This edition of Reid’s Ram-blings was composed by Jake Thorne, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Program Specialist.
My very earliest memory growing up included a few distinct details that I will never forget. The gritty feel of dust in my teeth, the softness of a lambs head against my cheek as I held it on the marking table, the piles of lambs tails (exactly 100 in each) scattered about, and the general joy that everyone older than me seemed to experience. I’ll admit, I was tired, hot, and had just lifted my body weight in lambs a hundred times over. But growing up on a sheep ranch has ways of imprinting on you for the rest of your life. Days spent marking lambs just always seem to surface when I get the nostalgic feeling of the good-old days. While this article is meant less to be a trip down memory lane, I can’t help but lead into it pointing out that the comraderie and sheep work that occurs during annual lamb marking days is something I look forward to every year.
With that said, lamb marking days are indeed “work.” Admittedly, it feels a lot more like work when you are the holder, but nevertheless everyone has a job and each is just as important as the next. With spring lambs hitting the ground, I thought it might be helpful if I go through a bit about what we do at the research station when its time to mark and the reasons behind it. Fully recognizing that there are lots of different ways to go about marking or circumvent marking altogether.
We try and stay to a pretty narrow breeding season, our goal is to have every ewe conceive within the first two cycles after exposure to the ram during breeding season. The primary advantage is that most lambs will be similar in age and can thus be treated as a “contemporary group” and receive their first vaccines all at the same time. We typically try and gather ewes and lambs when the majority are about 30 days old. There are typically a few older and a few younger but we believe that going through the docking and castrating procedures are much easier on younger lambs than those that get to be 45+ days. Not to mention, we really try to have marking done before the end of April when fly season starts, which is a serious threat to a freshly marked lamb. However, there are cons to marking too early too; first, gatherign ewes and lambs can be reckless when you have newborns being mixed together in the pens with the flock. Caution always needs to be exercised when lambs younger than a couple weeks. Regardless of lamb age, penning and working the flock this time of year always needs to be done with as little excitement as possible. Leave the flags and rattle paddles at home and don’t invite your neighbor with the half-broke yearling border collie. Lamb marking is for the A-team only (but always make sure there are plenty of youngsters around too!).
Our vaccination program includes a 2 cc show of clostridium perfringens type C & D plus tetanus. “Overeating” or etertoxemia is the disease we are trying to prepare the lambs immune systems for with this vaccine. Type C often affects lambs ounger than 3 weeks of age, type D affects older lambs and adult stock. It is always a good idea to booster pregannt ewes to allow for some passive antibody tranfer to young lambs so they are protected in early life. Research has shown that vaccinating newborns with C&D has limited effect until about 30 days of life. This vaccine commonly is paired with tetanus toxoid, which is a good idea when you are creating a wound, however small, through the docking/castrating procedure. We deliver this vaccine with a pnuematic CO2-powered gun. Historically we have had trouble with CL in our flocks and so we try and avoid re-using needles. I fully realize this is a practice that occurs though in the “real-world”, despite the associated risks. If nothing else, never stick a dirty needle back in a vaccine bottle to refll a syringe, this is surefire way to spoil your vaccine.
We also “scratch” lambs for soremouth when we mark too. Soremouth vaccine is a live-virus, and is also zoonotic, so caution should be taken if this is your job for the day. In humans, the disease is referred to as “Orf” and can result in painful scabs at an entry wound- typically small cuts on your hands. In sheep, sore mouth literally causes sores on the mouths and can cause reduced milk intake and the subsequent performance problems that come with lowered nutrition. Often the disease clears in a couple weeks, but infected lambs can really be set back by contracting soremouth. Therefore, we actually use a small tool about the size of a pencil with a wire bristle end to “scratch” the inner thigh of the lamb. The soremouth vaccine is a vial of solution that can then be lightly applied to the irritated area. A scab will develop on the inside of the flank of the lamb, but this will not cause the same problems that it would on the mouth. Lambs will develop antibodies for this virus that will keep them protected in most cases for life.
At marking, we always dock tails on our Rambouillet lambs to reduce the incidence of fly strike later on. Following some research that was conducted years ago here at the experiment station, we dock where the caudal folds of skin attach to the tail, which is usually leave about a 1 to 2 inch dock on a young lamb. Much shorter and the lambs is at an increased risk for prolapse, but much longer may also still lead to manure build up in some cases. For our hair lambs, it is more complicated. We actually are in the midst of conducting a trial to compare long tail and docked Dorper sheep. Therefore, we dock the tails on half the lambs and not on the other half. We plan to stick with this protocol for several years and measure lifetime performance. Stay tuned for some reports in the future. Outside of a research setting there is much debate on whether to dock hair sheep. The reality is the tail most likely does not inhibit performance on the lamb or increase its risk of flystrike (no wool, obviously). However, when lambs evenuatlly get their 30 seconds of ring time at the sale barn, does a docked group look more uniform and present the conotation they have been better managed? Matter of perspective, probably. With either our Rambouillets or Dorpers, we use an electric hotdocker that cauterizes blood vessels and limits the amount of blood loss from the wound. Especially in younger lambs, they are not at risk of “bleeding out” from a tail wound, but excessive blood attracts flies, something that shuld be avoided. We also spray every docked tail with wound-kote as a local antispetic and promote healing.
Finally, we prefer to castrate lambs with elastrator bands or with a “all-in-one” tool. When using elastrator bands it is especially important to include the vaccine for tetanus because these cause an increased risk of that diseases due to open wound. Castrating lambs is stressful on the lambs- we always try and make sure this is done on a cool day and once lambs are castrated they are mixed back in with their dams immediately.
Finally, all lambs receive an electronic ear tag for identification. We currently use the the small tags from Shearwell, as they are lightweight and easy on the lambs’ ears. At weaning, we’ll put a second tag in as secondary identification. At marking, we also collect a tissue sample from the ear with a an Allflex Tissue Sampling Unit- which ultimately will be used for parentage determination via DNA. All our lambs are born in the pasture, thus the DNA results allow us to confirm the sire and dam.
In the instance of certain research projects, our lamb makring protocol might change, but for the most part what I have described is the basis of it. A good team of helpers is invaluable, because each of the things I described need to be performed properly for it to be effective. Lamb marking should be an enjoyable experience for all though, akin to branding day for cattle producers. It usually requires lots of hands, but its fun work. Maybe the most important part of hosting a successful lamb marking is to also feed your crew, I will forever associate lamb enchiladas as the perfect meal for this event!
To provide feedback on this article or request topics for future articles, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 325-657-7220. For general questions about sheep and goats, contact your local Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service county office. If they can’t answer your question, they have access to someone who can.