The Deep End
Caring for pregnant livestock can tax even the most experienced smallholder. Tim Tyne discusses how to look after expectant ladies and spot the warning signs when something is amiss
Having gone to all the trouble of arranging an appropriate mating for your cow, sow or other animal, it is up to you to ensure that the pregnancy is carried to full term and results in healthy live offspring. This doesn’t mean that you need to mollycoddle. In fact, too much care can be as dangerous as too little. However, you do need to develop a heightened awareness of your animals’ behavioural characteristics, as changes in behaviour could be the first indication of a problem, which, if identified early and treated accordingly, may never develop into anything serious.
For the smallholder, possibly the biggest challenge lies in actually spotting that something is amiss. This may sound surprising, as one would assume that the close bond that smallholders tend to have with their animals would make it relatively easy for them to notice any changes. However, where animals are very tame and used to frequent handling they often don’t behave in what would be considered a ‘normal’ fashion at the best of times and they don’t react to people’s presence in the way that they would if they were less humanised. When you couple this with the fact that many beginners lack experience in livestock husbandry, you will understand why it can be difficult for some smallholders to identify that an animal is exhibiting specific symptoms of disease until it may be too late for treatment to be wholly effective.
During gestation, I believe that there are three main aspects that present a challenge to the animals, and therefore to the people who care for them: Stress, nutrition and disease. These three factors are closely interlinked and one often leads to another. For example, where inadequate nutrition results in twin lamb disease (pregnancy toxaemia) in pregnant ewes, the process will be accelerated and exacerbated by stress.
Key risk periods
Non-pregnant animals cope very well with potentially stressful situations, such as long journeys, handling (including for routine treatments) and extended periods of inclement weather. However, in the case of a pregnant animal, which may already be suffering from nutritional stress due to the demands of the developing foetus, any additional pressure may be enough to tip it over the edge, even if it is caused by something that it usually takes in its stride.
The key risk periods are early and late gestation. During the middle of the pregnancy, animals can be handled pretty much as normal, within reason.
Stress during early gestation — around the time of embryo implantation and during the following few weeks — is likely to result in embryonic losses, which will be observed as apparently poor conception rates or high numbers of ‘barreners’ within the flock or herd. Where embryos are lost very early, the animal will probably come back into season and be mated again, although a cycle is likely to be missed. In the case of animals that usually give birth to multiple offspring, it may be that not all of the embryos will be lost, in which case the pregnancy will progress as normal except with fewer foetuses, and the resulting offspring will have lower birth weights than would be expected for their litter size.
Tips for reducing stress risks during early gestation include:
Carry out routine husbandry tasks, such as worm dosing, in advance of, rather than during, the mating period.
Ensure that animals are in good health and deal with any issues, such as lameness, well in advance of mating.
Prolonged periods of adverse weather can cause stress
Carry out routine tasks in advance of the breeding season