Identifying helpful management practices to reduce labor, expenses, and stress during lambing and kidding
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 and cite these increased demands as a major reason for why they do not expand their herd size or why they plan to retire early. The objectives of this study are to do case studies of farms to obtain information on labor demands and feed costs for different birthing tasks under various birthing systems during different seasons of the year and to help farmers identify and adopt more efficient birthing practices. Adoption of such practices should improve farm performance by increasing farm savings and encouraging farmers to increase herd size or postpone retirement.
Eighteen and 24 case study farms collected birthing data in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Farmers helped to identify effective birthing management practices on their farms. At least 5 farmers participated in short videos reflecting various birthing management practices and several other farmers took and shared photos exhibiting some of their "tricks of the trade." These have been incorporated into an evolving power point presentation that is our first step toward a "Best Management Practices" manual for effective lambing/kidding. At least 12 case study farmers shared information on their birth management systems with approximately 149 farmers and educators at six regional workshops or presentations. Several case study farmers experimented with changes in their birth management systems. We have summarized their data from 2009 but are still analyzing the 2010 information needed to measure actual impacts. Farmers have shared anecdotal information about what changes were most successful and why.
Performance Target #1 - Twenty 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.
Performance Target #2 - Of 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.
We exceeded our milestone of working with 15 case study farms in 2010. Instead, 24 case study farms provided complete, detailed information on their birthing seasons. Approximately 149 farmers and educators participated in six regional workshops on birthing management systems as compared to our objective of 60 farmers participating in 3 regional workshops. However, only 18 farmers completed our "before" questionnaires. Fact sheets were not completed. However, educational materials, graphics, tables, photos and videos were compiled into an improving power point presentation that will be expanded into a series of web-based factsheets to form a best management practices publication on "Management practices to reduce labor, farmer stress and feed costs during lambing/kidding."
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.
We did not send out these questionnaires because NESARE representatives felt they would not serve as sufficient measurements of our performance targets. Rather, they preferred that we have workshop attendees be interviewed about project impacts. We did input and summarize the 214 surveys received for the 2008 kidding/lambing seasons which will serve as our baseline. Fourteen others were eliminated for insufficient information and 5 for not being located in the Northeast US.
Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall 2010 - 15 case study farmers keep detailed records for kidding or lambing seasons and provide input on effects of changes they are implementing and farm protocols they suggest should be video-taped or described in writing to share with other farmers.
In 2010, 24 case study farmers provided detailed records on herd productivity and feed costs. Nine farmers had more than one birthing season during the year and four farmers managed separate sheep and goat herds that both participated in the study. Videotaping and photo shots were done at 5 farms to illustrate 1) grannying, 2) different methods of handling newborns on pasture, 3) effective use of jugs for newborn management tasks, 4) solving bonding issues in first time dams, and 5) stimulating the cervix to facilitate fostering. Portions of each video were suitable for power point presentations on low input birthing. However, some were not professional enough to stand alone. The purchase of a video camera with funds from this grant in June 2010 and the future purchase of a tripod will improve video quality.
Case study farmers have said that comparisons of their farms to the other case study farms would be valuable to them. Tables comparing the 2009 farms will be sent to participating farmers in Jan 2011. Each farmer will be told which farm is theirs. However, the remainder of the farms will be coded simply as "sheep farm #3" or "goat farm #2" rather than being identified by name or place.
Summer/Fall 2010 – ?60 farmers participate in 3 regional workshops on birth management systems, fill out "before" questionnaires, and are asked for permission to follow up with them. Some farmers that plan to initiate changes in their birth management practices are selected to be case study farms for the 2011 birth management seasons.
Regional workshops with input from case study farmers were held in June 2010 in Delaware County (14 attendees from NY and NJ, 3 case study farms), September 2010 at Caprine Outing (25 attendees from NY and PA, 1 case study farm), October 2010 at the Cornell Sheep and Goat Symposium (43 attendees, 3 case study farms that kid/lamb on pasture did formal presentations), November 2010 in Clinton County, NY (31 attendees from NY and VT, 1 case study farm), Jefferson County, NY (22 attendees, 1 case study farm), and St. Lawrence, NY (14 attendees, 3 case study farms). In addition the small ruminant discussion group that hosted the Delaware County workshop followed up with a field day to one of the case study farms to further discuss their lambing management program.
We have not received the volume of responses expected from questionnaires on before and after birthing management practices and associated changes in birthing costs at our workshops. The biggest problem appears to be that many participating farmers do not know their feed costs at birthing without needing to consult their farm records. This means that farmers tend to take the questionnaires home with the intent to mail them to us later rather than completing the questionnaires during the events. The contact information from these questionnaires was to provide the means for us to contact farmers later for feedback on changes and possible improvements they have made in birth management. In the future, we plan to have farmers fill out a signup sheet at the events that asks them to list their contact information and whether they are willing to allow us to contact them in the future to access the effectiveness of the workshops. We will also change the questionnaire to allow them to list the typical ration they feed during lactation and have us calculate probable feed costs if they do not know feed costs themselves.
