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Crutching for Better Lambing

By Nathan Griffith

It’s getting towards lambing time for many flockmasters all over the U.S. For some, lambing is already well along.

One old management tip is crutching before lambing. “Crutching,” means the removal of wool around the ewe’s rear end and belly in preparation for breeding season and/or lambing season.

The most obvious disadvantage of long wool around the udder at lambing time is that the locks of wool are an effective decoy: They lure the lambs away from the “milk faucets” during those first attempts at finding them.

Lambs love to suck on things. They like doing that even more than drinking the milk. We’ve all had frustrations from lambs that can be put on a teat, only to seem to want to go back to a wool lock. The little dork doesn’t seem to know or care about the milk. It just wants something soft, familiar and easy to get into its little mouth. Then it just sucks right along, its tail wiggling with delight.

Shepherds who have had to do much probing around inside a ewe during a difficult birth know that one easy way to see if the lamb is still alive inside the mother is to find its mouth, and see if it will suck on a finger. I mention all this simply to show that early on, a lamb enjoys the action of suckling whether or not it’s actually drinking.

It’s always probable that wool tags around the ewe’s belly and hind legs will have some dirt and other yucky stuff on them. The lamb merrily swallows it in those first misguided slurps on wool locks.

Before too long, the germs lurking in that wool lock make it to the lamb’s guts.

I don't straighten a very pregnant ewe right up, especially a big one.
I don’t straighten a very pregnant ewe right up, especially a big one.
Starting at the chest.
Starting at the chest.
Ewes enjoy company when being crutched-this one's making sure I'm doing it right
Ewes enjoy company when being crutched-this one’s making sure I’m doing it right
In shearing belly, ewe is not flat on her back, but tilted to one side.
In shearing belly, ewe is not flat on her back, but tilted to one side.
The left hand pulls udder safely away.
The left hand pulls udder safely away.
Finishing up inside legs.
Finishing up inside legs.

A lamb’s tummy (abomasum) isn’t acidic, like a big sheep. It’s neutral-with a pH of around 7. This is good, because it allows the germ-killing antibodies of mom’s first milk (colostrum) to stay active right on through to the small intestine, where they can get absorbed into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately those germs from the wool locks (if they are absorbed before the lamb gets much of that antibody-laden first milk) get passed along unhurt too, and can multiply in the neutral guts of the lamb. There they multiply, die, then putrefy-all pretty rapidly. The dead germs give off two things: gas and endotoxins. The gas makes the lamb appear to have a full belly. In reality it clogs up the guts, so food movement slows or stops. The lamb doesn’t suck any more.

If you gently shake a lamb in that condition, you’ll hear a sloshing sound, or “rattle,” hence the name “rattle belly.”

Before long, the lamb gets “tucked up” and miserable looking, and then it starts drooling-“watery mouth,” as it’s called. By this time it’s full of endotoxins, and is definitely going to kick the bucket if you don’t get drastic (check with a vet on what kind of injections and how much, plus glucose feeding, etc.).

“Watery mouth” occurs most often among twins or triplets, because a lot of times the first lamb doesn’t get anything to drink, sucking on a wool tag instead, while the second lamb is on its way out.

The Crud Factor

Another disadvantage of uncrutched ewes is crud accumulation on legs and udder. This kind of accumulation hits hardest in those sheep with the best, longest, and most densely growing wool.

I had it occasionally in the days when we kept Lincoln sheep, and we also sometimes saw it in our Cotswold sheep in the days before we learned the advantages of crutching.

Not every sheep needs to be crutched, of course. Some are naturally rather devoid of wool around their hindquarters.

But the best wool producers-often the biggest bodied, heartiest sheep-are the ones to watch out for.

The crud factor starts with the discharge that occurs during and after the ewe is delivered of her lambs.

That stuff “bakes on,” and later, as things warm up a little, it starts softening next to the skin. That softening is usually the result of two things. First, as the wool gets longer and the days get less chilly, the sheep’s sweat and lanolin (suint) start accumulating under the plastic-like layer of dried crud. Second, the non-porous layer of crud begins to catch the inevitable “dribbles” when ma ewe relieves herself.

