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NDSU Extension Service, Published November 05 2012

Detecting ewe pregnancy early can help producer's bottom line

FARGO - Detecting pregnancy in sheep early can make a big impact on a producer's bottom line, according to North Dakota State University Extension Service sheep specialist Reid Redden.

The cost of inputs such as feed, labor, supplies and equipment for livestock operations are at historic highs, and U.S. sheep flocks must improve efficiency to remain sustainable into the future, he says.

"One of the best methods to manage input costs is to target resources during the period of greatest demand, which is during pregnancy," Redden adds. "Feed, facilities and labor needed to manage a sheep flock typically double during three months of the year (one month prior to and two months post-lambing). Research at NDSU and other institutions has shown that under- and overfeeding during gestation can have substantial effects on the offspring throughout their lifetime. That's why determining pregnancy as early as possible is very important.

"Moreover, ewes that have two or more lambs typically require the most

assistance to ensure healthy, productive lambs," he says. "Research also has shown that multiple-birth lambs are twice as likely to develop health-related issues that potentially could correlate to lower growth rates and higher incidences of death. In addition, first-time mothers (ewe lambs) must be managed differently than their mature counterparts and their litter mates that are not pregnant."

Sheep producers have two options for detecting early pregnancy: an ultrasound and blood testing.

Ultrasound detection of pregnancy commonly is performed in humans and many

livestock species.

"In sheep, this technology has been underutilized because shepherds do not

commonly request the services from veterinarians or veterinarians do not offer the services because they have had little training on this practice in sheep," Redden says.

NDSU is hosting an ultrasound workshop Dec. 2 for veterinarians and technicians to improve their skills at testing for pregnancy in sheep. The workshop will be held at the NDSU Sheep Unit.

The workshop will involve four breeds, some of which are known for multiple

pregnancies. Ewes in the flock will be at multiple stages of gestation, which will allow participants to gain experience in determining pregnancy, stage of gestation and number of lambs.

Pregnancy also can be determined by taking a blood sample and sending it to a laboratory for analysis. NDSU has been collaborating with BioLaboraties LLC to evaluate the company's pregnancy test for sheep. This research showed the test can detect pregnancy very accurately (98 percent) in sheep as early as 30 days post-conception.

"After ewes have been tested for pregnancy, we recommend sheep producers work with a nutritionist or their Extension office to develop a feeding strategy during the different stages of pregnancy that will optimize animal performance," Redden says.