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Monitoring Your Lamb’s Progress

Raising quality livestock for junior fairs and shows requires a combination of a good feeding, animal health program and overall management. These programs should not be treated as separate subjects, particularly when feeding market lambs.  When you have a market project animal, you must also remember you are raising a food animal and your goals should include producing a safe, wholesome and high quality product for consumers.

The first step in producing a quality end product is the selection of a young, healthy lamb with plenty of growth potential.  Selecting a lamb in the right weight range for your market lamb project is critical.  However, you must remember show lambs are being fed for a particular date, rather than weight and finish (like in the commercial sheep industry). It is difficult even for experienced producers to determine the exact date a lamb will be ready to go to market.  Therefore, it is necessary to monitor the lamb’s weight and back fat, adjusting the diet and exercise accordingly.  If the lamb is not in the right weight range, often it is either “held back” or “pushed” to meet the weight

limits of the show or fair.  This often leads to questionable practices that are not in the best interest of the lamb and reflect poorly on the image of youth projects and the sheep industry. Humane care is essential in providing a quality, wholesome product for the consumer. Therefore, when selecting your lamb, check with the sheep producer to see if a scale is available to help take the guesswork out of selecting a lamb of appropriate weight.

There are other less accurate methods of estimating weight, such as using a weight tape, or using two body measurements (body length and heart girth) and then applying a formula. To use the formula method:  measure the heart girth, or circumference of the lamb around the foreribs just behind the elbow, (distance C of the figure below). Then measure the length of the body from the point of the shoulder to the point of the rump, or pin bone (distance a –  b  in Figure 1). Take these measurements in inches and apply the following formula:  Heart girth x heart girth x body length ÷ 300 = weight in pounds.  There is one important precaution when using this method on


unshorn lambs. Be sure to part, or compress the wool to ensure an accurate heart girth measurement.

Figure 1. Body length and heart girth measurement points

Depending on breed and frame size of the lamb, most animals will achieve the desired level of back fat or finish (between 0.16 and 0.25 inches) at a live weight between 125 and 145 pounds. The yield grade of a lamb carcass is defined as the percent of lean red meat from the leg, loin, rack and shoulder and is designated by a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) yield grade 1.0 to 5.9. The USDA yield grade 1 represents lean, muscular animals and USDA yield grade 5 represents extremely fat, wasty animals. The yield grade for lambs is determined by multiplying the adjusted back fat (between the 12th  and 13th  rib)  by 10 and adding 0.4. Market lambs are typically considered correctly finished when they achieve a yield grade in the “twos” or low “threes”.  You should check with your show management to see what the correct or “market ready” finish is for the lamb buyer.

How much your lamb should weigh at the time of selection is determined by knowing how much it

should weigh at show time, estimating how much it will gain, and then doing a simple calculation. One of the most difficult things in the selection process is to predict how fast your lamb will gain because of the many variables that influence rate of gain.  Weaned lambs on pasture alone often average 0.25 to

0.35 pounds per day. However, fast growing lambs that are properly fed a high quality concentrate (grain) diet and managed properly should average at least 0.75 pounds of gain per day. Lambs will often grow at a slightly slower rate during the summer because they tend to eat less during extremely hot weather.  Also, many of you will be exercising and working with your lambs to enhance muscle tone and prepare for showmanship, which requires energy use and decreases average daily gain performance.  An average of at least 0.6 pounds per day gain should be expected for healthy, growthy lambs on a good concentrate finishing ration.

It is important to remember each fair may have different weight limits and many have either a minimum or maximum weight limit or both.  Once you know how many days until the show or fair, what the target weight or weight limits are for the show, and you’ve predicted a reasonable expected weight gain, you can calculate a good weight range for selecting your feeder lamb. For example, if you select a growthy, moderate-framed feeder lamb on May 10 and the show weigh-in date is on August 19, it has about 100 days to grow.  At an average daily gain (ADG) of 0.7 pounds per day and a target weight of 135 pounds at show time, the lamb must weigh at least 65 pounds at the time of selection.  This is calculated by multiplying the number of days, times the expected gain and subtracting that


from the target ending weight. 135 – (0.7×100) = 135 – 70 = 65. You may want to follow this same procedure with several rates of gains and end weights so you feel comfortable with a weight range for your feeder lamb selection.

If you are a new lamb project member, you may want to give yourself a little more leeway. Therefore, you may want to project only a 0.4 to 0.5 pound per day of gain with a target weight of 135 pounds. With this example you would select a 85-pound lamb. 135 – (0.5 x 100) = 85. It is important to avoid selecting a lamb that is too big or too old and consequently might be too big or too fat at show time; or one that might have to be held back too severely at the end of the feeding period, resulting in an undesirable carcass. However, you want to make sure that you select a lamb that will have enough finish (target backfat between 0.16 to 0.25 inches) when it reaches the target weight. Also, don’t set your target weight as the minimum weight for the fair because you might not make weight and you most likely will not have a lamb that is not adequately finished.

