Artificial Lamb Rearing

Brady Campbell, Program Coordinator, OSU Sheep Team

Artificial lamb rearing: Transitioning from nuisance to potential profit center.

(Image Source: Balancing Rock Farm)

Let’s face it, every shepherd has experienced at least once the joys and pains of raising orphan lambs. Raising lambs artificially may be the result of mis-mothering, losing a ewe due to health and/or birthing complications, lack of colostrum, lambs that can’t be cross fostered, or simply due to ewes giving birth to larger litters. Yes – you read that correctly, some sheep breeds have litters! Raising lambs artificially can be challenging as it becomes a full time job. To avoid digestive upset, young lambs should be fed in small meals multiple times per day just as they would with the ewe. However, this may not always be practical for the producer. When this becomes the case, these lambs may be consider a nuisance to some. However, a few weeks ago, sponsored by the American Sheep Industry Association Let’s Grow Committee, Russell Burgett, Program Director of the National Sheep Improvement Program, presented a webinar on rearing orphan lambs artificially and encouraged producers to look at these lambs as a potential profit that would have been previously lost if producers did not intervene.

According to Mr. Burgett, in the sheep industry profitability is largely determined by pounds of lamb marketed per ewe exposed. When prolificacy of the flock is increased, the production efficiency of the system will also increase. With the nations average lamb crop hovering around 110%, there is certainly room to improve! However, producers must be cautious when increasing the number of lambs born per ewe. Data from Notter and others (2018) indicate that increasing lambing percent from 200% to 220% showed little benefit as these systems were unable to naturally rear these lambs. Therefore, these highly prolific systems may benefit from implementing an artificial lamb rearing system. When considering the concept to artificially rear lambs, the method in which it is done should be heavily investigated.

During his webinar, Mr. Burgett outlined three artificial rearing systems: bottles, buckets, and automated milk machines. However, before we get into the specifics of each technique, Mr. Burgett was sure to highlight the importance of colostrum. For those that are interested in learning more about the importance of colostrum be sure to check out these pieces published on the OSU Sheep Team page from Michael Metzger – Colostrum is Key and Dr. Cassandra Plummer, DVM – The Importance of Colostrum Management.

Bottle and Bucket Feeding
When most think about artificially rearing lambs, they think of bottles. Bottles may be the most cost effective method in terms of rearing orphan lambs, however, this system comes with some challenges. Bottle feeding is labor demanding, especially for those that have multiple lambs to feed. Bottle lambs are typically fed in intervals, with intervals being convenient for the producer rather than for the lamb as we discussed above. As a result, these lambs will consume larger meals and will typically gorge themselves. This were that classic bloated bottle baby belly comes from. These lambs typically have other issues as a result of their sporadic feed intake. As a means to reduce this issue, producers may opt for milk bucket feeding. In using this method, a two stage bucket system should be used. For those lambs that are 1-2 weeks of age, nipples should be located at the bottom of the bucket. This will allow for the milk to be gravity fed, which in turn will be easier for the lambs to consume the milk. The milk replacer here should be kept warm to encourage adequate intake. Once lambs are older than 2 weeks of age, a new bucket should be used where the nipples are placed at the top of the bucket with tubes going down into the bottom. This allows for lambs to develop a strong suckling response as well as regulate their intake. Milk replacer in this bucket can be cold, which in turn will minimize meal length and reduce issues with digestive upset.

Automatic Milk Feeders
For those with larger prolific flocks or those that are not interested in constantly mixing up a new supply of milk replacer, look no further. The development of the automatic lamb milk feeder may be just the ticket that you have been looking for. Automatic milk feeders provide a constant supply of milk replacer on demand. These systems provide mixing within the machine itself, is labor saving, and provides Ad lib. access of milk to all lambs at all times – which mimics the natural system quite well. However, the greatest downfall of this system is the up front cost. Currently, a system like this will cost approximately $2,000 per unit. Those not expected to have many orphan lambs may not be able to justify for this type of system. In addition, Mr. Burgett was sure to point out that even though these systems are automated, this does not exclude them from needing to be cleaned on a regular basis. Cleanliness is key! All milk feeding systems (bottles, buckets, and machines) should be cleaned once every 24 hours.

Helpful Tips
To wrap up this article, I have pulled a few helpful hints from the webinar provided below that I find to be important when choosing to rear lambs artificially. Regardless of the rearing system chosen, it is important to make this decision as soon as possible. Lambs that are hypothermic or have nursed on the ewe for several nursing bouts are difficult to train to an artificial teat. It is also important to note that not all milk replacer is the same. When feeding lambs, it is important to provide a milk replacer that is made for lambs. Sheep milk contains higher levels of protein and fat with lower levels of lactose when compared to calf and kid milk replacer. Lambs fed a milk replacer that is high in lactose will result in lambs developing issues with scours. Lambs should be weaned at 30 days or 30 pounds, which ever comes first. It is crucial that lambs be weaned at abruptly as opposed to ‘watering down’ their milk replacer. It is also important to note that artificially reared lambs should not be given access to hay for the first 50 days of life. Due to the lack of space within a young lambs digestive system, additional bulk (hay) may cause bloat. Therefore, only a starter ration should be supplied to young artificially reared lambs.

Editor’s Note: For those interested in viewing this recorded webinar, please follow this link.