Identifying helpful management practices to reduce labor, expenses, and stress during lambing and kidding

Final Report for LNE10-304

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2010: $35,839.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. tatiana Stanton
Cornell University Dept. of Anim. Sci.
Co-Leaders:
Dr. Michael Thonney
Cornell University
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Project Information

Summary:

Over the course of the project, 48 farms representing approximately 31 sheep flocks and 24 meat goat herds provided detailed information about their management inputs and flock/herd productivity during lambing or kidding. In many cases, farmers provided breeding season information across several years, for both species, and/or for multiple birthing seasons within a year. Methods to make lambing or kidding management more efficient without compromising animal health were shared by participating farmers and compiled into a power point presentation accompanied by a series of hands-on activities. This information was disseminated in a total of 23 presentations, workshops and field days to approximately 500 attendees.

Information from the on-farm studies was used to develop a 72-page on-line handbook on “Low Input Lambing and Kidding: Managing Lambing and Kidding Efficiently without Sacrificing Animal Well Being.” Educational slide shows, videos, “How to” factsheets, photos and farmer feedback were incorporated into the online handbook. The handbook is available at http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/goats/lowinput_birthing.html.

An on-line/phone survey was conducted to measure the impact of project activities on the productivity and profitability of farms whose members attended the lambing and kidding workshops and/or participated in the on-farm studies. Eighty two farmers who attended at least one of the presentations, workshops or field days completed the survey.  Approximately 77% reported making management changes because of their attendance at these events. Sixty one farmers reported improved quality of life and 54 farmers reported monetary savings totaling $44,470 per year and averaging $556 per farm per year.

At present, 25 of 48 meat goat and sheep farmers participating in the on-farm study of management during lambing and kidding season have completed the survey. Twenty-three farmers reportedbirth management changes resulting in improved quality of life while fifteen reported that those changes resulted in monetary savings averaging $588.90 per farm annually or approximately $9.10 per dam for 1747 ewes and does. This resulted in annual savings of $47,000 over the course of the 3-year study.

All data from the 4 years of the on-farm studies have been entered into spreadsheets for statistical analyses with the exception of the feed, bedding, and heat costs for 2011 and 2012. This remaining information is being entered and will provide furthur statistical analyses of lambing and kidding systems. However, initial information gathered was crucial to the development of the Low Input Lambing and Kidding Handbook, workshops and field days. 

Introduction:

The potential for profitability of a meat goat or sheep farm is heavily influenced by the success of kidding or lambing season. Because of this, most farmers invest substantial labor and feed inputs into these management seasons. However, farmers also cite these increased demands as a major reason for why they do not expand their herd size or why they plan to retire early.

In the fall of 2008 we implemented a 3-year project using with Federal Formula Funds to conduct interviews and collect detailed data from NY meat goat and sheep farmers on their inputs and productivity during kidding or lambing. In initial farm visits, there were noticeable differences in time spent on birth checks, artificial rearing, and transitioning dams and offspring from pregnancy to lactating areas. The occurrence of dam rejection and the success of offspring fostering varied widely and was not necessarily correlated with successful lamb or kid survival. Data from spring/summer birth periods indicated that decisions about fencing choices, predator control, parasite management and prenatal nutrition had large influences on the success of pasture birth systems. It became clear that farmers could learn a lot from management practices employed on each other’s farms.

Therefore, NESARE funding was requested to provide more detailed outreach resources than originally planned on management practices contributing to: 1) reduction of inputs during indoor winter lambing or kidding; and 2) success of pasture birthing systems. We hoped to document and videotape effective lambing and kidding management practices used by farmers in the on-farm studies. This information would be used to develop slide presentations and web-based educational resources describing best management practices for low-input birth management for various seasons of the year and discussing differences in labor, feed costs, and stress among different birthing seasons.

The objectives of this NESARE project were to 1) conduct on-farm studies on Northeast sheep and meat goat farms to obtain information on labor demands and feed costs for different birthing tasks under various lambing and kidding systems during different seasons of the year and 2) develop educational resources and workshops to help farmers to pinpoint and adopt efficient birthing practices. If widely disseminated through workshops and online resources, adoption of such practices should improve farm performance by increasing farm savings through better use of labor and feed resources during lambing and kidding, and improved lifestyle satisfaction.

Performance Target:

Performance Target #1Twenty of 30 farmers participating in in-depth record keeping and interviews about their lambing/kidding seasons will identify and successfully adopt birthing management changes that result in total savings of $60,000 due to reductions in labor and/or feed expenses without reducing reproduction or growth rate.(The $60,000 in total savings results from a savings of $20/ewe or doe for a total 3000 ewes and does).

