Shed or Pasture Lambing
Which Is Right For You?
By Denice Rackley — The muffled, deep Maaa of a ewe “talking” to her newborn lambs reaches my ears before I open the barn door. Newborn lambs nursing, tails whirling, makes walking to the barn on frigid mornings worthwhile.
In a contrasting scenario, a lamb attempts to stand in bright green grass, as its ewe topples it head first, vigorously licking its slimy wet wool. Walking through the pasture, Border collie at my heel, the first rays of sunlight begin to warm the day while I check on ewes and newborn lambs.
The sights and sounds are familiar to shepherds, whether shed or pasture lambing. But which system would bring you the most profit? Shed lambing and pasture lambing both have their advantages and challenges. Profit margins are often slim in livestock operations; so it only makes sense to match the lambing system we use with our goals, resources and market.
There are many factors to consider when deciding which system of lambing would work best. Some considerations are more significant and should weigh heavily:
• Feed costs
• Available labor
• Fighting disease
• Fighting predation
• Available markets (and patterns of market highs and lows)
Dr. Bob Leader, DVM. states, “From a profitability standpoint the single most important decision you can make is when to lamb. That is because the costliest animal to feed is the lactating ewe….”
Most sheep in the United States are raised in smaller farm flocks where shed lambing is the norm.
Experts say lambing barns should have the capacity to house at least 10 percent of the flock. Ewes are best shorn two to four weeks prior to lambing, to encourage ewes to seek shelter, to reduce moisture brought into the barn and to more easily observe signs of lambing trouble.
Most lambing barns are set up with a “drop pen” for ewes that are close to lambing. Depending on the size of the flock, having several drop pens lowers the chance of mismothering, or ewes stealing lambs.
Once a ewe has lambed, she and her lambs are moved into a jug (individual pen to hold new ewe-and-lamb units). The ewes with lambs can be processed in the jug — tagged, docked, wormed — whatever your particular protocol. All these jobs are far easier to do while a ewe is confined with her lamb(s). The ewe’s bag can be checked to make sure she has milk and that both teats are functional. Bonding also continues, uninterrupted by other ewes and lambs.
Most producers take each ewe-and-lamb unit from its jug after 24 to 48 hours, moving them to a mixing pen containing other units of similar age. This allows further bonding and lambs learning to find their mom in a flock setting.
Bottle-fed lambs are almost inevitable in any flock, so having a well bedded, draft free, warm area set up saves work time.
In a shed lambing system, every step of the process can be observed for potential problems and adjustments made as needed. Example: In a barn it’s relatively easy to take a lamb from its mother if she can’t feed it. It’s also easier to give that lamb to another ewe. It’s also easy to keep a ewe in a jug with her lambs longer, to make sure all are doing well.
Advantages of Shed Lambing
Shed lambing is most advantageous with early lambing and highly prolific flocks.
Barns can ensure successful winter lambing, which wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Losses are easier to foresee and avert.
Intensive management often results in a high percentage of lambs weaned.
Shed lambing allows for quicker access.
Speeds up intervention efforts when treatment is needed.
More control over problems when they arise.
Disadvantages of Shed Lambing
The largest disadvantage of a shed lambing system is the high capital investment for barns, pen, corrals, water, feeding and barn cleaning equipment.
Feed costs are significantly higher for indoor kept winter lambing ewes versus outdoor spring lambing ewes.
Creep feeding the lambs raises feed cost as well.
The size of the barn will limit the number of ewes lambing at any one time. And it potentially limits the size of your flock.
Shed lambing systems are by nature very labor-intensive. Checking ewes and lambs every couple of hours, carrying feed to individual pens, as well as cleaning and bedding pens takes time.
Mortality in lambs is usually at its highest in the first 30 days.
More animals grouped together increases the chance of diseases spreading.
The most common problems are mastitis in the ewe and pneumonia and scours in lambs.
Keeping things clean and draft-free and not overcrowding goes a long way in keeping everyone healthy.