It’s yucky and tight against the udder and hard to shear off, with an outer crust that’s tough as leather. It can cause all kinds of udder problems once it starts to putrefy.

Over the years, upon seeing a ewe limping I first would jump to the conclusion that either foot rot has struck, or the sheep stepped on a sharp object, or twisted a foot somehow. But I could never find objects that caused injury. Besides, most longwool breeds of sheep are highly resistant to foot rot.

So what was it?

We soon found one cause (if it started a couple of weeks after lambing) was an inflammation of the udder.

In cases where the crud factor was at work, we found bloody, chafed and raw skin where the udder had gotten enflamed. We had occasionally seen bad inflammations from the combination of urine dribbles that were caught by the crud layer, and the rubbing of the whole, hard mass between her leg and udder.

Sometimes the whole mess wasn’t visible until the crud got clipped off. And the clipping was torture for the poor ewe, no matter how gentle we tried to be. The touch of the shears on the raw skin is quite a jolt of pain, let alone the necessary sliding movement of the clippers along the skin.

If the problem didn’t get solved, the inflammation could have indeed led to mastitis, and the loss of one or both halves of the udder. But that never happens to shepherds who keep a sharp eye on their flocks.


The two main considerations in crutching before lambing are gentle handling of the pregnant ewe, and making a quick and complete job of it. I like to do this on a fairly calm, mild day if possible. If it’s snowy, that’s okay too. I take a full “belly crutch,” because longwool sheep have lots of tags on the belly.

Gentle handling is tough for a little guy like me (I’m only about 5′ 7″) especially with our large Cotswold sheep-most of our ewes will be around 200 lbs. in late pregnancy.

Not only that, our Cotswolds are quite long-bodied, and not at all easy to employ the usual method of laying a sheep down. (For a full and illustrated description of this excellent and gentle method of casting a sheep, see Kevin Ford’s superb book Shearing Day, available from the sheep! Bookstore).

The way I cast a sheep is neither hard on me nor on the sheep, even big ones (I cast 300+ lbs. Cotswold rams in much the same way without much trouble). It works best on a plywood sheet, but I’ve done it many times on snow, and on pasture, too.

First, I stand beside the sheep, with one hand controlling its head. (It doesn’t matter which side of the sheep one stands on.) With the other hand I reach over the sheep, and take hold of its front leg, and lift that leg’s foot up near the sheep’s belly.

Next, I transfer the leg I’m now holding to my other hand, which leaves its hold on the sheep’s neck/head. If the sheep’s not much bigger than 200 lbs., I can now reach to its hind leg, and-rather suddenly-lift both the front and hind leg. This is not hard, as only a few pounds need to be lifted for all four of its feet to go out from under it. On big rams, I can’t reach all the way to the lower hind leg, so I grab a large handful of leg wool and lift. Again, it doesn’t take much of a lift at all, and even a 300+ lb. ram is tipped over!

Lastly, when it’s on the ground, I let go of the sheep’s hind leg, switching hands again on the sheep’s front leg, and take hold of its head to straighten it up. (By the way, as the sheep goes down, its wooly body rubs against my pants, and that slows its descent; it doesn’t slam onto the ground.)

I don’t straighten up pregnant ewes very steeply, because it puts too much internal pressure against their rear end. I don’t feel they’re safe that way.

With the ewe over, I get my feet under her so that none of the struggles she makes will get her back to her feet. I quickly clip off the belly with well-rigged shears, starting at the wool free area by her chest and working down past the udder. It’s really easy to do with her lambs inside her, tightening up the skin. I’m always very careful around the teats and udder. I’ve never nicked one.

Once past the udder, I pull the udder up to tighten the skin, and clip right on down to the sheep’s vulva.

Finally, applying a little pressure to the sheep’s flank to straighten out the leg, I clip the inside-facing surface of her right hind leg, followed by her left, and I’m done. With well-rigged shears, all of this shouldn’t take more than a very few minutes.

Crutching not only helps lambs survive-especially those all-important multiple births-it helps cut down on labor a little later in the season by easing the work of shearing.

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