly in a dark corner of the barn without much fuss, we know from experience that some will not go according to plan. Breached births, prolapses, exhausted mothers, stillborn lambs—those are the births that we dread. We realize that a healthy lambing season—or birthing season for any animal—requires planning and care long before the impending births.

Two of the major factors that lead to a good birthing season include healthy environmental conditions and well-balanced nutrition. Before I go further, let me make it clear that I am not a veterinarian. All major health concerns with your livestock should be dealt with through with your veterinarian. My expertise in managing pregnant livestock comes from experience as a farmer and training as a MOSES Organic Specialist. While injury and illness will inevitably visit the farm, it is important that we do everything in our power to create conditions for healthy animals.

organic standardsThe organic standards automatically help farmers like me create healthy conditions for livestock by requiring access to the outdoors, pasture, and encouraging reasonable stocking densities. Creating a farm culture where emergencies are less likely is especially important to the mission and success of organic farms, but farms of all kinds can benefit from thinking ahead and creating systems for livestock health and wellbeing.

For all mammals, the development of a healthy baby relies heavily on the condition and nutrition of the mother throughout gestation. These factors will also impact her lactation and will be key to the success of that new offspring until it is able to forage for its own full diet. Obesity, malnourishment, infection, and the lack of vital minerals and nutrients can all negatively impact the baby, mother, and the birthing process. Even simple measures like hoof trimming before breeding or early in gestation can reduce strain on your livestock and prevent a more serious issue when an animal is unwilling or unable to walk later on.

One example of body condition causing a problem is ketosis (also known as pregnancy toxemia), which is a common issue for several species. Mothers who are overweight or underweight are susceptible to this ailment in which the body dips into its fat reserves for energy, but creates too many ketones in the process. The build-up of ketones in the body leads to depression and a disinterest in eating, which can spiral out of control. Ketosis can be managed in its early stages, but can lead to death as the condition worsens.

The best way to avoid the potentially devastating effects of nutritional issues like these and promote a smooth birth process is to make sure your breeding animals are in good condition throughout pregnancy—not too heavy and not too thin. You can manage their condition by balancing their rations. I recommend doing nutrition tests on samples of your hay and feedstuffs to be certain of the ingredients you are working with. There are resources available through Extension services and online to help build rations. Many of these allow you to input your own forage test results and then balance the various components of nutrition with added grain and other supplements to meet the nutritional needs of your livestock species at various stages of life (e.g., lactation, finishing, early or late gestation).

As you consider the forage, hay, and supplementation that your livestock will have access to, also be conscious of the fact that the growing fetus will be taking more and more space usually occupied by the stomach(s) and rumen as the birth approaches. This means that the mother will be needing to pull more nutrition out of less available space as the baby grows and places higher demands on her body. Plan for her to eat smaller amounts with more frequency, and understand that she will need higher quality feeds to help her with this difficult task.

It is often necessary to divide your herd into two or more management groups by age or weight in order to maintain ideal body conditions with the diverse needs of individuals within your herd. Larger, dominant, un-bred, or more aggressive animals can be managed together in one group and smaller, younger, or more submissive animals in another. Dividing your stock into multiple groups based on their needs means that you can offer each group a ration better suited to their needs. It also allows more equal access to the feed, water and minerals when the members of the group are more evenly matched.

Beyond general body condition, it is important to provide your animals the vitamin and mineral resources they require. Depending on your soil types, region, and livestock species, many health effects can be seen as a result of unbalanced minerals. During pregnancy, birth, and lactation, deficiencies that would otherwise have been subclinical can become aggravated by the high demands on the mother’s body and become a source of health problems. New livestock can also go quickly downhill if they are deficient in necessary nutrients.

For example, a selenium deficiency can cause White Muscle Disease (also known as nutritional myopathy) in lambs, calves, and foals. This disease impairs the cardiac and skeletal muscles of young stock and, if left untreated, often results in death. Trace minerals can be quite difficult to manage in pasture systems. Many methods exist to support the needs of your livestock ranging from free-choice options to feed additives or injections. I would advise seeking council from your veterinarian about the best way to ensure your livestock have a good balance of needed minerals. Taking the time to create a good system will help you avoid the detrimental effects of deficiencies.

Keeping a clean environment for your livestock will help throughout gestation, birth, and life. Depending on the species you raise, there are many infections—including abortive infections—that will affect the health of your livestock and their ability to carry a baby to full term and deliver successfully. Before and after birth, general sanitation around your housing and pasture will help reduce chances for infections. Water should be clean. Bedding should be kept clean and dry. Make certain that your housing options have clean air circulating. Also, keep watch for new little ones who collect meals from several mothers. With sheep, they’ll usually have a dirty face, which is a tell-tale sign that they’ve been sneaking in from behind in the hopes of going unnoticed. Their mother may have abandoned them, may not be able to produce the needed nutrition, or may be suffering from an infection causing them to be protective of tender teats. As that little one sneaks a suckle from various sources, it can spread infection and create a much larger and more serious problem for you to manage. If you see these behaviors, you may want to offer supplemental nutrition in the form of bottle or bucket feedings and take the time to inspect the mother (and possibly the whole group) for signs of infection, deficiencies, or disease.

Whether you are calving, lambing, farrowing, kidding, foaling or otherwise, thinking ahead can help save you a lot of heartache down the road. Testing your forage, balancing a ration to meet your animals’ needs, and making sure the environment is set up for your livestock’s success will ensure a healthy pregnancy, encourage an easy birth, and promote a good start for your new young stock.

Lauren Langworthy is an organic specialist at MOSES.

From the January | February 2016 Issue

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