A guide to rearing lambs

SheepWhether rearing orphan or triplet lambs that have been neglected by their mother, or bringing in lambs onto your property, rearing lambs can be a fun and rewarding experience for all and is a great way to increase flock size on a lifestyle property. Treat them like babies and you can save money by not needing a sheep dog because your flock will come by name when you call them or rattle a feed bucket. Ewe lambs are good to buy if you want to build up a flock, ram lambs are often castrated with a rubber band if destined for eating. Below are some important things to consider when rearing lambs.

Colostrum
Your job will be much easier if lambs have received lots of high quality colostrum soon after being born so if buying lambs ask about their first day and try to buy strong healthy lambs.

  • If lambs are coming from your own sheep, ensure all lambs get adequate colostrum in the first day of life (10% of body weight in first 6 hours). Colostrum contains immunoglobulins which are important for passive immunity.  Orphan lambs are at greater risk of not consuming colostrum than twins or triplets that are deliberately removed from ewes that are failing.
  • Cow’s colostrum will do the job. Source some good quality first day colostrum off a local dairy farmer (testing with a colostrometer if possible is recommended). It can be kept in the freezer but ensure it is defrosted with care when needed. Do not let it reach a temperature more than 50°C as this will denature the immunoglobulins. Alternatively colostrum powder is available but make sure when made up it is fed at the correct temperature.
  • It’s still worth feeding colostrum after the first 6 hours of life but immunoglobulin absorption does decrease after this period.

Housing
Housing can have a huge impact on lamb health. Young lambs benefit from shelter and can suffer if housing is unsuitable. Pneumonia is generally a man-made disease caused by poor housing.

  • Ensure the housing is dry and draught free. A quick test is that you should be able to have a lit candle that doesn’t blow out at lamb height.
  • Housing should be adequately ventilated with no ammonia smell at lamb height. Get down on your hands and knees and check.
  • Bedding should be about 300mm thick and new bedding put in regularly.
  • Do not overcrowd pens.
  • Have a cleaning protocol in place to ensure housing is kept clean and dry. Use a disinfectant such as Virkon S.
    If lambs go outside too early they can fill up on grass which is difficult for them to digest and actually delays rumen development compared to eating grain-based feeds.

SheepMilk Feeding

  • A lamb milk replacer designed for lambs provides a reliable and consistent solution. Calf milk replacer is not ideal as the copper and lactose levels may be too high for lambs. Mix up the milk replacer according to manufacturer’s instructions and do regular checks to ensure you are mixing up the milk correctly (get some kitchen scales and measuring jugs for accuracy).
  • Lambs prefer less volume of milk in more feeds during the day as it is closer to their natural suckling behaviour. If feeding using multi lamb feeders or bottles be prepared to feed lambs 3-4 times a day (depending on your system and age of lambs). Ensure you watch out for slow and fast feeders and rearrange lambs into their respective groups to ensure there is less competition at feeding time.
  • Do not allow lambs to ‘guts out’ and consume too much milk in one sitting - if necessary separate slow and fast drinkers. If using multi lamb feeders watch the lambs feed and pull them off as they begin to become overfull. Lambs that over eat in one sitting can develop abomasal bloat which can kill very rapidly. 
  • Adding yoghurt to milk has been found to reduce the severity and incidence of bloat so is a good option to consider if you are having issues with bloat – especially when lambs get to 3 to 4 weeks of age. 

Hard Feeding (sometimes called ‘concentrates’ ‘meal’ or ‘pellets’)

  • Hard feeds are extremely important for rumen development and a smooth weaning. Offer a hard feed (e.g. lamb pellets or muesli) from day one. This ensures the lambs get used to the taste of the feed. Intakes will be small at first but will increase as lambs get older.
  • It’s best to go for a lamb specific feed as it is better suited for lambs opposed to a calf feed which may be too high in copper. Go for a lamb feed with a high protein level of 18-20% (to ensure optimum animal growth) and grain based (for easy digestion to stimulate rumen development). Avoid false economies – palatable hard feed which helps support health and performance is a good investment.
  • Avoid hard feed that has any by-product type ingredients such as palm kernel, copra or tapioca – lambs do not like the taste and will eat less of these feeds.
  • Keep feed troughs clean and don’t put lots of hard feed out and leave it to go musty and contaminated by vermin/birds. A small amount of fresh feed every day is best and increase the amount offered to match intake.
  • Ensure there is enough room at feed troughs so that all lambs can eat at once if they choose.
  • After feeding milk, lambs have a strong desire to consume so putting some pellets in their mouths can get them used to the taste and texture of hard feed.
  • Ensure stored feed is kept out of direct sunlight in a dry, vermin free environment.
  • Also offer some long fibre i.e. hay/straw but ensure that lambs do not over consume the long fibre source as it can decrease hard feed (pellet) intake. This can be a particular problem if very palatable long fibre is sourced. A good idea is to make the long fibre a little harder to eat by putting it in a hay rack for example.

Weaning

  • Lambs can be weaned when they are about 10-15kg (depending on breed) and when they are consuming at least 200 grams of lamb hard feed per day. The intake of the hard feed is critical as it a reflection of how well their rumen has developed. Be prepared to hold back lambs that are not meeting the weaning criteria.
  • Continue feeding a lamb hard feed to the weaned lambs for at least the next few months, and longer if pasture quantity and/or quality is poor.

General Tips

  • Make sure there is adequate access to fresh water at all times.
  • Dip navels with iodine when lambs enter the shed and keep an eye out for navel infections. Navel ill can be a problem in reared lambs.
  • Scouring lambs should be given electrolytes as they can quickly succumb to dehydration. Scouring may be caused by the diet (a nutritional scour) or by an infection (normally accompanied by raised temperature and requires antibiotics to treat). Use a thermometer to check the temperate of scouring lambs so you know what issue you are dealing with. A lamb with an infection will have an elevated temperature (above approx. 39.4 °C). Check a healthy pen mates temperature for comparison.
  • Have a vaccination program in place. Infections and diseases spread much quicker when lambs are reared in close quarters so it’s best to prevent as many as possible (e.g. scabby mouth). Talk to your vet about your specific requirements.
  • Handle lambs with care. They are neonates and the way you treat them in even their first day of life can have bigger health impacts. Reduce stress as much as possible and if transporting them use trailers that have adequate bedding and are as dry and warm as possible.
  • Attention to detail, consistency and good observation pay dividends and are critical when rearing lambs- Use all your senses when with the lambs.
  • Listen out for coughing which can be a sign of pneumonia which can be caused by poor ventilation, dirty bedding or overcrowding.
  • It’s a good idea to use some form of lamb identification i.e. a coloured neck tie so that sick lambs/slow drinkers can be easily identified and treated accordingly. 
  • Prevent problems as much as possible by good nutrition and management but respond to problems quickly if they arise.
  • Beware that any animal with a name can be harder to put in the freezer if/when the time comes. 
  • A problem shared is a problem halved – if you have any problems have a chat with a Farmlands store member – many will have reared lambs themselves and if not will ask someone who has. Farmlands Assistant Nutritionist Stacey Cosnett is also available at stacey.cosnett@farmlands.co.nz or 027 778 4499 if you have any questions.