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Cut Work Loads

With More & Healthier Lambs

By Heather Smith Thomas

Bill Duffield likes to try new ways to improve the management of his Suffolk sheep. His farm is at Wyoming, Ontario, 16 miles north of Detroit, Michigan, directly east of Port Huron, Michigan. He and his wife Lynne started raising sheep while he was working for Imperial Oil (in research work for more than 30 years, but now retired) and they’ve now been raising Suffolks for 40 years.

“My wife wanted to move out of the city, so we got a farm. We had pigs at first, but decided we didn’t like that. I didn’t want to get cattle; being away from home all day, I didn’t want my wife to have to deal with something like that if they broke out while I was at work. So one day we were driving by a field, out for a drive, and saw some sheep—and decided to try sheep to see if we’d like them. My wife thought that was a good idea, but told me they had to have black heads and black legs. I asked her why, and she said, they’re the only classy sheep I’ve seen! So that’s how we got into Suffolk sheep,” says Duffield.

That All-Important First Drink

“I lamb in an open barn,” Duffield says, “and right now it’s about 9 degrees outside, so that’s what the temperature is in the barn. If a lamb is slow to nurse I put some of the ewe’s first milk on a tablespoon and make sure the lamb gets that colostrum.”

He recently bought one of the new Udderly EZ milkers to use during lambing
and says it works really well and solves a lot of problems. “The old method was

Bill Duffield harvests and uses colostrum from his own flock.
Bill Duffield harvests and uses colostrum
from his own flock.

to use your fingers to get the wax plug out of the teat and milk out a little colostrum for a lamb. I now use this pump unit to pull some milk out, which is easier than trying to do it by hand,” says Duffield.

“The ewes don’t seem to mind it. With the unit on, the ewe just stands there, and doesn’t kick, and can’t get her foot in the milking container,” he says. “Anything that saves time and effort when you’re lambing makes it a lot easier.

“Now—when I use the pump unit—I just pour some from the container onto the tablespoon and give the lamb about five tablespoons of colostrum,” he says. He finds this is the best way, rather than trying to feed the lamb with a bottle.

How To Save Chilled Lambs

“I don’t want a large amount. I just want enough to get them going. If the lamb is really cold, I make a concoction using one ounce of dextrose (the 50 percent solution) and one ounce of lamb milk replacer. I warm it in the microwave so it’s quite warm, then “tube” the lamb with this two-ounce mix. But I want to make sure the lamb gets a little colostrum, first,” says Duffield.

“If I don’t do this, in cold weather the lamb just lies there and is too chilled to nurse. The advantage of the combination of milk replacer and dextrose is that in about two minutes (at most) the lamb starts to steam. To me that indicates that the lamb’s internal temperature control has kicked on; the dextrose got him going. Also, since he’s starting to steam, he is starting to dry.” Once you can get that fleece dry, away from the skin, it serves as good insulation and the lamb can keep warm. He can stand 35 below zero if he’s dry.

“I had two ewes lamb a few days ago. The first one had a big udder, but she wouldn’t let her milk down. Even the pump unit wouldn’t bring down any milk. The other ewe lambed about the same time, so I used the pump to get some milk from her, and drew off an extra amount—for her lambs and for the first two from the ewe who wouldn’t let down her milk. I was able to feed them some colostrum immediately that way. Then I went in the house and got 2 cc. of oxytocin for the ewe that wouldn’t let her milk down and this worked to bring her milk down,” he says. But in the meantime, her lambs had the colostrum they needed, and didn’t have to wait.

Whenever he goes out to the barn he has a plastic pail in which he carries the Udderly EZ milker, and the tube he uses for drenching the newborn lambs. He has everything handy if he needs it. “Here in Canada we can get these small lamb tubes from the Woolgrowers, and in the U.S. you can get them from Premier, a sheep company in Iowa,” he says.

