Lambing, kidding and calving on pasture

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Raising livestock on pasture offers operators a few key advantages; however, when it’s time for the birth of young stock, a few precautions can help ensure the survival of mother and offspring. A panel of operators presented “Lambing, Kidding and Calving on Pasture” as a recent webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust to share their insights on birthing in the field.

Linda Coffey, Margo Hale, Tracy Mumma and Linda Poole are all National Center for Appropriate Technology livestock specialists who operate livestock farms.

“Nutrition, animal selection, a safe environment, preparation and observation and intervention as needed: these things set you up for success,” Coffey said.

Nutrition starts with the mother. “I very strongly believe that without good nutrition, you won’t have good outcomes,” Coffey said. “Without it, you won’t have strong babies who will get up and look for milk and you won’t have milk.”

She focuses on forage for the mom. The quality of the forage changes from maintenance to pregnancy to recovery. The same principle is true for increasing protein and digestible protein. This may mean that at different times of the year, the animals will need additional feed on top of pasture.

Body condition is one way to help determine if animal nutrition is up to par. Animals who are too fat are at risk for not breeding well, dystocia and pregnancy toxemia. Those who are too thin are at higher risk for weaker offspring, poor quality colostrum, pregnancy toxemia and other issues. “The proper condition is moderate to high moderate condition,” Coffey said.

With good nutrition, calves, kids and lambs can keep up with the herd better. “We need not only quality but quantity,” Coffey said. “We need to respect the soil health and pasture health principles.”

Especially when the pasture is not growing, producers need to take care to ensure to supplement. “Be sure they can eat all the forage they need,” Coffey said.

Coffey encourages producers to speak with their local Extension office to seek assistance with formulating their ration. Working with a nutritionist can help farmers save money on feed costs.

Poole said selecting animals for a breeding program makes her think of a quote from “Thelma and Louise” – “You get what you settle for.” She wants farmers to be choosier with their breeding stock.

“The foundation that we have with good pasture management and nutrition … play out on the breeding livestock you have,” Poole said. “The choice of animals you’re breeding will be a big determinant of how much fun you have during the breeding season.”

While it can be hard to determine how successful an animal will be, once this becomes evident, the producer’s next step can affect their farm’s profitability. “It’s not so much what you buy but what you cull and what you keep and breed,” Poole said. It begins with the breed, followed by the breeder and then the animal. While it may be easy to find show quality animals, Poole said it’s more important to find someone with experience and who offers some guarantees regarding animal health.

Lambing, kidding and calving on pasture

Calving on pasture is different than calving in the barn. Be prepared. Photo by Deborah J. Sergeant

She encouraged farmers to look at animals in person and try to find traits in moderation. “Don’t go for the super milkers or high performers,” she said. “They need super nutrition and super care. When you’re out and looking at a breeder’s animals in the fields, look at their coats, body condition and if they’re calm and settled.”

Preparing for calving, kidding and lambing should be part of every producer’s plans. Hale said this includes reviewing farm goals, recordkeeping, timing the breeding season and healthcare.

“Taking those good notes all year long will serve you well when you’re looking at birthing,” Hale said. “Preparation can make or break your birthing season. Preparation happens all year long.”

Recordkeeping also plays a role in decision making. “Many of us get attached to certain animals,” Hale said. “It’s harder to be objective. If we have good records, and she didn’t breed or wean her animals, we can cull those animals and have a better chance of … stronger herds and flocks.”

Timing the breeding season depends on many factors: the markets, weather, forages and more. Sometimes you need to plan birthing season around personal things on your farm and in your family. “Some have births happening all year long. It can be great to market meat all year and you don’t have one onslaught of birthing, which can be intense,” Hale said. “Others want to have a very specific birthing time.”

Hale encouraged speaking with a veterinarian and local Extension agents about recommended vaccinations. “Some are given to females prior to birth to pass on immunity,” she explained. “Some are to prevent breeding and pregnancy diseases. Check with your vet about disease in your area.” It’s also important to check for parasites and perform hoof trimming.

“We have to plan that things sometimes will go wrong,” Hale said. “The weather changes. Maybe our forages weren’t as good as we’d hoped. We maybe need to offer more supplemental feed or we have problems at birth or the young stock have problems after birth. It’s really important to have a plan. Have supplies on hand so if you do have to intervene or they have medical issues, you have supplies and your vet or mentor’s number. Be ready to shift from your normal plan.”

Mumma noted that producers should keep a careful watch on their pregnant animals when they’re close to birthing. When their time is within a few days, “you’ll notice they’re not showing up for feeding, and being aggressive to their friends and neighbors,” Mumma said. “When the water bag comes out, the birth is starting. Be observant.”

She added it’s important to not approach if the mother is laboring while on pasture, as she can take off. Ideally, the nose and feet will present first. After the calf, kid or lamb is born, the mother should turn around, pay attention to the baby and lick it off. “She may quickly have the other baby or it may take some time,” Mumma said of multiple births.

She advised stepping in in the case of dystocia, mispresentation, failure to clear the nostrils, mismothering/grannying, maternal aggression or maternal indifference. “Occasionally you have one who walks away and won’t bond and that can be a cull situation,” Mumma said. “Some first-time mothers may be shocked and surprised and they may do super in future years. Don’t be too hard on a first-time mom unless she’s showing maternal aggression.”

If labor is prolonged after the cervix is dilated, that can indicate a problem. Mumma said intervention should be clean, gentle and calm, as animals can behave differently at birthing time. Producers will need lubricant, gloves, clean towels, restraints and/or help and the knowledge of when and whom to ask for help.

“You have to make a decision – at what point do you call your vet or your neighbor or mentor for help?” Mumma said. “At the same time, when you are going to intervene, you have to make a decision as to what’s economically feasible and what’s not.”

After the baby is born, it needs a navel dip to prevent infection, vaccination and as-needed tail docking, castration and identification markings.

“Hypothermia is a real problem if you’re calving, lambing or kidding in snow or cold rain. Or you may have a baby that is weak and can’t stand up to nurse,” Mumma said. “Make sure they’re getting enough milk and they’re all getting filled. Intervene if the baby is sick or has a physical deformity of some sort.”

To help a baby that cannot nurse, Mumma said farmers will need a heat source, colostrum, milk or milk replacer, tubing, nipples and bottles. Once indoors, hot water bottles or heat lamps can help keep the youngsters’ body temperature up.

Mumma encouraged farmers to think “next year starts now.” They should ask themselves: What worked well? What didn’t? How could we make it better next year? What was the weakest link?

“Remember that most of the time, they don’t need us,” Mumma said.

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