The follow up phone interview/online survey for farms participating in the actual on-farm studies of lambing and kidding practices did not commence until mid-December 2013 and is still ongoing. Participation has been excellent although still below the goal of 66.6% of the farms completing the survey and reporting changes. At present, 25 of 48 meat goat and sheep farms participating in the on-farm study of management during lambing and kidding season have completed the survey to determine what changes, if any, were made and their impact. Twenty-three of 25 farmers report that they made birth management changes resulting in improved quality of life while 15 of 25 farmers report that their changes resulted in monetary savings averaging $588.90 per farm annually (range:$0-$5,000) or approximately $9.10 per dam for 1747 ewes and does annually. This results in a monetary savings of $15,900 per year or a total savings of $47,000 for the three year study.

Performance Target #2Of 300 meat goat and sheep farmers who attend regional workshops on birth management practices, 200 farmers will agree to have us contact them to track changes in their birthing systems for the following year, and 150 of these will make birth management changes resulting in 100 farmers reporting improved quality of life and monetary savings totaling $75,000 within the next two years. (An average savings of $250 per farm per year).

Of the 184 attendees from which we obtained usable contact information during regional workshops on birthing management practices, 155 farmers agreed to have us contact them to track changes in their birthing system, and 82 farmers completed a survey to determine what changes were made. Sixty-three farmers made birth management changes resulting in 61 farmers reporting improved quality of life and 54 farms reporting monetary savings totaling $44,470 per year and averaging $556 per farm per year (range: $0-$5,200).

The performance target goal for monetary savings was met. In addition, more than 75% of the farms that completed the survey reported making changes and the vast majority of these reported improvements in quality of life and monetary savings. However, we did not reach our performance target with regard to number of farms attending the workshops completing the survey. It was difficult to obtain contact information at conferences where multiple presentations went on simultaneously. Sign-up sheets were only partially circulated or circulation forgotten because conference organizers and presenters were multitasking. We had far better success collecting contact information at workshops and field days. Multiple members of a farm often attended the educational events and some attended more than one event. However, our survey was designed to be filled out by only one member of a farm. Thus, even though approximately 500 people participated in the educational events, names were obtained for only 246 and contact information from 225. Usable, correct contact information was obtained for only 184 people leading to 82 individual farms actually reporting back on the impact of the lambing and kidding presentations, workshops and field days on farm productivity and quality of life.

Research

Materials and methods:

A total of 48 farmers participated in the on-farm studies from 2009 to 2012. Data consisted of very detailed lambing and kidding management information such as labor inputs during lambing, and feed costs, productivity, mortality rates and causes from birthing to weaning (see example record keeping form). Farmers were usually provided with the forms prior to lambing or kidding in order to record data as the birthing season progressed. A farm visit to complete these records was conducted when the kid or lamb crop was approximately 2 to 4 months old. This was often followed by a phone conversation to clarify any additional questions about how lambing and kidding were managed on the farm.

Workshops and field days associated with this project focused on detailing methods to adapt sheep and goats to less intensive birthing systems. These methods were identified during our on-farm studies of the management practices, facilities, labor, and feed resources associated with birthing management. Workshops and field days also provided background information on maternal bonding and fostering methods. Later workshops also included information on the birthing process and hands-on exercises on dealing with dystocia, planning animal flow from late pregnancy through weaning, and handling health problems associated with lambing and kidding seasons.

In the Spring of 2013, workshop attendees were sent announcements of the online Low Input Lambing and Kidding Handbook and invited to participate in an online “follow up” survey to determine the impact of any changes they made because of the workshops. This invitation was followed by a request to do a phone interview instead for attendees that had not yet completed the survey on line.

Participating farmers received a hard copy of the Lambing and Kidding Handbook in November 2013. In mid-December 2013 they were sent an invitation to participate in the “follow up” survey to determine the impact of any changes adopted because of the on-farm studies. Farmers who did not readily complete the survey online were called to set up phone interviews instead.

Research results and discussion:

Spring/Summer 2010 – 2000 farmers receive by mail notice about the project and baseline questionnaires for the 2010 kidding and lambing seasons. 150 farmers return questionnaires. 2600 farmers received the baseline questionnaire and 216 farmers returned usable questionnaires. However data were not summarized and analyzed until 2012.

Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall 2010 – 15 case study farmers participate in the on-farm study. 24 case study farmers participated.

Summer/Fall 2010 – ≥60 farmers participate in 3 regional workshops on birth management systems. 188 farmers and educators participated in 8 regional presentations, workshops or field days on low input lambing and kidding practices.