When purchasing lambs for project animals, be sure that they have a USDA or Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) scrapie flock identification tag. Law requires these tags for trace back purposes. Also make sure you have the producer fill out or complete the Producer Affidavit portion of the Producer Affidavit & Market Lamb Health Record (WSU Publication C1052E). This is required for all lambs that go through commercial processing plants to fulfill the requirement for Country of Origin Labeling (COOL). This record form is available at the following web site: or at

Adequate housing is another crucial factor in making sure your market lamb project gains well. Your lamb’s performance will be improved by providing it with plenty of pen space, shelter with good ventilation, and protection from the sun and bad weather. Keep your lamb’s pen, feeder, and water trough clean. You should provide your lamb fresh, clean, cool water (water should be kept out of the direct sun so it stays cooler) and a loose trace-mineralized salt at all times. Make sure the trace-mineral salt provided is formulated for sheep because they are more susceptible to copper toxicity than other species of animals.

When you purchase your feeder lamb, be sure you ask for and write down critical information pertaining to the animal you have selected. Refer to the Producer Affidavit & Market Lamb Health Record (WSU Publication C1052E) for critical information to ask the producer. Effective and accurate record keeping is becoming more critical each day because of the demands from domestic and export markets and the U.S. government for disease control and surveillance.

Knowing the health care history will help you design a health program of your own, including: when and what booster vaccinations you need to give your lamb; how soon to treat for internal and external parasites; and if medication is needed (such as a coccidiostat) in the feed. Be sure male lambs have been castrated correctly. Your lamb should also be dewormed as it is moved from a pasture diet to a concentrate diet if it hasn’t been treated for internal parasites within the last month. The other important thing to check is the date your


lamb was last vaccinated for Clostridium perfringens, often called enterotoxemia type D or over-eating disease.

Feeder lambs should be vaccinated or boostered for Clostridium perfringens before they are put on a growing and finishing ration. Many lambs receive protection through the colostrums if the ewes in the flock are vaccinated 30 days before lambing, and then the lambs should receive a booster shot just prior to weaning. If your feeder lamb hasn’t been vaccinated, it is important to vaccinate it before it is put on a high energy feed ration. Two doses of Clostridium perfringens type D or type C & D toxoid bacterin, given according to label directions, will effectively protect these lambs against overeating disease. In addition to the initial vaccination, most lambs will receive at least one or two booster vaccinations for this disease because of its prevelance in fast growing lambs on concentrate diets.

When giving your lamb any medications or animal health products, always follow the label directions. Carefully follow withdrawal time requirements for all market lambs because they will enter the human food chain. Failure to follow withdrawal times can result in illegal residues in the carcass. The misuse of drugs, vaccines, pesticides, and various other medications in meat animal production can have serious legal consequences, including civil and/or criminal prosecution. This can also cause condemnation of the carcass and loss of payment, as well as jeopardize the safety and quality of the food you are producing.

If you have a choice of the route of administration of any medication between subcutaneous and

intramuscular, always choose the subcutaneous route. Intramuscular injections do affect the quality of the food product you are producing. Regardless of the age of the lamb at the time of the injection, it not only causes lesions in the form of abscesses or scars, but it results in the surrounding muscle tissue, up to three inches from the injection site, being unacceptably tough. Therefore, if you must give an intramuscular injection, it should be given forward of the front shoulders in the neck region because this is a lower value area of the carcass.

Coccidiosis can be a common and serious health problem for feeder lambs. It is a contagious disease of the intestinal tract caused by single celled protozoan organisms called coccidia. Acute coccidiosis can flare up when crowding, poor management, poor housing conditions, adverse weather, inadequate nutrition, transporting, or any combination of these factors stress lambs. Symptoms of coccidiosis are diarrhea, loss of weight, and depression; lambs sometimes die. Treatment of acute coccidiosis is a last resort, since by the time it is identified; the disease has been affecting the animal for two to three weeks. Treatment may prevent death loss, but if a lamb recovers from coccidiosis it will often become a “poor doer” and gain slowly on feed because of the permanent damage that occurs in the digestive system. Effective prevention can be achieved by feeding low levels of a coccidiostat either in the feed or mineralized salt mixture. Lasalocid, marketed under the trade name of “Bovatec”, and Decoquinate, sold under the name of “Deccox”, are approved as a feed additive for use in sheep. These products are feed additives and must be fed as directed on


the label. They interfere with the life cycle of coccidia in the intestine, preventing a buildup of coccidia, which can cause the disease. On farms where coccidiosis is a problem, lambs should stay on a coccidiostat regimen until they are about 6 months of age when most seem to become immune to damage caused by coccidia.

When you use any type of medicated feed, always read and follow any withdrawal time. This withholding period must be met prior to when the lamb is sold for slaughter.

