Breeding can be one of the greatest joys and biggest frustrations when it comes to owning sheep and animals in general. While bringing new life into your farm can be a joyous time, especially for small farmers, the anxiety of not knowing if your ewe is pregnant can be frustrating, to say the least.
How to tell if a ewe is pregnant? There are many ways to confirm the pregnancy of your ewe. The signs of ewe pregnancy are:
- Missed estrus
- Shows no interest in intact males after breeding
- Increase in heart girth and weight
- Milk production slows
- Blood and/or urine tests are positive
- Ultrasound is positive
Pregnancy in itself can be both a time of anxiety and one of happy tidings.
Welcoming a new animal into the family can be a wonderful event, but not knowing if mating was successful can be frustrating too. Some of the ways to determine if a ewe is pregnant can be done by yourself or your family, but some steps should be performed by a vet.
Free Tests That You Can Perform
To really confirm that your ewe is pregnant, you will need to pay close attention and monitor her behavior. While you check, try to keep her stress level down as much as possible.
Ewes will go through a breeding season, usually during the cooler part of the fall into the winter months. Brought on by the shorter days, a ewe will go through estrus every couple of weeks.
While it is not the same as a human estrus cycle, it does share some similarities. The hormone levels will rise and fall during her estrus cycles, which tell the ram she is receptive or not.
During the breeding season, a ewe will go through an estrus cycle every 16-17 days. One of the similarities to a human estrus cycle is that once pregnant, estrus will end due to an increase in pregnancy hormones. If you are tracking your ewe’s estrus cycles, then you may notice that a ewe has missed a cycle, similar to a woman missing a period.
So far so good! But,
This is not a sure sign of pregnancy. Other factors can affect the estrus cycle including stress or poor nutrition. This can help you to separate the potentially pregnant from the definitely not pregnant sheep in your flock.
Did you know?
Until your ewes start to lamb, you do not have to remove the ram from the flock. He will just keep doing what he does while ewes are in estrus.
Shows No Interest in Males
The second sign to watch for is if you ewe doesn’t show any interest in the ram. If a ewe was bred during the previous estrus cycle and then shows no interest in breeding for more than three weeks, it is a good chance that hormones are keeping her interests, and his, at bay.
While there could be other factors at play here, this is a sign that her estrus cycles have probably stopped.
It’s not 100% certain that she is pregnant, but it does increase the odds significantly that she is. Another sign is that if the male shows no interest in her, she may have communicated to him, through hormone-laden urination, that she is already pregnant.
Increase in Heart Girth and Weight
This trick requires interaction and it is a more accurate way of determining if your ewe is pregnant. This test is easier to do if you are more familiar with your sheep and your sheep is used to being touched and manipulated by you.
If you plan to use this to both verify pregnancy and to monitor it, then touching and interacting with your ewes months in advance will make things go smoother.
The “heart girth” is not the size of the actual heart muscle, but rather the “girth” or circumference around the chest of the ewe, behind the front legs. As the ewe prepares for pregnancy, the organs will move a bit and will increase the size of the rib cage.
The sheep will also begin to put on weight as they are trying to support the nutritional needs of the growing fetus.
A sheep that is not used to being touched or handled may have issues with being touched like this. She may feel scared and fight trying to be measured.
In some cases, this can cause spontaneous abortion of the part of the ewe.
Start by sitting in the pen with her or by talking to her from outside the pen. Getting her used to pretty constant human interaction will help her to be less fearful of humans. Getting her to at least the stage where you can pet her and, potentially, hug her, will make the job of trying to measure her a whole lot easier.
Another way to customize her to touch is to weigh her once a week or so before estrus. Then, when it comes time to check and see if she has been gaining weight after breeding, it will feel like part of a normal routine for her.
This will help to reduce her stress and increase the viability of the fetus.
These tricks will be more time consuming if you have hundreds of ewes. But for a small farmer, it can help make the experience easier and less stressful on both the ewe and her owners tasked with the job.
When working with pregnant ewes, the main goal is to reduce her stress as much as possible. A stressed ewe will not produce lambs with any regularity.
Milk Production Decreases
If your ewe is still producing milk from a previous lambing, her milk production will slow down along with the size of her udder. Due to the increased caloric need to support the growing fetus, milk production will begin to decrease within a few weeks of the pregnancy.