Summer/Fall 2010 – ≥100 farmers gain access to the initial fact sheets and video streams on reduced input management practices for kidding or lambing seasons, and provide feedback. No fact sheets were created. However, approximately 188 farmers and educators did have access to the video streams, etc. during our workshops.

Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall 2011 – 15 case study farmers participate in the on-farm study. 24 case study farmers participated.

Summer/Fall 2011 – ≥60 farmers participate in 3 regional workshops on lambing and kidding management systems. 59 farmers and educators participated in 4 regional workshops or field days.

Summer/Fall 2011 – ≥100 farmers gain access to more video streams on lambing or kidding systems that improve efficiency and to a first draft of a “best practices” manual on transitioning to less intensive systems. The manual was not completed until December 2012.

2012 – 15 case study farmers participate in the on-farm study. 15 case study farmers participated.

2012 – 30 case study farmers provide follow-up information on the impact of the on-farm study on adoption of management changes and impact of these changes. This milestone did not occur until mid-December 2013. Thus far, 25 of 48 participating farmers have provided follow up surveys.

2012 – 150 past workshop attendees participate in “after” questionnaire/phone interviews on the impact of the workshops on lambing and kidding management practices at their farms. This milestone did not occur until Spring 2013. Thus far, 82 farms have provided follow up surveys.

2012 – ≥ 100 farmers access final versions of a birth management system curriculum and written and visual resources on transitioning to less intensive lambing/kidding systems and use these resources to make changes in their systems. The first draft of the online handbook incorporating videos, etc. was put on the web in February 2013 and replaced by a second draft in Jan 2014. From Feb 2013 to Jan 2014, 1,523 unique visits were made to the Table of Contents of the Handbook. Hard copies of the handbook were distributed to the 48 farmers participating in the on-farm studies in Nov 2013. The impact has not been measured.

Discussion of Results

A recurring theme of this project was involving too many farms and too much detailed information to process in a timely manner. Collecting this much information was advantageous to the development of our educational resources. However, the on-farm studies would have been more useful to the farmers who participated in them if they could have had prompt access to the data summaries compraing the performance of their own farms to that of the other participating farms.

The data were difficult for several farmers to collect. We often had to calculate feed costs for them because rarely was this information at their “finger tips.” About half the farmers found it difficult to estimate dry matter consumption of the dams. In some cases this was because feed was being shared with other livestock. However, in many cases, they just didn’t think about food consumption in terms of actual outlays in feed. Not being able to estimate likely feed intake made it difficult for farmers to readily calculate feed costs, compare different feeding systems or plan ahead for future years. Hopefully, participating in the study encouraged some less experienced farmers to start calculating probable and actual feed consumption.

Numerous other experiences were gained from the on-farm studies. Being present at every birth did not necessarily ensure the survival of either newborns or dams. Management factors related to the health of the fetus and pregnant dam prior to birthing were much stronger determinants. Excessive time spent checking for and assisting births led to farmer exhaustion without necessarily improving survivability of dams and newborns. Planning ahead so that a human presence was not mandatory for a safe delivery helped cut down on stress and exhaustion. Modest investments in making facilities or equipment more suitable to the birthing season also resulted in substantial savings in terms of labor demands and heating, bedding and feed costs. Good organizational skills cut down on the amount of time needed to move animals and to conduct management tasks.

Farmers that lambed or kidded on pasture in late spring, summer or fall generally performed as well as their barn birthing counterparts with far less outlays for feed. For several farmers however, other factors overshadowed profitability in determining whether to adopt pasture lambing or kidding. Some participating farmers disliked pasture birthing even though their feed costs were far less in the years that they used it rather than birthing indoors. They cited discomfort with having so little supervision over birthing at a time when their labor and attention needed to be focused on hay or field crops, and preferred knowing that their animals were in a controlled setting in the barn. Additional factors such as 1) the layout of pastures in terms of fencing, shelter, water and ease of viewing; 2) contingency plans in the event of inclement weather, 3) predator and parasite challenge; 4) availability of plentiful good quality pasture; and 5) market price for pasture raised lambs and kids all contributed to the success of pasture birthing. This study emphasized that numerous factors interact to determine the final decisions farmers make about what kidding or lambing practices to adopt.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Four articles on either low input lambing and kidding or pasture birthing were published in Northeast symposium proceedings or farmer journals. The first draft of an online handbook on low input lambing and kidding was completed in January 2013 and replaced with a second draft in January 2014. The three chapters cover 1) Relationships between management inputs, season of birthing and herd performance, 2) Management practices to decrease inputs at lambing and kidding, and 3) Pasture birthing. Videos, example SOP’s, slide presentations, and other educational materials are incorporated into the handbook.