Sheep are susceptible to severe digestive upsets with any sudden change in diet. Before you bring your lamb home, it is always wise to ask questions of the producer you purchased it from about what type of feed the lamb has been consuming. If you can use the same or similar feedstuffs when you first bring your animal home, you can minimize the stress the animal experiences. When you make changes in the diet, make them very slowly to avoid digestive upset that can sometimes lead to the death of the animal.

It is important to feed a balanced diet, paying close attention to minerals. Macro and micro minerals are required for proper skeletal and nervous system function. In the Pacific Northwest, you need to pay close attention to selenium. Only provide lambs with salt formulated for sheep because they are very sensitive to certain minerals, such as copper. A salt formulated for cattle or other species can poison lambs.

When increasing the amount of grain fed, do it gradually. Increase the amount of grain you feed by 1/8 to 1/4 pound per day over a 3-4 day period. Feed on the same time schedule each day. Divide the total ration into two

meals per day, fed approximately 12 hours apart. Grain rations can vary in weight even between bags of the same diet, so it is important to weigh out the feed at each feeding to avoid digestive upsets. Just measuring the feed out with a coffee can is not recommended. Bloat and acidosis can be life- threatening conditions when a lamb has had more than his share of a growing or finishing ration. Probiotics (a mixture of different bacteria beneficial to rumen function) and/or bicarbonate of soda are good to have on hand when feeding high grain diets to show lambs.

The level and ratio of calcium and phosphorus are also important for proper growth and health of lambs. When feeding show lambs, the calcium:phosphorus ratio should be approximately 2:1. A properly balanced diet should contain approximately 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorus. Diets high in phosphorus levels compared to calcium may cause urinary calculi, formation of blockage stones in the urinary tract. Roughages have high levels of calcium and low levels of phosphorus, while many protein supplements and most grains are low in calcium and moderate to high in phosphorus. Therefore, caution must be used when formulating show lamb diets with little or no roughage. Some pre-mixed lamb diets have ammonium chloride added at the rate of approximately 10 pounds per ton of feed to aid in the prevention of urinary calculi.

For ruminant animals (animals with a four compartment stomach such as sheep) the Food and Drug Administration regulation, Title 21 Part 589.2000 of the Code of Federal Regulations (effective August 4, 1997), prohibits the feeding of ruminant meat


and bone meal at any time. For example, do not use any feed that is not specifically formulated for ruminants (i.e. do not use feed or treats formulated for pigs, horses, poultry, rabbits, dogs, etc.).

Monitor your lamb’s performance by weighing the lamb every week, in the morning before feeding, and calculate its daily gain since the last weight. Record the lamb’s weight and date on a chart. If the lamb’s daily gain has fallen off, ask a knowledgeable adult for some help in determining why. It may be a simple matter of making a minor change in the facilities to minimize the stress on the lamb; it may require changing the amount of feed given or the energy level of the ration; or it may require addressing a health related issue.

Sometimes lambs that are too big early in the feeding period need to be held to a lower rate of gain for a period of time to prevent them from exceeding the proper show weight. This can be done by providing a lower energy ration using whole oats as part of the diet. Most or all of the ration can come from hay or pasture, but this may lead to an animal with a “hay belly”. If you choose this method of slowing your lamb’s rate of gain, consider doing this mid-way in the feeding period and finishing the lamb on a concentrate finishing ration with a higher energy or higher protein level, during the last three weeks before the show to give it a trimmer toned appearance. This will usually result in a more desirable carcass. Large lambs can also be limit-fed a normal energy ration with a higher protein amount (CP% between 18-22%) in conjunction with an exercise program to hold the lamb’s weight gain to a minimum.

Be aware that when you have your lamb tagged for a junior show or

fair, an infection or abscess can often develop around the area the ear was pierced. Cleaning the area and treating it with a disinfectant will help clear up the infection quickly and minimize the loss of ear tags.

The days prior to the fair and during the fair can be a stressful time for a lamb with the added activities. With this in mind, it is beneficial for you to prepare your lamb for the setting of the fair prior to the actual event. Four to five days prior to the show, feed the lamb in the pan that will be used at the fair. If the lamb has reached the desired weight, reduce the feed intake to about two-thirds of the normal intake two days before the fair. Water the lamb in the water bucket that will be used at the fair 5-7 days prior to arrival at the fair. If the animal will be drinking chlorinated water at the fair, add an approved sheep electrolyte to the water to mask the odor and taste. When you arrive at the show do not feed the lamb immediately upon arrival. Allow the lamb to calm down and become accustomed to its new surroundings. The first show feeding should be one-half to two-thirds of the normal feed intake to help reduce stress symptoms; gradually increase feed to pre-show amount over the next couple of feedings. Continue to add electrolytes to water until the lamb becomes accustomed to the water.

[table img_src=”” img_id=”229″ caption=”Table 1. Projected feed intake and average daily gain of the typical show lamb.”][/table]
Figure 2. Commonly evaluated body parts of a market lamb.
Figure 3. Some characteristics of the ideal show market lamb.