We have noticed with some of the case study farms that even when practical solutions are offered to various lambing and kidding problems, some farmers are unwilling to even try them because they represent a different way of doing things. To address this mindset we incorporated activities into our 2010 regional workshops in which farmers paired up to discuss their birthing procedures. Each farm identified a lambing/kidding management problem they would like to solve. First, one farmer shared the problem and the other farmer offered a solution and the first farm verbally rejected the solution - no matter how valid - and offered oral reasons for why that particular solution would not work. The farmers then switched roles. However, this time the farmer now seeking a solution accepted the other farmer’s suggestions - no matter how ridiculous - and verbally described how to incorporate these solutions. This led to informal discussions on flexibility and on factors that make a farmer more likely to try out a suggestion. However, farmers have also followed up the workshops by writing that just pairing up with other farmers to discuss how they each handle birthing season has been valuable.
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.
We are behind schedule on producing first drafts of the fact sheets. Data from 2009 have been summarized and data from 2010 are being evaluated. Graphics have been produced from the 2009 data. A comprehensive power point presentation on low input birthing with accompanying handouts and tables has been compiled. Both farmers and educators have provided feedback to improve these materials.
Spring/Summer 2011 – 2000 farmers receive by surface mail a report of study results to date and baseline questionnaires for 2011. 150 farmers return questionnaires. Past workshop attendees participate in "after" questionnaires/phone interviews on the impact of the project.
Distribution of the questionnaire will probably be delayed until Fall 2011 or Winter 2012 so that it can serve as a final comparison with the 2008 baseline questionnaire. Past workshop attendees will be interviewed during Summer 2011.
Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall 2011 - 15 case study farms keep detailed records for kidding or lambing seasons and provide input on effects of changes implemented and farm protocols they suggest should be video-taped or described in writing to share with other farmers.
We are currently soliciting these farms. We have commitments thus far from farms in NH, NY, VT and PA. At least three farms were obtained through attendance at regional workshops.
Summer/Fall 2011 – ?60 farmers participate in 3 regional workshops on management systems, fill out "before" questionnaires, and are asked for permission to follow up with them. Some are selected as case study farms.
A regional workshop will take place on Jan 22, 2011 at the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference. Workshops during Summer/Fall 2011 are tentatively planned for Columbia and Wayne Counties in New York and Tioga County in Pennsylvania.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Thus far, we have only studied the 2009 birthing information provided by 18 case study farms and are still analyzing the 2010 data. However, one farm did have 2008 birthing available to us for comparison. They changed their birthing management system in 2009 to 1) lambing on pasture in the spring with shed access and then returning after lambing to a drylot for 2 to 4 weeks before going back on pasture, and 2) lambing in a common dry lot and shed in the fall. Previous to this, all their lambing had been in barns with ewes and their lambs being jugged after lambing followed by group housing in the barn until weaning.
Feed costs per ewe per day from lambing to weaning were $.23 for Spring 2009 and $.43 for Fall 2009 as compared to $.58 for Spring 2008 and $.52 for Fall 2008. Labor demands per ewe for the actual birthing periods were 0.91 h for Spring 2009 and 0.9 h for Fall 2009 as compared to 1.13 h for Spring 2008 and 1.35 h for Fall 2008. Lamb mortality rates, daily gain from birth to weaning, and lambs weaned per ewe were 4.8%, 0.72 lb/d, and 184.4% for Spring 2009 and 6.3%, 0.69 lb/d, and 115.4% for Fall 2009 as compared to 10.8%, 0.78 lb/d, and 178.4% for Spring 2008 and 27.3%, 0.73 lb/d, and 109.1% for Fall 2008. Growth rate was slightly lower in 2009 but was offset by reduced mortality rates, decreased feed and labor costs, and increases in lambs weaned per ewe.
Based on information farmers provided for their 2009 birthing seasons, we can make some generalizations. Labor demands per dam during birthing season were higher in the winter (range = 1.2 to 10.8 h, mean 4.7 h), than in the spring (0.7 to 3.1 h, mean 1.2 h) or fall (0.9 to 4.1 h, mean 1.8 h). This was primarily due to the substantial increases in time spent by several farmers to check for and assist births during winter. There was not a clear relationship between herd size and increased labor spent. Smaller herds varied widely in labor demands during winter birthings with some farms spending 12 to 15 extra hours per day as compared to others spending only 2 to 3 extra hours per day with comparable herd productivity levels. The percentage of young weaned per dam was lower for fall birthings (115 to 186%, mean 146%) as compared to winter (141 to 216%, mean 183%) or spring birthings (127 to 200%, mean 163%) and was a result of fewer newborns delivered per dam rather than increased mortality rates. Pasture birthing versus barn birthing in the spring did not result in decreased herd productivity as measured by mortality rates, growth rates or weaning percentages but resulted in substantial savings in feed costs per dam. Feed costs for pasture-birthing goat herds averaged $6.80 per dam as compared to $21.74 for barn-kidding herds and $8.14 for pasture-birthing sheep flocks as compared to $42.86 for barn-lambing sheep flocks.
Several study farms have implemented changes in birthing management during 2009 and 2010. These have included changes in 1) season of kidding or lambing, 2) guardian animal management to decrease predation, 3) pasture management to decrease parasite contamination, 4) animal flow from pregnancy to lactation to increase efficiency in animal handling, and 5) feed management to reduce feed costs. Next year we will have collected sufficient data to measure the impact of these changes.