Sheep unit experiences 210 percent lamb drop during 2008 lambing season

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

They usually weigh about 10 pounds each when they are born, they generally come in twos and the more than 460 lambs all live at the SDSU sheep unit.

These lambs were part of a “really good” year for the sheep unit, said Rob Zelinsky, the unit’s manager.

Generally, the sheep unit shoots for a 200 percent lamb drop, or birth rate, but this year, the lamb drop was 210 percent for 222 ewes, said Adam Sandersfeld, a unit employee and SDSU senior. He credited a string of triplet and two sets of quadruplet births for the high rate.

Due to the high number of lambs, the sheep unit generally does not name the lambs, but a couple do receive names, said Zelinsky. Cookies ‘N Cream is a purebred Columbian that is black and white, meaning the lamb had to receive a recessive gene from both parents.

The winter lambing season occurs in February, with lambs being born from Feb. 4 until March 9 in 2008, said Sandersfeld.

Zelinsky described lambing season as the “most labor intensive time of year.” This year was especially difficult since the weather did not cooperate, he said.

Throughout this time, seven different employees, one for each night of the week, work a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. During the shift, the employees rescue the newborn lambs from the cold, take their weights and make sure they are nursing, said Sandersfeld.

The sheep unit employees also give the newborn lambs colostrum – the first milk produced by the mother after birth – to build their immune systems, provide the necessary energy and protect them from hypothermia, said Zelinsky.

“It (the overnight shift) is crucial to the success of lambing season,” said Zelinsky. “To have good labor available, that is the key to improve lamb survivability.”

Zelinsky said the shift is also good experience for the students, with “tremendous hands-on learning that you can’t get in the classroom.”

The recently born lambs will be part of the sheep unit’s research and be used within animal science classes.

“The role of the sheep unit ? is looking at the teaching, researching and extension component of the university,” said Zelinsky. “A large proportion of classes taught in the [animal and range science] department utilize sheep in one way, shape or form.”

An upcoming event of the sheep unit and the animal and range science department is the National Lamb Performance Classic, which will be held at SDSU starting March 22.

Sandersfeld said the contest is unlike a typical livestock show, since exhibitors bring their lambs to the event but have little to do with the lambs afterwards. Instead, the staff of the lamb unit feeds them the same diet from the day of the contest until mid-summer, when the lambs are brought to market.

There the sheep unit staffers follow the lambs through the carcass line, and afterwards, the staffers award money to the owners of lambs with the best average daily weight gain, feed efficiency and carcass merit, said Zelinsky and Sandersfeld.

Last year, the contest had four states represented, and this year, Sandersfeld said he expected 40 pens of four sheep each to compete in the event.

The sheep unit also performs projects and research throughout the year.

A research project from last year assessed the effect of an ewe’s diet-such as a diet of dried distiller’s grain or soybean hulls – on milk production, milk composition, lamb growth and rumen function. For the project – called Weigh, Suckle, Weigh – the sheep unit employees weighed the lamb at the beginning of the day, let the lamb nurse, weighed the lamb again later and evaluated the growth, said Sandersfeld.

The study indicated that the dried distiller’s grain and soybean hulls are comparable substitutes for traditional feed sources while the ewe is nursing, said Zelinsky.

Another extension project of the sheep unit was the Sheep Lambing Time Workshop, which drew 120 producers from three states. The workshop discussed baby lamb survival, and Jeff Held, the extension sheep specialist, talked about resources to help save money on rising feed costs.

In addition to their projects, the sheep unit had multiple champions at the South Dakota State Fair and was named Premier Exhibitor last year.

#1.882712:715470291.jpg:sheep_JN.jpg:Adam Sandersfeld (right) holds a purebred Columbia lamb while SDSU sheep unit Manager Rob Zelinskey (left) bands the tail.: