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The effect of different types of stressors during mid- and late pregnancy on lamb weight and body size at birth

Corner, R.A., Kenyon, P.R., Stafford, K.J., West, D.M., Oliver, M.H.
Animal 2010 v.4 no.12 pp. 2065-2070
livestock production, ewes, shearing (defleecing), pregnancy, gestation period, animal stress, cold stress, winter, long term effects, animal performance, lambs, birth weight, body size, viability, risk assessment, complications, dams (mothers), hypothermia, biomarkers, cortisol
Mid-pregnancy shearing has consistently been shown to increase lamb birth weight, which can lead to an increase in lamb survival rates. However, shearing ewes during the winter months and under outdoor pastoral farming conditions can expose the recently shorn ewe to a greater risk of hypothermia. The aim of this study was to determine if exposure of ewes to repeated stressors, in mid- and late pregnancy, would result in an increase in lamb birth weight. This information may assist in the elucidation of the mechanism for the birth weight response to mid-pregnancy shearing, which in turn could assist in the design of management options to increase lamb birth weight without placing the ewe at risk. One hundred and forty-four twin-bearing Romney ewes were allocated to one of six mid-pregnancy treatments: control, isolation on 2 or 10 occasions, sham-shearing on 10 occasions, intramuscular cortisol injection on 10 occasions or shearing. Isolation, sham-shearing and cortisol treatments were conducted twice a week beginning, on average, day 74 of pregnancy and shearing occurred on day 76. During pregnancy, ewe treatment had no effect on ewe live weight. However, average ewe body condition scores were higher in the shorn group than in the sham-shorn or cortisol groups (P < 0.05). Intramuscular injections of cortisol had a greater effect on ewe plasma cortisol concentrations than all other treatments (P < 0.05). Shearing produced a greater plasma cortisol response than isolation × 10 and sham-shearing (P < 0.05). Ewe plasma cortisol responses decreased during the 5 weeks of isolation and sham-shearing but cortisol injections produced a greater response during the fifth treatment than the first or ninth treatments (P < 0.05). Lambs born to shorn ewes were heavier and had a longer crown rump, forelimb and hind limb lengths than all other lambs (P < 0.05). In addition, lambs born to ewes in the cortisol treatment were lighter than lambs born to control, isolation × 2, isolation × 10 and shorn ewes (P < 0.05). The plasma cortisol concentrations observed for ewes injected with cortisol were far greater than those observed in all other groups, which is likely to explain the low birth weights of lambs born to ewes in that group. These results indicate that the mechanism by which mid-pregnancy shearing increases lamb birth weight is unlikely to be repeated stressors.