If she is still nursing a lamb, you will want to take this into account when adjusting her daily feed. I would strongly consider weaning the lamb at the time that a ewe becomes pregnant. It is super stressful on her body to be nursing and pregnant.
By the end of the pregnancy, the udder will have shrunk down in size, then swelled back up with colostrum to feed the newly born lamb. As she gets closer to the end of her pregnancy, her udders will fill with colostrum.
You may also notice some leaking of colostrum prior to her giving birth.
Medical tests can be performed to confirm pregnancy. If you have a smaller farm, a blood or urine test may be used to confirm what is already suspected. For a larger farm, it may help take the guesswork out of breeding.
If you work with hundreds of ewes, it can be difficult to know them all.
It may make more sense to invest in either urine or blood tests to confirm a pregnancy. Sometimes it can be more costly to care for an unproductive ewe than to test every ewe that has a possibility of being pregnant in any one season.
For smaller farms, it may not be worth the expense to verify a ewe is pregnant. Although, it may make sense to spend a little money to take some of the guesswork out of breeding.
An EPT type of test for cattle tests hormone levels. It’s called a P-TEST (not joking), and is a urine pregnancy test that will confirm pregnancy in a cow, goat, bison or sheep. The tests look for a hormone called PSPB (Pregnancy Specific Protein B) which is similar to the HCG hormone that human pregnancy tests look for.
It is a hormone put off by the ewe’s placenta.
The urine pregnancy tests can be done at home, so you can test your sheep yourself. It tells you within minutes the results.
If you are going to do a urine test, it is usually easier to move the ewes into a stall so it’s easier to test the urine. Some ewes will be pee shy and not want to pee in front of people.
Once the urine is collected, add about 1.5 ml to a vial, shake it until the tablet inside is dissolved and match the color to the packaging. Although the accuracy rate of the urine test is about 95% accurate, this is still pretty good and can help to confirm pregnancy for a reasonable price. Plus it would be a good way to ensure that a ewe is pregnant and not sick.
HOw much does a urine test cost?
Urine tests cost an average of $5 per test or $30 for 10 tests.You can start using the test starting around day 60 to confirm a suspected pregnancy.
Some tests include a color guide that can give you a rough guess as to how close to the term they are. While it won’t be exact, it can provide a general guide.
Blood tests are something you can either have a vet do, or you can contact a lab and do yourself. A blood test tests for the same hormone as a urine test, but in the blood using ELISA (Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay) technology.
If you have a vet do it, then you don’t have to stress about trying to draw blood from a skittish ewe.
While the tests are a bit more expensive, they are similar inaccuracies.
The biggest difference between a blood test and a urine test is that a blood test can provide results in as little as 30 days after breeding. Urine tests require 60 days after breeding to show results.
A blood test will cost about $40 for 5 kits (there were no single kit options). This includes everything you need to do to prepare for the test at home.
Unlike the urine test, the blood sample needs to be sent to a lab to be analyzed. The lab usually tests within three days of arriving at the facility.
After the lab receives the test, it will take 3-4 days to get a result back. With an accuracy rate similar to a urine test, the biggest difference between the tests is time. While you can test sooner with a blood test, the results are not nearly instantaneous like with a urine test, the difference of cost aside.
Typically performed by a licensed vet, an ultrasound can both confirm pregnancy and determine if there are multiple fetuses. One major advantage of ultrasound is that it has a 100% accuracy rate.
Early in pregnancy, it can help to detect the heartbeat and later can determine both the number and viability of the fetus or fetuses.
The major downside is the cost. Whether you decide to have a licensed vet, who is experienced in reading an ultrasound or you decide to invest in the technology itself, the price will definitely be higher than any of the other available options.
While this cost may make more sense to a larger farm which depends on lambs being born, a smaller farm may have more emotional reasons for wanting to make sure the fetus is healthy and whether it will be singular or multiple births.
Ultrasound machines tend to range in cost from a few hundred dollars on Amazon to tens of thousands for more sophisticated machines on sites directed towards veterinarians.
In addition, you will need to learn how to effectively read and use an ultrasound on ewes.
You Have New Lambs On the Way
From nutritional requirements to reducing stress in a pregnant ewe, the period of time that a ewe is pregnant can be risky.
The risk of the loss of the lamb fetus varies by trimester, so I want to take a look at the different trimesters and what risks come with each part of the ewe pregnancy. Losing a lamb can be hard, but it also may be avoidable.
