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VIDEO: Birthing season favorable for lamb producers in the Dakotas

IPSWICH, S.D. — It’s been a lovely winter for animal care on the Kenneth Kilber ranch, about four miles west of Ipswich, S.D. The family’s operation was ahead in lambing, as 80 percent of the process was completed by Feb. 8.

It’s so early for lambing that South Dakota and Minnesota were just getting started at the end of January, so numbers were published in a Feb. 7 report. North Dakota lambing was 6 percent complete and Montana was 5 percent complete. South Dakota sheep and lamb deaths since Jan. 1 were less than average on 27 percent of the farms, average on 72 percent and above-average on only 1 percent.

“We’ve had a few weekends of cold spells, but we’ve gotten through it,” Kilber says, heading out for chores on a recent afternoon. “We have an excellent barn that we do our lambing in. It’s all inside work.”

Kenneth and his wife, Norma, lamb about 450 bred ewes. In recent years, they’ve fed all of their lambs to market weight — roughly 500 to 600.

They also have 100 head of red Gelbvieh commercial cows. They start calving on April 15 and are kept for much of the year. “The calves get background-fed until March 30 the following year, and then they’re sold.” The calves are then about 850 to 900 pounds, and sold at Hub City Livestock Auction in Aberdeen.

The Kilber family also has a dozen Pygmy goats, and they sell market goats through the sale barns.

“I grew up with it, and I like the business of sheep,” Kilber says. “I look forward to lambing time in the fall. I look forward to getting ready for it, getting things set up for it. (But) you don’t get much sleep during lambing time because there’s always something going on.”

Winter lambing

The Kilbers usually plan to start lambing in the first week of December. They were about 10 days later than expected this year, possibly because of warmer temperatures during breeding.

They try to lamb about 150 to 200 ewes in a group, separated by four-week intervals. Newborn lambs are inside for about two weeks and then move to pole barns.

The Kilbers wean the lambs at about 10 weeks and give them full feed until they are finished at about 140 pounds. In total, the process takes about six months.

The Kilbers try to complete lambing by April 1, so they can be ready for calving season. “When we start calving by the middle of April, we’ll be done with sheep, hopefully,” Kilber says. “Once in a while, they’ll cross over a little bit (lambing and calving), but very little.”

The Kilbers have a good percentage of twin lambs — about 80 percent, which is better than the 150 percent lambing average for the flock. That’s a net gain of roughly 125 lambs. “It’s been a very, very good year for twins,” Kilber says.

They had four sets of triplets this year, which isn’t necessarily a good thing because that means there will be “bum” lambs, rejected by the mother because she can’t feed them all.

Kilber then has to hand-feed them until they’re ready to wean or “graft” onto an ewe that has lost a lamb.

There are more births when low pressure weather systems move through. “That’s when things happen fast,” Kilber says. “Lots of lambing at one time.”

Generational pull

The Kilber farm is in its third generation, has involved four generations in one family, and appears to be headed toward a fourth generation.

Kenneth’s grandfather, Robert Kilber, moved to Ipswich in 1949, from Roscoe, S.D. Kenneth’s father, Gordon Kilber, took over the operation in the early 1970s and had some sheep. Kenneth was born in 1965. He graduated high school in 1983 and three days later joined the Marine Corps, serving two foreign deployments in Japan, Korea and the Philippines.

In 1986, Kenneth met Norma Mehlhaff from nearby Hosmer, S.D., in 1986, the year before finished his military hitch and came back to the farm in 1987. They were married in 1990.

His father had sheep, and when he got out of the service, he started with 20 head of sheep. “Bred ewes didn’t cost much back then,” he says. “I got into it because they are easy to handle. You don’t need the big facilities like cattle. For sheep, you need 3-feet, 4-feet or higher fence, or corrals in the barn, that’s all you need. You don’t need 6-foot stuff to keep them from jumping over.”

Sheep prices weren’t the greatest back then.

“If we got $80 or $100 for a feeder lamb, we had to be satisfied,” he recalls. “Every year, we started lambing earlier,” he says. “We wanted it to come during our ‘down time’ of year when all we do (otherwise) is feed cows. Later on, we put up hay all summer long, so we don’t have the time for it then.”

Kenneth is happy to tell how his daughter, MaKayla Kilber, 19, has a strong interest in the sheep and cattle business. She is freshman seeking a nursing degree at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D., expecting to graduate in 2019. She gets home to the farm every couple of weeks, especially during lambing season.

“She grew up with this kind of thing on this farm and I think she has a passion for it. I know she does because a lot of these animals are hers,” Kenneth says. “She enjoys it; she has interest in it, so I foresee her returning, sticking close to home.”


It takes good, draft-free barns to do indoor lambing. An old hip-roof barn that came down in high wind in July 2010, so that year they built a new one — complete with an 80-foot-long hayloft for hay and straw. The barn is fitted with 4-by-4 foot lambing pens called “jugs.” When the ewes drop their lambs, they remain in the jugs for two days.

After that, the lambs are vaccinated in March and go to community pens.

At two weeks, they move outside to pole barns, where they are able to handle the colder weather. The pole barns are provided with “creep” stations, where they can go in and get high-nutrient, full nutrition creep feed.