After he got the Udderly EZ milker and tried it, he was very impressed with it, and is pleased at how it cuts down on time and effort. “I got to thinking that it would be nice to be able to get spare parts for it. I’d like to have an extra top part (the flange that fits over the teat), because that rubberized plastic might deteriorate over time—after you’ve had it a few years—so I asked them to send me a spare of each size,” says Duffield.

“I was talking to Randy Gottfredson at the University of Wisconsin. He purchased one of the Udderly EZ pumps from Buck Wheeler (the man who invented it) when he was up at the Indianhead Conference. Randy liked it so well he convinced Cindy Wolf, a veterinarian who was also at this sheep conference, to buy one,” he says.

“Randy and I were talking about heat lamps, which a lot of people use for warming a chilled lamb. I use these too, for about an hour, if a lamb is cold. I also use a plate that’s about 24 by 36 inches. It’s a pig plate. You plug it in and have it lying on top of the straw, below the heat lamp. In about five minutes it warms up to 35 degrees above whatever the ambient temperature is. So if it’s 9 degrees F. and you add 35 degrees, this makes the lamb quite comfortable. What I like about it is, that when the lamb gets warm and gets up to leave, the ewe will lick the plate clean—because it’s warm, and the birth fluid is on it.” He saw this plate used with pigs, and thought it might work for sheep.

Open-Barn Design Cold But Safe

His lambing barn is open, so he never has problems caused by poor ventilation. Snow and rain can’t blow in, so the ewes and lambs stay dry, but whatever the outside temperature is, that’s what the barn is. It just gives protection from wind and wet. “We used to lamb in the old part of the barn, with a cement floor. We had too many lambs in there that ended up with pneumonia. So we redesigned the barn and put this extension on, with a clay floor, no cement. My pneumonia problems disappeared,” he says.

“We had three test stations dealing with sheep, here in Canada. They redesigned the one down here near Ottawa. It was designed by an engineer, and they had more cases of pneumonia and lung problems in ram lambs in that test station than any of the others. The engineer kept saying it was designed right, but I said it didn’t have enough height, nor enough air flow through the top. Even some of these engineers don’t understand what’s healthiest for these animals,” he says.

Ewe Health Tips

Duffield uses several management techniques to optimize the health of his ewes and lambs, some of which have been suggested by his son, a teaching veterinarian at the University of Guelph. “His specialty is dairy cattle and sheep. He does a lot of research projects, and one is on Rumensin. I use this for my sheep. I feed a half pound per day to the ewes, starting a month before they start lambing. If you have a stray cat that comes onto your farm, the ewes can get toxoplasmosis from the cat, and abort.” Rumensin (an antibiotic) can help prevent this. “The other thing it helps prevent is coccidiosis, so I feed it to the lambs. The third item Rumensin is good for is to stop bloat, on pasture.”

Duffield never gets mastitis in any of his ewes. “I use an antibiotic called Micotil. My son did a project on mastitis in sheep at the university. In that study, each ewe was injected a month before they were due to lamb. Some got a placebo (nothing but water) and the others got Micotil. The study showed that the rate of mastitis dropped in those that got mastitis. I told my son I never get mastitis in ewes during their lactation. I get it when they are being weaned, on dry up,” he says.

[Editor’s note: Micotil antibiotic is fatal to humans within four hours if accidentally injected. As reported in sheep! (July/Aug 2004, p.27), drug maker Elanco’s spokesman Dennis Erpelding said anyone so exposed should seek immediate medical attention.]

“So my son suggested a program that has really helped. At 60 days, I put the ewes into a pen. There’s an opening where the lambs can crawl through into the pen, and keep nursing their mothers. All the ewes get for two days in that pen, is straw. No water. This helps them cut down their milk. At the end of those two days, I pull the ewes out and put them in a barn away from the lambs. When I move them, I give them 3 cc of Micotil, and I don’t even look at the udders. They go into another pen for three days, where they get water and sheep hay—not a very high quality hay—and then kick them outside. I’ve been doing this for about five years now, and since I started this program I have not had any cases of mastitis,” he says.

