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Invited review: Improving neonatal survival in small ruminants: science into practice

  • C. M. Dwyer (a1), J. Conington (a1), F. Corbiere (a2), I. H. Holmøy (a3), K. Muri (a3), R. Nowak (a4) (a5) (a6) (a7), J. Rooke (a8), J. Vipond (a9) and J.-M. Gautier (a10)...

Neonatal mortality in small ruminant livestock has remained stubbornly unchanging over the past 40 years, and represents a significant loss of farm income, contributes to wastage and affects animal welfare. Scientific knowledge about the biology of neonatal adaptation after birth has been accumulating but does not appear to have had an impact in improving survival. In this paper, we ask what might be the reasons for the lack of impact of the scientific studies of lamb and kid mortality, and suggest strategies to move forward. Biologically, it is clear that achieving a good intake of colostrum, as soon as possible after birth, is crucial for neonatal survival. This provides fuel for thermoregulation, passive immunological protection and is involved in the development of attachment between the ewe and lamb. The behaviour of the lamb in finding the udder and sucking rapidly after birth is a key component in ensuring sufficient colostrum is ingested. In experimental studies, the main risk factors for lamb mortality are low birthweight, particularly owing to poor maternal nutrition during gestation, birth difficulty, litter size and genetics, which can all be partly attributed to their effect on the speed with which the lamb reaches the udder and sucks. Similarly, on commercial farms, low birthweight and issues with sucking were identified as important contributors to mortality. In epidemiological studies, management factors such as providing assistance with difficult births, were found to be more important than risk factors associated with housing. Social science studies suggest that farmers generally have a positive attitude to improving neonatal mortality but may differ in beliefs about how this can be achieved, with some farmers believing they had no control over early lamb mortality. Facilitative approaches, where farmers and advisors work together to develop neonatal survival strategies, have been shown to be effective in achieving management goals, such as optimising ewe nutrition, that lead to reductions in lamb mortality. We conclude that scientific research is providing useful information on the biology underpinning neonatal survival, such as optimal birthweights, lamb vigour and understanding the importance of sufficient colostrum intake, but the transfer of that knowledge would benefit from an improved understanding of the psychology of management change on farm. Developing tailored solutions, on the basis of adequate farm records, that make use of the now substantial body of scientific literature on neonatal mortality will help to achieve lower neonatal mortality.

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