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Sheep rearing: From lambs to healthy ewes

By Dr Othieno Joseph | Published Sat, August 25th 2018 at 00:00, Updated August 24th 2018 at 23:28 GMT +3
Herd of sheep in a farm at South Kinangop, Nyandarua County. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

[Dear daktari, I have a few sheep but I wish to add their numbers. I have noted they are different in terms of management as compared to cows which am relatively well acquinted with now thanks to Smart Harvest. Kindly and briefly take me through the basics of sheep farming. John, Trans Nzoia]

Thank you John for reaching out to us and forgive our bias towards dairy keeping. Most of our readers are dairy farmers and we tend to address their issues which also come in a lot. Here are basics of sheep farming.

Taking Care of Lambs

Lambs depend entirely on dam’s milk up to two weeks. During the first few days of their lives, they should be fed entirely on colostrum which is rich in fat, protein, vitamins and contains antibodies that protect the lamb from infections at this stage and later in life. Lambs need good care for optimal growth. Good care starts with ensuring they suckle properly and timely. Examine udder for blind teats or mastitis. Sometimes ewes may refuse to suckle and you will have to restrain for the lambs to suckle.

After two weeks, the lambs should be gradually introduced to creep feed which include good quality hay, green leguminous. This should be continued till weaning which is done at two months. Deworming should be done at this stage and vaccination against diseases as advised by your vet.

If on a ranch avoid grazing lambs in thorny shrubs as this easily causes skin irritation and injuries to the eyes.  Lambs at this stage should be protected against predation and harsh climatic conditions.

Best time for docking and castration

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This should be done at two to four weeks by cutting part of the tail. This surgical operation should be done by an animal health expert. Docking improves cleanliness by avoiding soiling and drenching of wool with feacal waste and urine which normally predisposes to screw worm infestation.  Docking also eases breeding and lambing.

The feeding habits

Sheep have a small muzzle and split upper-lip which enables them to nibble tiny blades of vegetation which cannot be eaten by other larger animals. For this reason sheep are normally placed last in rational grazing involving other ruminant species. Sheep do well in relatively poor pastures due to this adaptation. Sheep will need to graze for 10-12 hours daily. Sheep kept entirely on roughage may suffer from trace mineral deficiency and should be supplemented with mineral mixture containing salt, copper sulphate and cobalt.

In a ranching system rotational grazing is key. Sheep can also make use of fodder trees. Supplementary feeding of concentrates and hay is good to cover up any nutritional deficiencies. Give them water at all times.

Breeding

Observe heat signs, do selective mating and take care of the pregnant ewe up to parturition. Good management at this period results in healthy lambs, increases chances of twining/triplets. Female sheep will attain maturity at 18 to 36 months of age. 24 months is the optimal age.

Mating young ewes results in low birth weights and weak lambs. Rams attain maturity at two months and can be used for the next five months.

In the tropics ewes have no seasonality in breeding and can be breed at any time throughout the year. Under good management ewes will come on heat at around two months after lambing.

The cycle is on average 17 days but normally ranges for 14-19 days. The heat period will last for 26 hours. Ewes on heat will stand to be mounted, vulvar swelling, frequently urinate, become restlessness and reduced appetite.

To increase the inception rates, the ewes are feed on extra and good quality feeds two to three weeks before mating. This is called flushing and increases chances of twining. 

During flushing 250 gms of grains are added to the daily feed. The vulva area should be cleaned and shaved to facilitate mating.

Pregnancy diagnosis is done by observing for non-repeat of estrus cycle (no return to heat). It can also be done by abdominal ballottement from the third month or by using rapid chemical tests. Avoid frequent handling of pregnant ewes.

At three to four weeks before lambing, the ewe should be given extra and good quality feeds to improve its milk production and for good weight of lambs at birth.  The gestations of ewes is around 142-150 days. Ewe give birth on their own; remove any mucoid fluid covering the nose and mouth after birth.

[The writer was the Vet of the Year 2016 and works with the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council – KENTTEC, [email protected]]     


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