Advantages Of Pasture Lambing
Possibly the largest advantage of pasture lambing is reduced costs.
Pasture lambing requires fewer capital investments. Barns are not a necessity, because pasture lambing is planned after temperatures are above 45°F.
Natural shelter is usually sufficient for newborn lambs, though a contingency for foul weather is helpful.
Ewes lambing on pasture have their feed at their feet, so it doesn’t need to be brought to them.
Ewes getting daily exercise out on pasture have fewer dystocia problems.
Mismothering is also significantly reduced, because a ewe that is lambing will distance herself from the flock, remaining undisturbed.
Pasture lambing requires ewes to be exceptional mothers. This leads to a more productive flock with marginal ewes being easily identified and culled.
Labor requirements are lower in pasture lambing systems: Most who practice pasture lambing don’t check ewes after dark. (My experience has been that most pasture-lambing ewes will give birth in the early morning, or during daylight.) It’s a natural arrangement, since most predators are active at night.
Lambing later in the spring can take advantage of improved fertility for both the ram and ewe: Delaying breeding until the middle of breeding season can result in a five to ten percent increase in the number of lambs born.
Lambs born in later spring can benefit from spring, summer and fall forages, significantly decreasing the cost of finishing.
Disadvantages of Pasture Lambing
Management challenges, predators and dealing with unpredictable spring weather may be the three largest challenges with pasture lambing.
One of the biggest problems with pasture lambing is that treatment can be difficult: Processing ewes and lambs and record-keeping can be more challenging, because you need a way to keep the ewe-and-lamb units together while you’re working with them.
Ewes with lower milk production or bad mothers may lose lambs without the hands-on care and supplementation of shed lambing.
Predators and parasites can be a huge detriment when lambing on pasture. Guardian animals are an added expense but provide valuable piece of mind.
I believe pasture lambing requires a better shepherd, with good skill at noticing problems early enough to intervene.
A stock dog with experience helping pasture lambing shepherds manage ewes and lambs can make a world of difference in the ease of moving and treating individuals.
Pasture lambing requires more attention directed at forage growth and management, and pasture maintenance, for the ewes to milk well, for lambs to grow and for parasites to not become a large health issue.
Two common techniques to deal with lambing and forage management are set stock lambing and drift lambing.
Set Stock Lambing & Drift Lambing
Set stock lambing and drift lambing are management methods for successfully lambing on pasture while maintaining the health of the flock, reducing parasite exposure, increasing forage growth and maintaining the pastures.
Set stock lambing requires a certain number of ewes, moved to a lambing pasture with ample grass and to remain there until the group is finished lambing. Once the lambs are a week old or older, it’s easy to move everyone, beginning the pasture rotation that takes advantage of heavy spring grass growth and decreases parasite exposure.
Drift lambing is more labor intensive: Sheep are moved every day or two. Most producers practicing drift lambing move ewes that haven’t lambed to new pasture daily, leaving behind ewes with newborn lambs. This allows the new ewe-and-lamb units to bond in the lambing location the ewe has chosen (her bed spot, as it’s called). In a couple of days, the ewes with new lambs are gradually grouped into pastures together. Then pasture rotation begins.
Some producers move the ewes with one or two-day-old lambs to new pasture, leaving behind the ewes yet to lamb. This method of drift lambing has the advantage of moving new ewe and lamb pairings to the best grass available.
Drift lambing makes checking for new lambs easier, since there are no older lambs in the paddock and it limits other ewe’s access to newborn lambs, so they can’t steal them.
Many people who use pasture lambing methods employ guardian dogs, which remain with the flock 24 hours a day to protect them from predators.
Which Is Right for You?
We are fortunate in the United States to have such diversity of environment, breeds of sheep, markets, production systems and producers themselves. Taking a hard look at your situation, the resources and advantages you have, as well as potential challenges, will enable you to choose between shed and pasture lambing.
Both systems have their advantages and weak points. It comes down to what works best for you. You can always take a bit from both systems, tweak it, and make it your own.
Originally published in the March/April 2019 issue of sheep! magazine.