Lamb Survival Case Study

Lambing percentage is one of the most significant factors affecting profitability on New Zealand sheep farms.

A research programme on lamb survival was undertaken between 2003 and 2013.

As a result of this work, there has been a change in on-farm management practice with pregnant ewes with the recognition the better nutrition leads to improved lamb survival.


About the Case Study

Lambing percentage is one of the most significant factors affecting profitability on New Zealand sheep farms. Lamb death rates after birth range from 5% to 30% with most deaths in the first 3 days. As lambing percentage continues to increase, numbers of twins and triplets (who have lower survival rates) also increase, making managing lamb survival more important. This case study is about a long term research programme (2003 – 2013) which identified genetic, maternal and environmental factors that influence lamb survival and as a result has changed on-farm management and improved lamb survival rates.

What success looked like

At a workshop held in December 2013 for farmers, researchers, funders, and agribusiness, who had been involved in the programme, the success of the project was described as:

Practical changes on farm

  • Farmers changing their systems in response to the science.
  • Improved timing, ‘getting the right stuff at the right time'.

New knowledge about lamb survival

  • Improved genetics around lamb survival
    Information to support decisions for culling the flock
  • Knowledge about component traits
  • Extent of dystocia in triplets
  • Improved ewe feeding and flock performance
  • Effect of condition score on lamb survival and productivity
  • Closer look at maternal behaviour and influence
  • Understanding of the survival index: direct/ maternal
  • Recognising facts that increase survival in the field
  • Appreciation of birth weight and its impacts
  • New strategies to increase lamb percentages
  • Understanding of what really happens in the paddock

The way everyone worked together in the project

  • New networks and relationships
  • Increased connection between industry and R&D

Improvements in farm performance

  • More sustainable farming
  • Birth weight ‘actuals’
  • Increased lamb survival
  • More lambs for same or less input (profits)
  • More live lambs at weaning

Widespread communication

  • Improved awareness amongst ram breeders and farmers of factors that affect survival.



Programme outputs

Management Guidelines to Improve Lamb Survival – guidelines and associated workshops.Workshop content included an animal health calendar, best management practices, post-mortem training to identify the causes of lamb deaths (DVD), and Land Assessment Tool (scores paddocks using a checklist of features).
MPI Sustainable Farming Fund Website (project 05/104)


Publications including:

  • Everett-Hincks, J.M. and Dodds, K.G. 2008. Management of maternal-offspring behaviour to improve lamb survival in easy care sheep systems. Journal of Animal Science86: 259-270.
  • Everett-Hincks, J.M. and Duncan, K.G. 2008. Lamb post-mortem protocol for use on farm: to diagnose primary cause of lamb death from birth to 3 days of age. The Open Veterinary Science Journal 2; 55-62.
  • Mackay, A.D, Knight, T.W., Koolaard, J.P., Sheppard, G. and Coleman, G. 2008. Lambs and landscapes. Proceedings of the New Zealand Grassland Association 70: 165-170.
    Articles in the farmer press throughout the life of the project.


Project impact

An impact analysis was undertaken in 2010 and updated in 2011 which quantifies the benefits to the end-users of this research up until 2011.

The following publications provide additional evidence of on-farm change:

  • Stevens, D., and Young, G. 2013. Using data from large scale farming operations to understand the importance of feeding the ewe to improve whole farm performance. Proceedings of the New Zealand Grassland Association. 75: 97 -102.
  • Casey, M., Scandrett, J., Stevens, D. 2013. Ewe body condition: Does farmer practice meet research guidelines? Proceedings of the 22nd International Grassland Congress: 1882 – 1883.
  • Stevens, D., Casey., M., Scandrett., J. Impacts of winter feeding management on-farm extension programme in Southern New Zealand. Extension Farming Systems Journal. 9 (1) systems-journal


Case study ‘network’: who was involved

Funders (cash and in-in-kind)

  • Beef + Lamb New Zealand
  • Ovita
  • MPI Sustainable Farming Fund
  • Landcorp Farming Ltd
  • Ram breeders (kept project going for 2 years while unfunded)
  • Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)


  • Ram buyers – commercial
  • Ram breeders – (innovator subgroup within this)
  • Farmer participants
  • Implementer ram breeders
  • Commercial farmers
  • Early adoptors
  • Passive implementers*
  • Participants


​Landcorp NZ

Steering committee​

  • Role of critiquing as peer reviewers

Critical reviewers

  • Peer reviews within the Ovita program​

Meat processors

  • ​Stock and station agents
  • Meat processing companies​

AgResearch Ltd

​Communications& extension

  • ​Beef + Lamb NZ media

Farm consultants ​​


  • Sheep vets

​Animal activists

Regional councils​


Project Timeline


  • Julie Everett-Hincks PhD completed looking at ewe and lamb behaviour, genetics and management effects in highly fecund ewes
  • Many technologies for increasing lambing percentage in the industry at this time


  • ​Ovita I project starts with focus on major gene discovery
  • Sense, from industry, that initial problem developed as a result of genetic advances, so a solution should be able to come from genetics
  • Issue of dystocia as cause of lamb deaths in twins and triplets arises
  • Farmers on board to participate in project


  • ​Lambs post-mortemed to identify core problem
  • Science questioned in terms of post-mortem protocols and results
  • Ovita programme stopped – no gene marker solution forseen within the project duration
  • Information to farmers to aid decision making
  • Farmers continue to contribute time and effort to making data available when funding ceases


  • M&WNZ funding dystocia study in twins and triplets
  • MAF SFF merger of four project proposals focussing on lamb survival
  • Steering committee established


  • New findings from MAF SFF re importance of birth weight, BCS and heat loss
  • Data from Ovita study made available for MAF SFF study
  • Science and farmers working together
  • Identified that the solution wasn’t genetic, it was management i.e. feeding


  • Ovita II project begins with the lamb survival trait identified by industry as a priority
  • Farmers trained to post-mortem their own lambs
  • Roadshow undertaken and DVD produced
  • Farmers now achieving a competitive edge from (practical and simple) knowledge


  • ​MAF SFF programme completed
  • Landcorp indicated interest in triplet survival (as Landcorp’s future breeding objective is for more lambs per ewe)
  • Securing sponsorship for extension work in MAF SFF was unsuccessful
  • BCS used as a key tool in feed management.


  • Landcorp still interested in research with triplets
  • Limited funds available in research space.


  • Landcorp approach Project for research into triplet feeding trial – large scale commercial trial
  • More questions asked about management of farm system, managing ewes for better lamb survival and effects of feeding on lamb survival.


  • Industry information updated based on research
  • Maternal genetics and environment were identified as the most important results to come from the research
  • First joint farmer and scientist seminar held (for Landcorp Triplet Feeding Trial).


  • Genomic (based on DNA) selection results “teetering” on implementation (this research was constrained by low heritability of lamb survival and mortality rates).


  • Ovita II project finished July 2013.