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Handy hints: On-farm post-mortems could help reduce lamb losses

Over the next few months, thousands of lambs will be born across the UK, but some will die in the early stages of life. Louise Hartley speaks to Clare Phythian, featured in the Eblex step-by-step video guide to post-mortems.



Over the next few months, thousands of lambs will be born across the UK, but some will die in the early stages of life. Louise Hartley speaks to Clare Phythian, featured in the Eblex step-by-step video guide to post-mortems.

Carrying out a basic on-farm post-mortem can help rule out key causes of loss – such as hypothermia, starvation and infectious disease – while also highlighting problem areas in the management system.

Before carrying out the procedure, it is important to be aware of the zoonotic risks to human health when opening up dead lambs and it is also essential to dispose or disinfect overalls, gloves and equipment carefully.

Clare Phythian, commissioned by Eblex to present its step-by-step video guide, says: “If you have any concerns regarding abortion cases, stillborn lambs or lambs with deformities, please contact your vet and consult their expertise.

“This basic on-farm method is not the same as a gold standard post-mortem service and diagnostic investigation which can be performed by the AHVLA.


“Do not perform post-mortems on aborted lambs, suspect abattoir cases or dead lambs with obvious physical abnormalities – in this case, contact your vet promptly. If experiencing more than two abortion cases per week, or 2 per cent or more of the ewes, abort.”

Pregnant woman should not be involved in lambing flocks and this is particularly true for involvement with post-mortem material, protective equipment, clothing and gloves.

As with all post-mortems, the sooner it is performed the better, as the carcase can deteriorate pretty quickly.

Eblex Better Returns Programme manual ‘Reducing lamb losses for Better Returns’ explains more about post-mortems. To watch the step-by-step video, visit and for more information visit

Step 1: Preparation

Find somewhere suitable to perform the examination. A straw bale covered by a feed bag makes an ideal post-mortem table. A scalpel or sharp pen knife is fine to use and a bucket of water will also be needed.


Step 2: Weigh the lamb

If the lamb weighs under 3kg, it can be an indicator of ewe undernourishment and a lack of body reserve. Lambs weighing more than 6kg are at greater risk from lambing difficulties and dystocia (obstructed labour).


Step 3: Examine coat, navel and feet

Look to see if the coat has been licked by the ewe. A bright yellow staining, caused by meconium is an indicator of stress during birth.


Run your hands over the lamb’s body to check for swelling, damage, obvious injuries and wounds. Also check for any scorch marks from UV lights.


Examine the navel for any signs of swelling, thickening or bleeding, which can be an indicator of navel ill. Check if the navel has been dipped or sprayed with iodine.


Check the feet. Newborn lambs have a soft slipper-like membrane over their feet which starts to wear off and harden as soon as they step on to land and bare weight.


Step 4: Check head, eyes and anus

Assess the head and eyes for any signs of swelling, congestion or enlargement. Large dead lambs, with the yellow meconium staining will often have an enlarged head with a swollen tongue hanging out, indicating a difficult lambing.


Finally check the lamb has an anus.


Step 5: Open up the lamb

Place the lamb on its back and make four incisions, under each arm and in the groin to keep the carcase steady and loosen the tension.


Make a long incision from the throat to the groin, trying not to enter the abdomen at this stage.


Peel back the skin using a knife or hands and open up the rib cage. The easiest way to do this is to cut around the sternum so you can insert your finger and feel for the junction where the bone and cartilage of the ribs meet. This is usually pretty high up in lambs.


Cut along this junction with the knife and it should be easy enough to cut. The rib cage can then be flipped back exposing the heart and lungs.


Step 6: Assess the heart

Check the heart for the presence of brown fat, an energy source present in all newborn lambs used in the first few hours of life before the colostrum feed.


If there is no brown fat and the heart is covered in a pink-coloured fat instead, this indicates the lamb was born alive and died of starvation. This diagnosis can be backed up by the absence of colostrum in the abdomen.


Step 7: Assess the lungs

Examine the lungs to see if the lamb has ever breathed. A normal healthy lamb, which has taken a breath usually has lungs of a salmon pink colour, showing they have been aerated.


If the lungs are a very dark red in colour the lamb has probably never taken a breath.


If in any doubt, take a sample of lung and place in bucket of water. If the lung sinks the lamb will probably not have taken a breath. If the lamb has taken a breath and then died, the piece of lung will float.


Step 8: Cut into the abdomen and assess kidneys


Avoid cutting in to the stomach if possible. Look for signs of free blood, check the liver and signs of rupture, which often indicate dystocia.


Pull the organs back to reveal the kidneys, specifically looking at the brown fat which surrounds them.


The same principles apply here as the heart – the presence of brown fat reserves indicates no metabolisation and that the lamb was born dead. If it had survived the brown fat will be used up.


Step 9: Cut into, and assess the stomach

Cut into the stomach to see if the lamb has ever sucked colostrum or milk. If the lamb did not survive the birthing process it will contain a jelly like substance.


If it did suck milk, the stomach should be full of clotted milk of a creamy white consistency. If this is absent in a lamb which was born alive, starvation is probably the cause of death.

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