“Before, I’d always get six to seven ewes a year (out of 70 ewes) with mastitis at weaning time, and I would have to get rid of them. Now I don’t, so that’s one good thing. The following year, when they lamb, the wax plug in the teat is a lot softer (due to using the Micotil) and is easier to get out when the ewe starts milking again. So this was an added benefit,” he says.

“I explained this to a friend of mine in Indiana who has 150 ewes and he didn’t believe it. Then he tried it, and said ‘Boy! No mastitis, and those wax plugs are so easy to get out now!’ So this was a side benefit I didn’t expect.”

Fighting Internal Parasites

Another thing Duffield is trying is a new worming program. “The University of Guelph—through one of the other vets my son works with—is doing a 3-year worming project. The university is about a 2-1/4 hour drive from my place. Two vets come out here every month and take a manure sample from certain ewes (they have those tagged). They also check the eyes, take blood samples, and check for worms. I can’t worm these animals unless I talk to them first. They may call me and tell me a certain animal has a high worm count and they want me to worm it. I am in the end of the first year of their study,” he says.

“In this study some interesting things came up. I use a rotational pasture system, with five one-acre lots. Generally I have 55 ewes on this rotation system. I put them on the first pasture for seven to 10 days and move them to the next, etc. By the time they come back to the first pasture, it’s been more than 30 days. This generally kills most of the worms that are on that pasture.” The animals look a lot healthier because they are not being continually exposed to the worms they are passing.

He is also trying to get some of the fungus from Australia that is being used there for deworming. “I don’t know how it works for cattle, but they feed it to sheep in Australia for four to five days. It has to be warm weather, and they have to be on pasture. The ewes drop their manure in pasture, and the warmth of the sun activates the fungus. At the same time, the worm eggs are hatching. The fungus eats about 70% of the worms that are developing in the manure. The fungus, when it has no more worms to eat, just dies. In horses, this fungus will control up to 90% of the worms in the manure. So I am trying to get some of this to try on my sheep,” he says.

The fungus is mixed in with the feed, and it is palatable enough that the sheep eat it readily. “This could be a cheaper way to deworm, and you are not using chemicals. So I am after CFIA (which is like the USDA in the United States) to do something about it and let us use this. I know they are commercializing it in Australia,” says Duffield.

Closed-Flock Genetic Improvement

Duffield loves research, and trying new things. He uses two programs on his computer. “One is Ewebyte, which costs $400 (a one-time cost) and is designed by two vets and a person who’s the head of a large commercial flock in Ontario. This is a sheep management system. I can keep track of scrapie, and every health program for my lambs, etc. There are charts for these. I am also on another program, a lamb plan, from Australia. It’s more expensive—it costs me $540 a year—but I currently have the number one ewe overall (on terminal sire) for all terminal sired sheep for Australia. They have a list of the top 300 and I have the top ewe. There are photos of her and her daughters on my website,” he says.

“Sheep breeders in Australia and the UK are much more into performance than sheep people here. I am always trying to learn more about sheep management, and always open to suggestions.”

In his flock, he uses frozen semen to breed his ewes to outside rams. “We don’t bring in any live animals. This is a completely closed herd.” The ewes are bred to his own rams and by artificial insemination (A.I.) in September, and lamb in February.

“We imported semen from a ram in Australia (100 straws) and have used that for a couple of years. I have a vet come in to artificially inseminate the sheep. She was trained by a person in England, at Edinburgh Genetics. We do them laparoscopically, which gives us about 80 to 85 percent conception rate. This is much higher than trans-cervical A.I. We tried that for three years, but the trouble with sheep in doing A.I. this way, is that there are seven rings in the cervix. The center of the opening is all over the place, so it’s hard to get through it when inserting semen. We were running about 13% on conception with trans-cervical A.I. So this is much better, and we are also running a higher percentage on twins. Two years ago when we artificially inseminated 15 ewes (and 80 percent settled) we only had one single; all the rest had twins.” It is expensive to do A.I. like this, but gives good bio-security, allowing Duffields to keep a closed herd.

Note: for more information on Duffield’s breeding program and management, check his website: www.codan-suffolks.com.

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