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 during this management season 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 objective of this study is to help farmers identify and adopt more effective birthing practices. The methods involve 1) working with many case study farms to obtain information on labor demands and feed costs for different birthing tasks under various birthing systems during different seasons of the year, 2) reporting these results to participating farmers in yearly updates showing how individual farms vary from each other in labor needs, feed costs and herd productivity and interviewing these farmers about any management changes they plan for succeeding birthing seasons, 3) reporting results from participating farms via a best practices power point presentation and discussion at regional meetings on the topic, and 5) developing web based and written resources to share this information with a wide range of Northeast sheep and goat farmers. Adoption of more effective practices should improve farm performance by increasing farm savings and encouraging farmers to increase herd size or postpone retirement.
Twenty eight case study farms collected birthing data in 2011. Participating farmers helped to create additional visual aids to help other farmers understand their practices. We expanded our power point presentation to include several short videos and made arrangements to convert it into a "Best Management Practices" curriculum to be hosted on the Cornell Animal Science web site. Three regional meetings were held with 59 farmers and educators and contact information for tracking management changes was collected from 35 of them. Several case study farmers experimented with changes in their birth management systems. Summaries of our 2009 results and tables of herd parameters for 2009 were surface mailed to all participating case study (past and present) farmers in February 2011. We are still entering the data from 2010 and 2011 and conducting follow-up interviews with four 2011 farmers who have not turned in complete records. Analyses of data will take place in 2012. Verification of impacts is behind schedule and will be a major thrust of this project in 2012.
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.
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 again exceeded our milestone of working with 15 case study farms per year. In 2010 we worked with 24 farms and in 2011 we worked with 28 farms from CT, PA, NH, NY and VT but are still awaiting completed records on their birthing seasons from four of the farms.
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. Past workshop attendees participate in “after” questionnaires or phone interviews on the impact of the project.
In 2010, 149 farmers and educators had participated in six regional workshops on birthing management systems, far exceeding our milestone of 60 farmers participating in 3 regional workshops annually. However, only 18 farmers completed our "before" questionnaires because many of them did not know their costs of production offhand and took the questionnaires home planning to send them to us. This meant we were far behind in the contact information to verify farmer changes in birthing management. In contrast, we only held 3 regional meetings on lambing and kidding management in 2011 but were able to collect more contact information. The first meeting was a workshop on “Lambing and Kidding on Pasture” with 21 families from MA, NH, NY, and VT at the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference on Jan 22nd. In order to obtain more contacts for the follow-up or “after” questionnaires on the usefulness of the workshop, we handed out a sheet asking for permission to contact farmers afterward. However, we only received contact information from 10 farmers because the last person to sign the front of the sheet did not realize it was 2 sided and did not pass it on. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County hosted a workshop on “Management strategies for the lambing/kidding season” with 13 farmers attending and we did two presentations at the SUNY Cobleskill Spring Sheep & Goat Classic on “Lambing and kidding - Where does the time go?” and “Mothering & bonding issues” for 25 farmers. We again passed around a permission statement as well as our questionnaires at these two events and again had problems with the permission statement not being distributed to all participants. Overall, we were able to collect contact information and follow-up permission from 32 farmers. Additionally, 3 of these farmers became case study farms for the 2011 spring, summer or fall birthing seasons and more of them will be participating in 2012.
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. Farmers provide feedback on what is helpful and what is not.
Materials, photos, video streams and graphics have been collected for a web-based and written manual on "Management practices to reduce labor, farmer stress and feed costs during lambing/kidding." The manual is to be organized as a series of learning modules based on the power point/videos. Arrangements have been made for hosting the web pages and video streams.
Case study farmers from 2009 and 2010 that saw tables comparing their labor demands, feed costs, and herd productivity (mortality rates, growth rates, etc.) at regional meetings commented that the comparisons were useful. Therefore we followed up by surface mailing summaries of our 2009 results and tables of herd parameters for 2009 to all participating (past and present) farmers in February 2011. Farms were identified by unique numbers and each farmer was told the individual number that corresponded to their farm in order to compare the data for their farm to the other anonymous farms.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Several study farms made changes in birthing management during 2011. These included changes in 1) season of kidding or lambing, 2) management for predation control, 3) pasture management to decrease parasite contamination, 4) animal flow from pregnancy to lactation to either increase efficiency in animal handling or decrease predation, and 5) changes in feed management to either reduce feed costs or increase dam body condition at birthing and improve offspring performance. We have collected sufficient data to measure the impact of these changes by data analysis in 2012.
It has become obvious that the helpfulness of various changes in management during birthing is dependant in large part on the farmer’s lifestyle and thus, management changes that work well on some farms will have unexpected consequences on others.
For example, one elderly sheep farmer in the study was spending enormous amounts of time checking and assisting birthing and rearing lambs artificially during the winter of 2010 in part because the barn was not ideal for winter lambing. The farmer did not want to change to lambing in late spring because in previous years when this was tried, losses of lambs to predators had been severe. Instead, the farmer suddenly introduced a new ram to the flock in June/July 2010 and many ewes to lambed in December 2010 rather than January or February 2011. This earlier lambing season was quite successful and resulted in less farmer stress as well as reduced mortality rates. However, the farmer ran into problems because about 20 ewes rebred in February 2011 while still nursing lambs and lambed again in July 2011. The farmer was cautioned that these later lambs would be quite susceptible to internal parasites as well as to predation. Approximately 38 coyotes had been harvested from the farm during the winter of 2011 and predators were not a problem for this lamb crop. However, the farmer has no easy handling system for the flock and thus deworming of the new lambs was very difficult. Shearing had been delayed and the farmer thought that they could probably check these lambs and deworm as necessary at shearing time but unfortunately this did not work out. By the time the farmer was able to locate help for deworming, several lambs had died from severe worm loads despite the farmer having bought dewormer several weeks earlier and having it waiting in the barn.
In discussing lambing for 2012, it was suggested that the farmer remove the rams after late fall/early winter lambing, but the farmer felt that, given facilites and lifestyle, this would be very difficult. The farmer indicated that despite the exhaustion, mothering issues and early neonatal mortality that occurred when lambing in a very cold barn in Jan/Feb, they would rather do that. However, it turned out that a new ram had again been introduced into the flock in June so it may be that many ewes (excluding the ones that were pregnant again when he was introduced into the flock) will lamb out of season in Nov/Dec regardless. In this case, the farmer is going to be faced with the same possibility of rebreeding occuring and a second late lamb crop occuring that again will be very susceptible to both worms and predation.
Unfortunately, birthing suggestions that are practical on one farm, have unforseen ramifications for another farm given their physical constraints or personal preferences. In general, management decisions made at birthing seem to involve more lifestyle and personal preferences than do management decisions about fencing, feed, and health practices.