In 10 weeks, the lambs are weaned off the ewe and given creep feed and alfalfa. If there is a blizzard, the Kilbers feed the lambs indoors, if possible.

“We kind of set the ewe up to dry them down,” Kilber says. That means limiting feed to signal to the ewe to produce less milk, which nudges the lambs toward solid feed.


Sheep work isn’t hard work, but it requires steady attention and the ability to see problems, Kilber says. “You’ve got to pay attention to it,” he says. “Especially at lambing time, it don’t take long to lose one. If a little baby gets chilled or don’t get colostrum like they should, they’ll be a dead one.”

Kilber hires crews to shear his sheep. They shear the sheep about two to three weeks before lambing — usually around Thanksgiving.

The ewes are sheared before lambing so the lamb has an easier time finding the teats. “They don’t have to sort through the wool to find them,” he says. Also, the ewes in the lambing barn throw off enough heat to keep the structure warm. “If you don’t shear them, the heat stays on the animal and it just steams up the barn, and they get wet,” he says. “When you have wet wool, you have pneumonia problems.”

The Kilber flock typically has low death loss, except when an unexpected disease moves through the area.

Last year, some ewes aborted lambs about three to four weeks ahead of their expected lambing dates. They took specimens to area veterinarians, to the Pipestone, Minn., clinics that specialize in sheep, and to the Animal Disease Research and Diagnostic Laboratory at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

It was Campylobacter jejuni, a so-called vibriosis infection in the intestinal tract.

The Kilbers had been putting feed on the ground. To solve the problem, he shifted to feeding in bunks to prevent the transfer of the disease, and he vaccinated the flock.

“I’d been in the sheep business for nearly 30 years and never had an ounce of trouble until last year,” he says. “When it hit, it hit hard. It took about two weeks to get it cleaned up, but about three to four weeks before lambing, the ewes aborted, so we lost our first 50 lambs. It was a very costly education — both in the loss of lambs and the vaccine to clean it up.”

Import concerns

Market lambs have been bringing about $200 to $225 each, Kilber says. He sells mostly through local sale barns. They’ve sold some to buyers who feed sheep out.

One difficulty in the sheep business is that it is very tough to find local market prices through the media. “You hear the cattle and grain markets; you don’t hear sheep markets.”

Feed is relatively inexpensive now, so that pencils out for some profit in the business.

But other costs remain higher.

Kilber says the market for lamb is heavily influenced by the level of imports. “Imports is what kills us,” Kilber says. “They seem to want to import lamb before they want to use our own domestic lamb. Why? I do not know, but that’s our trading situation. Maybe new politicians will figure it all out.”

But despite what the future holds, the Kilber family will continue as it always has.

“We’re just going to keep doing our own, basic operation that we’ve done for years — just keep plugging away.”

Experts offer goat, lamb health tips

As the region heads into lambing season, Tom Earleywine, of the Land O’Lakes Animal Milk Products division, offered his tips for successful lamb and goat kidding at the 2015 Dairy Sheep Association of North America Symposium.

  • Set attainable goals. Consider a 200 percent lamb or kid crop as a goal. Mature and well-conditioned ewes and does should be able to lamb at least two lambs or kids. “Strive for less than 5 percent weaning mortality,” Earleywine says. “The industry target is less than 5 percent, but it’s estimated that 20 percent of lambs are lost before weaning, with the biggest percent of those losses in the first 10 days.
  • Provide newborn care. Within the first few minutes after birth, a lamb or kid is exposed to bacteria and pathogens. Protect them with navel disinfection and quality colostrum. Dip the newborn navel in 7 percent tincture of iodine immediately after birth, making sure the disinfectant covers the outside and inside of the navel. Colostrum — the first milk in lactation — carries important protections. Lambs and kids should receive 10 percent of their body weight in colostrum by 18 hours of age. The colostrum should be fed at 105 degrees Fahrenheit — about the temperature of an ewe. Because colostrum quality and quantity aren’t always available, a high-quality, disease-free colostrum replacement might be needed.
  • Species-specific milk replacer. After high-quality colostrum or colostrum replacer is given in the first feeding, look for a milk replacer made specifically for lambs or kids for subsequent feedings.
  • Select from feeding system options — bottle feeding, free-choice feeding or automated systems for milk replacer. Lambs and kids should at least triple their birth weight by 28 days. Clean and disinfect the system as often as possible.
  • Stimulate rumen development. Provide free choice water, which is critical for developing bacterial growth and beginning rumen fermentation.
  • Promote a smooth weaning transition. Lambs or kids are ready for weaning when they consume 1.5 percent of their body weight in high-quality creep feed, along with adequate water. This happens at 30 days of age or 35 pounds of weight. Also, each lamb should consume 25 pounds of lamb milk replacer powder. Weaning has its own set of tips. Producers should ensure weaning protocol, timing and facilities at least two to three weeks ahead of weaning. Make sure the animals to be weaned are consuming creep feed and using water. The milk replacer and ewe should be removed gradually and the feed should offer 18 to 25 percent crude protein.

To contact Earleywine, call 800-618-6455 or