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Wednesday, 08 October 2008 12:19

Hand-rearing lambs

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Rearing a pet lamb can be a great experience and it’s especially rewarding if you’ve saved a young lamb from starvation and exposure.  But if you take on a pet lamb you have a moral and legal responsibility to look after it properly, and that means hard work and considerable expense for 6 weeks until it can be weaned, and then the responsibility of looking after it for the rest of its life … or deciding its fate!

If you decide to hand-rear a lamb, here’s the gist of what you need to know to make a good job of it:

  • Feed colostrum for the first four days of life.
  • The lamb should receive at least 200ml of colostrum in the first 12 hours of life - the earlier the better.
  • After this time, the ability of the gut to absorb antibodies decreases rapidly.
  • Don’t feed non-colostrum proteins (eg cow's milk) to the newborn lamb before you feed colostrums, because this means that the lamb will not then be able to absorb the colostrum proteins properly. 
  • The orphan lamb requires frequent feeds of good-quality colostrum - at least four or five feeds a day warmed to body temperature for at least four days if possible.
  • Colostrum is the first milk produced by the ewe after birth.  It is an essential food for newborn lambs, full of energy and the antibodies lambs need to protect them from many common diseases.
  • Colostrum is thicker and yellower than normal ewe's milk, and it is so important it could well be called 'liquid gold'!  Its quality decreases quite rapidly after birth, and some ewes produce better-quality colostrum than others.
  • If the lamb is too weak to suck naturally, colostrum can be milked from its mother or from other newly lambed ewes and fed by bottle or stomach tube.
  • If colostrum from a ewe is not available, colostrum from a newly calved cow can be used.
  • Colostrum can be stored in the freezer, but don’t warm or thaw it in the microwave oven because the important proteins will be damaged and will congeal.
  • You can buy colostrum substitutes and they are effective, but it is important to use only commercial colostrum substitutes that contain antibodies.  Be wary of homemade “colostrum” made with egg yolks and the like.  This is not suitable because it does not contain protective antibodies.
  • Because baby animals are particularly susceptible to cold, very young lambs need effective shelter that keeps them warm and dry.
Why is colostrum important?
  • Colostrum helps keep the lamb warm because it is rich in energy.
  • It contains antibodies that work for weeks to help protect lambs from infections that can cause diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.
  • It is easy to digest and helps the lamb strengthen and grow.   It can work miracles on weak newborn lambs.
  • It helps to move the meconium (the faeces in the rectum of the newborn lamb).
Feeding colostrum by stomach tube
  • Colostrum can be given to newborn lambs by stomach tube if they are too weak to suck. 
  • A rubber stomach tube made especially for lambs can be bought from rural suppliers or your vet.  Tubes that are too large can cause damage.
  • Extend the lamb's head so the mouth, throat and gullet (oesophagus) are in a straight line.  Gently thread the tube through the mouth into the throat, then down into the gullet, taking care to ensure it hasn't gone into the windpipe.  If the tube is correctly inserted, you will see it distend the gullet a little on the left of the windpipe as it goes down the neck into the stomach.
  • Warm the colostrum to body temperature before pouring it down the stomach tube.
From four days of age
  • After about four days of colostrum feeding you should gradually change to a good-quality commercial powdered milk formulation.
  • An alternative is cows' milk, but because cow milk contains fewer milk solids than sheep milk, lambs will not grow as well as they would on sheep milk substitute.  Goat milk is a good alternative to sheep milk.
  • Feeds must be small and frequent when the lamb is very young or very small, and warmed to body temperature.  Giving very young or very small lambs large feeds of cold milk can cause digestive problems that result in diarrhoea.
  • Never make the milk more concentrated than recommended; if anything it’s best to err on the side of making it weaker.
  • Follow the instructions on the bags of powdered milk to be sure you are giving the correct amount of milk at appropriate intervals.  Gradually increase the volume of milk each feed and decrease the frequency until the lamb about six weeks old, when it should be getting about 400-600 ml twice a day. 
Cleanliness is next to godliness
  • While you are hand-rearing and particularly for the first few weeks, it's important to keep all bottles and teats scrupulously clean to prevent infections that can cause diarrhoea.  
  • Diluted bleach can be used as a disinfectant, but rinse the utensils well between feeds.
Castration and tail-docking
  • Remember that all lambs should be tail-docked and male lambs should be castrated.
  • To minimize stress on the lambs, these procedures are best carried out using rubber rings while the lambs are young, ie around a week of age if the lambs are sturdy.
  • When castrating, make sure the rubber ring is above both testicles.
  • When docking, leave enough tail for the lamb to wag (ie apply the ring below the hairless V on the underside of the tail).
Offer hay and pasture early
  • Offer the lamb good-quality pasture and good-quality hay from two to three weeks of age so its digestive system develops normally.
  • Lamb meal or calf meal can be offered from about a week of age but make sure it has a good supply of drinking water at all times.  
  • Take care when pet lambs have access to the garden.  Many have died accidentally as the result of browsing poisonous plants such as rhododendron.
It’s a big commitment
  • All this means a lot of work with no days off until the lamb is about six weeks of age.  If the lamb is doing well it can then be gradually weaned off milk and moved out onto pasture with other sheep.
  • The pet sheep can be a help on the farm, leading the flock towards you when you need them, but they can be a hindrance too if you are trying to move the sheep away from you!
Dr Clive Dalton

Clive did a Ph.D. in sheep breeding at the University of North Wales at Bangor. After lecturing at Leeds University, he came to New Zealand to do research with MAF. Because of his communication skills, he moved to the Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre to be fully involved in interpreting science for practical application by farmers.

After 14 years he moved to teach at the Waikato Polytechnic where he taught young future farmers. He won the 1993 Landcorp Communicator of the Year award and the 1999 Sir Arthur Ward award for agricultural communication.