The First Trimester
The first trimester after breeding is complete is one of the most dangerous times to the fetus. Anything from stress to nutrition can cause spontaneous abortion of the embryo.
The hardest part is you may not know the ewe conceived. If she conceives early and aborts early, she may end up being able to be bred again.
Stress can be one of the biggest issues, and sheep get stressed easily. It is best not to change things in the ewe if possible.
Even transporting a ewe from a stud at a neighbor’s farm can cause enough stress to make her abort the fetus, but the risk is highest AFTER implantation. This is why timing is everything when transporting sheep.
If the ewe needs to be moved after breeding, it is best to do so immediately rather than waiting for a missed estrus.
While this may lead to multiple moves if she did not conceive during the first mating, the risks to a fertilized egg are reduced if it has not implanted into the uterine wall yet. Stress can dislodge an implanted embryo quicker than it can one that is not implanted yet.
Nutrition is also a concern. Pregnant ewes need more energy to help with the growth of the embryo. If she is grouped with other pregnant ewes, then offering a bit more in the way of hay should be sufficient for the group.
If you use a dog to round up of your sheep, this can stress your ewes enough to cause them to abort. Think of it as nature’s way to ensure the survival of the adult. It won’t carry if the conditions are not right for her, so as not to put her life in danger near the end.
- Transportation can stress ewes
- Higher calorie needs
- Dogs can stress ewes
The Second Trimester
The second trimester is the safest time in the pregnancy. A ewe’s nutritional requirements are very similar to prepregnancy as the fetus is not growing quickly at this stage.
The pregnant ewe is more able to handle some stress such as being moved, though being rounded up by a barking dog may still cause her undue stress.
Near the end of this trimester is when you would want to move her into a group of sheep that is close in gestational age as she is. This will allow the ewes to gestate together and care for their lambs together after birth. Moving her before the third trimester is better to reduce the risks of third-trimester stress.
The Third Trimester
The third trimester is where everything changes as both you and the ewe get ready for the impending birth of the new lamb. Her nutritional requirements will go up quite a bit, though take care not to overfeed either.
The fetus will grow the most in the last four to six weeks of gestation, but overfeeding at this point can also result in birth complications. At the beginning of this trimester, you want to vaccinate your ewe as well so that the newborn lamb can take advantage of the antibodies present in the colostrum.
If your ewe has not been previously vaccinated, you will want to give two shots, four weeks apart, to ensure that both mother and baby can benefit from the full effect of the immunizations.
It is at this point in the pregnancy that you will also need to offer a calcium supplement.
Hypocalcemia is a very real risk that could claim the life of your ewe if not treated quickly. Prevention is always better than treatment in the long run.
Reduced stress is very important at this stage, and this includes contact with strangers or the general public. If possible, moving a group of sheep that are getting ready to give birth into a quiet space is best. This will not just protect them from the elements, but will also offer a quieter, less stressful place to give birth.
You do not have to separate a ewe from other sheep until she is showing signs of labor. Once she is, quietly move her to a place she can be alone until after the birth. After the new life has come into this world, she and her new infant can be moved back with her group without issues.
One last thing I do want to point out is that abortion among sheep can be contagious, endangering the entire flock of pregnant ewes. If you find that one does abort during any time in her pregnancy, you need to isolate her until the cause is determined. Some things like toxoplasmosis can transfer from ewe to ewe and even to you.
How To Tell If A Ewe Is Going Into Labor
There are several signs that show that a ewe is getting close to labor. First, if you know your lamb’s due date, make sure that you are prepared to lamb early. Lambs can come a few days early and it can be easy to miscalculate the exact due date of the babies.
Your ewe will start laying down a lot more than usual as labor approaches.
Another sign is that you may notice a mucus discharge. You may also miss it, so don’t worry if your ewe goes into labor without you noticing the discharge.
You will also notice that her milk bag will become enlarged. It will hand down below her bottom and become easily seen.
This usually happens 5-10 days prior to lambing.
There are other signs that you may notice. Your ewe’s tail may lift slightly. You may also notice that her girl parts look red and swollen. This is in preparation for giving birth.
If your herd is grazing and your ewe has space, she will probably move away from the herd and prefer to be a little more isolated.