Each chapter starts with a list of specific knowledge a farmer should gain from the chapter and then covers relevant information learned from the farms that participated in the on-farm studies. Each chapter concludes with a list of suggested follow-up activities. Follow-up activities were chosen to help farmers gain information necessary for making wise decisions about possible lambing and kidding management changes to adopt. Examples of activities include: discussing with your family what birthing activities or problems cause the most stress, calculating feed costs per ewe or doe, developing a written SOP for a particular herd health problem, sketching the farm animal flow from late pregnancy to birthing to immediately post birth to pre-weaning, outlining a contingency plan for dealing with inclement weather when lambing or kidding outside, having your pasture forage analyzed at different stages of maturity to compare the nutritional value to the nutritional needs of does or ewes nursing twins and consuming 4.5% of body weight in forage dry matter.

There have been 1,523 unique page views and 2,326 total page views of the table of contents for the online Low Input Lambing and Kidding Handbook. The handbook itself is in pdf format and visits cannot be counted. Paper copies of the handbook were distributed to the 48 farmers participating in the on-farm study and were followed up by requests from farmers who mentor for copies for their mentees. We have also received requests for paper copies from extension staff in other states.

At least 12 workshops and field days on low input lambing and kidding were conducted over the course of the project. These appeared to be more effective than the 11 shorter presentations at conferences and symposia but this may have been because attendees contact information was easier to obtain. Workshops and field days that included input from actual farmers participating in the on-farm studies seemed particularly valuable. Workshops and field days covered similar materials to the handbook. Essentially, the handbook grew out of them. During the last two years of the project we also added basic information on lambing and kidding to these educational events because more beginning farmers were participating than originally anticipated. Impacts of the workshops and field days are discussed in the section on “impacts”.

Evaluations for the field days and workshops generally ranged from Very Good (4) to Excellent (5) on a score of 1 to 5 with the majority of farmer attendees indicating that they intended to reevaluate their systems and/or adopt a new practice. Recommendations for improvement of the events tended to focus on changing the order of the activities to make them more meaningful or suggestions on time management to allow for more in-depth discussions. Other suggestions centered on providing for more audience involvement with respect to future networking (i.e. making sure that they shared contact information and information about their types of operations). In many cases, particularly field days, name tags were not provided which would have been very helpful for all.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

On Farm Study

Thus far, follow up online surveys/phone interviews have been conducted with 25 of the 48 meat goat and sheep farms participating in the on-farm study to identify changes in management practices resulting from the study and their impact. Twenty-three of 25 farmers reporting thus far made birth management changes resulting improved quality of life and 15 of 25 reported monetary savings totaling $15,900 a year and averaging $588.90 per farm (range-$0-$5,000). There was an average savings of $9.10 per dam per year for the total of 1747 ewes and does birthed by these 25 farmers each year.

Farmers made changes in health and parasite management (76%), birthing procedures (56%), birthing season (32%), pasture and nutritional management (24%), predator control (24%), and facilities (16%). Farmers were most likely to make changes in health and parasite management by implementing rotational grazing (36.8%) and FAMACHA (21.1%) or changing their deworming protocol (10.5%). Changes made to nutrition and pasture management were most often changing the amount of concentrate fed, either increasing (33.3%) or decreasing (33.3%).

The most common change to birthing systems was regarding culling decisions because of the more accurate records required by participating in the on-farm study (28.6%). Other changes included raising more lambs or kids artificially to decrease losses (14.3%) and changing the vaccination protocols for lambs and kids (14.3%). Farmers who made changes in the season their animals birthed in were most likely to change to a fall season (25%) or add additional seasons (25%) while others moved their season earlier in the winter (25%).

Changes to facilities included decreasing jug size (25%), adding a water system (25%) and using better feeders (25%). Farmers who made changes in predator control were most likely to purchase guardian dogs (50%) or llamas or donkeys (33%) and while others improved fencing (17%).

Each year farmers were asked to evaluate the current birthing season and what they wanted to improve or change next year. These adopted changes were usually not attributed to the study in the online surveys/phone interviews. For example, a farmer might note that conception rates were low because the ewes were in poorer body condition than desirable at breeding and that he/she planned to manage pastures for more optimal body condition next year. The following year, the same farmer might say that testing revealed that many of the ewes had OPP and that the flock had undergone a major culling. The following year the farmer might report improved flock productivity but would, rightly, not view these improvements as resulting from the study. In some cases, collecting data for the study encouraged farmers to be more cognizant about observing and measuring improvements.

Field days, Presentations and Workshops

Usable, current contact information was received from 184 attendees during regional workshops on birthing management practices. Eighty two farmers completed the online survey/phone interview to determine what changes were made. Sixty-three farmers reported that they made birth management changes because of these educational events, resulting in 61 farmers reporting improved quality of life and 54 reporting monetary savings totaling $44,470 a year and averaging $556 per farm (range-0-$5,200).

The workshop attendees who reported back often made changes in health and parasite management (54.9%), birthing procedures (35.4%), pasture and nutrition management (30.5%), birthing season (29.3%), facilities (11.1%), and predator control (8.5%). They often made several changes in health and parasite management. The most common changes were implementing FAMACHA (40.0%) or evasive rotational grazing (37.8%). Producers were also likely to change how they dewormed their animals (26.7%). Changes made to nutrition and pasture management were most often decreasing the amount of concentrate fed (37.5%), using creep feeders (16.7%), and increasing the pasture size (16.7%).

Changes made to birthing systems tended to vary between farms. The most common change was to begin using jugs or to leave the dams and their offspring in them longer (20.7%). Changes were also made to the frequency of night checks with farmers both increasing (13.8%) and decreasing (6.9%) the number of checks. Farmers who made changes in the season their animals birthed were most likely to make the season later (50%) rather than earlier (33.3%) or add a season (16.7%).

Changes to facilities were most likely changes in the layout of the facilities (44.4%) or adding a new building (22.2%). Farmers who made changes in predator control were most likely to purchase livestock guardian dogs (71.4%), while others improved fencing (28.6%).

Publications

The Low Input Lambing and Kidding Handbook is just starting to be publicized to the general public, although participating farmers and workshop attendees were invited to view the first draft online in 2013 and offered constructive feedback that went into the second draft. Therefore, it is too early to know the impact of the handbook. We have received favorable comments and several requests for hard copies which was not our intent as we were hoping it would be used primarily as an online educational resource.

Economic Analysis

Please refer to the previous section which includes information on economic impacts.

Farmer Adoption

The previous section on “impacts” discusses farmer adoption in depth. The online survey/phone interviews indicated that approximately 50% of the farms participating in the on-farm study and 75% of the farmers attending the lambing and kidding workshops made changes in their management systems because of these activities. However, the types of changes they made were not what we had necessarily anticipated. Because internal parasites are the major impediment to most pasture birthing systems, the workshops and on-farm discussions with participating farmers promoting pasture birthing included substantial information on evasive grazing techniques, selective deworming, and methods to combat the high concentration of internal parasites in barnyards and heavily used, popular pastures. Results from our survey indicated that although some people changed from indoor to pasture birthing or added pasture birthing to their other birthing systems, a major impact of the workshops and studies were to encourage farms to make changes in parasite management.

The workshops generally included detailed information on the bonding process between dam and offspring and pointed out that healthy lambs and kids do not have to remain in jugs for very long (≤ 24 h) because being challenged to identify their dams actually helps them to pick up the sensory cues necessary for dam identification. However, several workshop participants reported increasing the time that dams spent in jugs after attending the workshops. During the workshop, we usually showed a video of a farm that very effectively trimmed hooves on dams, castrated and ear tagged kids, etc. as they released the litters from the jugs. The farmer mentioned that by leaving the dams in the jugs for about 3 days, the hooves softened up and made trimming easier. Workshop attendees always appeared to enjoy this video and may have been more impressed by the ease by which the farmer was able to do these tasks than by our recommendations to move litters out of jugs rapidly.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

During the on-farm lambing and kidding studies that formed a major part of this project, a vast amount of information was collected from 31 sheep flocks and 24 meat goat herds on inputs and productivity for different types of lambing and kidding management systems and facilities. These data were helpful to illustrate specific comparisons or anecdotal information in our workshops and the Low Input Lambing and Kidding Handbook. However, the compiled information would also serve as an excellent database for statistically analyzing the effects of various management practices found on Northeast sheep and meat goat farms. For example, causes of death in kids and lambs from 8 days to weaning could be compared for offspring of vaccinated dams versus unvaccinated dams, or rates of rejection and starvation from 1 to 7 days of age could be compared for different animal densities. The collected data are a wealth of information on lambing and kidding practices. Therefore, we hope to continue working with the database with the help of Animal Science students interested in sheep and goat management.

Results of the study also reiterated that Northeast sheep and goat farmers are very concerned about internal parasite management and willing to adopt new practices. Further research on internal parasite control methods to better advise farmers is certainly warranted.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.