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Managing seasonal stress: UW Sheep Specialist provides recommendations to help lambs excel through weaning and shipping stress

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With a recent surge in demand and improved prices for feeder lambs, University of Wyoming (UW) Extension Sheep Specialist Dr. Whit Stewart says it is more important than ever for producers to be sure lambs are in good shape to excel during weaning and shipping.

Managing stress

“The first thing producers need to understand is weaning is a stressful experience. There is a change in environment and social structure in the hierarchy of flock mates,” Stewart explains, noting sheep are much different than cattle in terms of their sensitivity to the environment and removal of their pen mates. 

“It takes a while for lambs to adjust because they are such a flocking-type species. When they go to a new environment, they need time to reestablish their social hierarchy before they are pushed on feed,” he adds. 

He also notes shipping can cause lambs stress.

“Animals can lose a range of six to 12 percent of their body weight over a 12-hour shipping period through the loss of fluids and digestive contents,” he explains.

With this in mind, Stewart says it is critical producers implement management strategies to make lambs feel comfortable during weaning and shipping. 

This includes allowing lambs to be left alone 48 to 72 hours after they are unloaded off of a truck, providing a clean, visible source of water and giving them a medium-quality dry hay if they are coming off of a range environment.

“In an effort to continue minimizing stress for lambs, we need to make sure there isn’t a huge change in their diet,” Stewart says. “A medium-quality dry hay is a good transitory diet.” 

“Producers also need to have a way to monitor water consumption, because dehydration can occur during shipping,” he continues. “Water and feed consumption are the two most important factors to consider when weaning or receiving feeder lambs.”

Additionally, Stewart notes if lambs are shipped in cold, wet weather, producers should provide a well-bedded area for them so they have a place to stay warm and dry while they adjust to their new environment.

Vaccination protocol

After making sure lambs are as comfortable as possible in their new environment and after they have been given an adequate amount of time to rest, Stewart says it is important for producers to start thinking about their vaccination protocol.

“There are a lot of things producers can do in terms of vaccination strategies, but I think the two most important vaccines are a clostridial vaccine for Clostridium perfringens types C and D as well as a a pasteurella vaccine,” says Stewart. 

“A clostridial organism causes overeating in sheep, so producers need to vaccinate in anticipation of the diet changing,” he states. “I am not suggesting producers vaccinate lambs as they come off the truck, but I am saying lambs need to be vaccinated in advance before they are stepped up on a higher-energy diet.” 

He recommends giving lambs the initial clostridial vaccine at docking, giving the booster a few days later at weaning and then giving another booster a week after they have arrived at their new location.

“When it comes to overeating, I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Stewart states. “I think vaccinating at least every two months is especially important for lambs in feedlots.” 

Stewart explains a pasteurella vaccine will help prevent against respiratory organisms, like pneumonia. He recommends giving a booster two to four weeks after giving the initial vaccine.

“There are a lot of different kinds of pneumonia, but the majority of cases are caused by Mannheimia haemolytica and Pasteurella multocida,” he says. 

“International research suggests only 25 percent of lambs with pneumonia issues recover, which is not a great success rate,” Stewart continues. “So, producers need to make sure lambs have the ability to fight the infection if they get it.” 

He concludes, “Managing stress and a good vaccination protocol really go hand-in-hand. These are the keys to helping lambs excel during weaning and shipping.”  

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to roundup@wylr.net.

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