- Prepare to lamb as soon as a week early
- The ewe lays down a lot
- There is a mucus discharge
- The milk bag has filled
- Her tail has lifted
- Her girl parts start to look red and swollen
- She wanders away from the herd
How To Make Lambing Babies Easier
Ewes usually have one baby, but some sheep can birth as many as 4 babies! If you do get 3 or 4 babies in a single pregnancy, it would be best for the mama to bottle feed two of the babies.
If a ewe tries to nurse 3 or 4 babies, it can really affect her long-term health and will make it more likely that one or more of the lambs will die.
If you have a first-time pregnancy, consider having some lubricant to make getting those babies out easier. You can check out my recommendation here.
- Most sheep have 1 baby per litter
- If a ewe has 3 or 4 babies, bottle feed some of the babies
- Lube can help lambs to come out of the mamas if they get stuck
How To Handle Mismothering
Mismothering is when a sheep rejects one or more of her babies. This can happen at birth, or hours later. Sometimes the ewe will try to harm the rejected lamb and other times, she will simply ignore it.
There are two main solutions to mismothering. You can try to foster the lamb to another ewe that gives birth, or you can bottle feed the lamb and separate it from its mother.
If you “adopt” it as another ewe’s baby, you will need to time the adoption very closely. The second ewe will need to give birth within a day or two of the first birth.
Once the ewe gives birth, and right at the time of birth, take the water sac and smear the new ewe’s water and liquids all over the adopted lamb. This helps the other lamb to smell like the second mother’s hormones.
If the fostered lamb is active because it was born earlier, you can also tie the legs together to restrict movement so it lets the foster mom lick it down.
If the second ewe accepts the baby and cleans it off, continue to monitor it. She may also reject the lamb after a few hours or a couple of days. Make sure that she continues to care for both her lamb and the adopted lamb.
How To Synchronize Your Flock’s Breeding
Whether you have a small flock or a large flock, it can be a major inconvenience to let your sheep have estrus and coordinate pregnancies haphazardly. Instead, you may wish to have all your ewes pregnant at the same time and to have more control over their pregnancy.
There are two products that help to control estrus in ewes.
The first is a product called CIRD that induces estrus in ewes. CIDR is a T shaped nylon insert molded with a silicone rubber skin. It slowly releases progesterone at a controlled rate.
The second is an intravaginal sponge that releases progesterone into the ewe.
Most ewes will estrus within 1-2 days of the removal of the sponge. The ewes body realizes with the absence of progesterone that she isn’t pregnant and goes into estrus.
This will put your ewes all on the same timing with their cycle.
Leave the CIDR in your ewes about 10-12 days. When you pull the CIDR out, inject ewes with PMSG. PMSG is a hormone that increases the ewes ovulation rate. That means that you may also get a higher number of multiples during lambing.
At this point, your ewes are ready to be bred.
You can now introduce the rams to your ewes. Ewes cycle through estus every 17-21 days.
How Can I Tell If A Lamb Has Been Mated? The easiest way to track the mating of a ewe is to use a marker (see my recommendation). This makes it a lot easier to tell if a ewe was bred. A marker can be pain strayed on the ewes that smear when the ram breeds her. Or, it can be a breeding harness that paints the ewes when the rams breed them. You can also observe ewes for breeding, but that requires consistent diligence.
How long is pregnancy gestation in ewes? The gestation for sheep is 142-152 days. The average gestation is 147 days. If your ewes are carrying multiple babies, the gestation period is likely to be shorter. Female lambs are usually carried for fewer days than male lambs. Lastly, gestation does vary by breed. Finnsheep have shorter pregnancies than Rambouillet.
How can I mate a non-cycling ewe? Melatonin is an effective hormone to induce estrus in non-cycling ewes. Melatonin is released by the sheep’s pineal gland during the night. Use of melatonin mimics the hormonal response in sheep during the fall weather. As many species of sheep go into heat in the fall, this helps non-cycling sheep to start cycling. It takes about 35 days of melatonin to start estus in noncycling ewes.
What is the “Ram Effect”? The ram effect is referred to a method where non-cycling ewes are introduced to a vasectomized ram, or a teaser ram, to cause estus. The ram effect works best if ewes and rams haven’t been separated by distance. Some say that a ½ mile is required to maintain adequate distance between rams and ewes. Before using the ram effect, ewes should not see or smell rams for at least 6 weeks prior. The introduction of the rams and their pheromone induces most ewes to go into estrus within a few days.