Fleecy fashions protect lambs from winter's big chill

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

Protecting newborn lambs against the bitter cold is a routine challenge that folks with winter lambing flocks take on as lambs start dropping in early January into March.

Add bone-chilling, deadly sub-zero temperatures thanks to last week's polar vortex and guarding these vulnerable creatures against hypothermia becomes a full-time job.

In winter lambing flocks, hypothermia and starvation of newborn lambs account for nearly all the pre-weaning death loss of lambs.

As word of the oncoming arctic temperatures spread across Facebook, and farm folks began taking steps to winterize barns and safeguard their livestock, Denmark hobby farmer Amy Kielpikowski reached out to me with a suggestion to keep the young lambs warm—little lamb coats made out of fleece.

Intrigued, I asked her to send me pictures of the little garments. There wearing a small coat was a young Polypay lamb, cute as could be, sporting a fleecy coat.

"About 9 years ago, we bought a six-acre farmette and decided to raise a couple of sheep. We bought two ewes, Lambchop and Lily, and a ram," Kielpikowski said. "We didn't know what we were doing and ended up with lambs being born in January. It was really cold at the time and a couple of them died."

The little lamb jackets do not appear to interfere with maternal bonding between mom and baby.

Determined not to lose any lambs the following year, Kielpikowski reached out to her friend, Melanie Czoske of Kewaunee—a seamstress by trade—who helped her come up with a pattern to create a small jacket that would fit a newborn lamb and yet not interfere with the maternal bonding between the ewe and her baby.

"When we put the coats on it didn't seem to bother anyone and they kept the babies nice and warm," Kielpikowski said."I don't mind sharing the pattern with people because I know how heartbreaking it is to have a lamb die."

With a picture of Kielpikowski's pattern, I transferred it onto a plastic template sheet from Joann Fabrics. Doing some mental math, I calculated that I could get six coats out of one yard of 58-inch wide fleece.

Armed with great coupons, I headed to the fabric store and purchased 10 yards of anti-pill fleece that was on sale and a nice, sharp pair of scissors. Two hours later I had over 50 lamb blankets cut and sewn and ready to deliver to the just 75 cents apiece.

My brother-in-law, David, and niece, Jenny, outfitted the newborns with the plaid lamb coats and the difference was noticeable within minutes.

"The newborns were hunched over from the cold and within a half hour they were up and running around," David said.

Sporting his little plaid lamb coat, this lamb gets a good look around from atop his mother.

Kielpikowski said she makes several sizes to fit the lambs as they grow.

"We keep them on the lambs until it warms up in April," said Kielpikowski.

Tips to help lambs

Sheep can usually take care of their newborn lambs without too much interference from their owners, but since lambs can die quickly from the cold or starvation, farmers still have to pay close attention. Here are some tips from Penn State University to help lambs survive the winter

  • For lambs born in very cold weather, be sure to have extra towels to help dry them off. 
  • Lambs may be placed near a heat source to keep them warm until they are completely dry.
  • The ewe's colostrum is critical in the first few hours. Be sure they are able to find the ewe's udder and can suckle without assistance.
  • Lambs that cry, stand around hunched up, or don't get up likely need more to eat.
  • Provide deep bedding material so that the lamb can hunker down out of drafts and moisture.
  • If a lamb still appears to be chilled, move it to a warming box (do not overheat lambs). Return lamb to the ewe for feeding.
Lamb coat pattern created by Amy Kielpikowski and Melanie Czoske.

Making a lamb coat

Most fleece comes in a width of 58-inches. To get three coats out of 1/2 yard of fleece, follow this method using the pictured pattern.

1. Fold fleece in half

2. Fold pattern in half (on fold line) and place on the folded edge line. Using a white fabric pencil, mark slits for leg holes. Cut out coat, including 45 degree angle for neck and leg holes (I use a rotary cutter).

3. Open up pattern and place below. Cut out using above directions.

4. Fold jackets in half length-wise, and stitch together sides under neck hole. Turn right sides out.

Note: Jackets may be washed together using cold water..