Capturing the young orphans

John Smart

Why would you go to the trouble of rearing large numbers of orphan lambs? Farm profitability is mainly determined by the number of lambs weaned and the kilograms of lamb produced per ewe each season.

Nationally the average lamb loss is about 18% but can range from 11-30%. Over the years scanning has increased such that high fecundity ewes are becoming the norm and there is an increasing trend for multiples, especially triplets.

Triplet survival rate is roughly half that of twins so there is a lot of lamb wastage to be captured. Another reason for rearing triplets and various waifs and strays is that it is simply not a good look every time there is a spring storm to see TV images of piles of slinkies and tucked up lambs shivering in the snow/driving rain somewhere.

Last but not least, if that is not enough, maybe the satisfaction of knowing you have done as much as you can to improve the welfare of newborn lambs might.

The following is a protocol for rearing larger numbers of lambs, written from many years’ experience combined with best-practice principles – attention to detail and not taking shortcuts will help ensure success. The products mentioned are ones I am familiar with and there are no doubt regional alternatives.


The same principles for the artificial rearing of calves apply to lambs – a warm, clean, dry and draught-free environment is best.

Lambs should be reared in haysheds or implement sheds not previously used by adult sheep. Ideally avoid contact with sheep yards and woolsheds.

Ideally divisions should be solid. If wire gates are used they can be lined with windbreak cloth to lessen draughts.

Put 10-12 lambs per pen with 0.5 square metres of space per lamb with bedding of sawdust, shavings or straw and unrestricted access to drinking water.

Meal troughs – 2 x 1.5m of V-shaped wooden troughs/pen placed 15-20cm off the ground but can be at ground level. There must be enough room for all lambs to have access especially post-weaning – a minimum of 300mm/head is needed.

Ad-lib access to straw or hay from day one – this can be obtained from the pen walls.

For ventilation, the shed must be closed on three sides facing away from the prevailing wind.

Beware of all sharp objects – edges of troughs, wire nails and plastic as lambs are very vigorous feeders. Any lamb that is dribbling should be quickly identified and treated with penicillin.


No particular selection is necessary – any orphan lamb. In the case of triplets any odd-sized lamb could be selected. The survival rate of lambs weighing less than 3.5kg is low and these could be abandoned. Similarly those that develop navel infections and joint ill within the first week have a low survival rate.

Weak or comatose lambs can be revived by intra-abdominal injection of 10ml/kg of 20% Dextrose or by stomach tubing and placed in a lamb warmer.

It is probably best to assume all pet lambs have not received colostrum so the first feed could be colostrum if available – a total of 15% of body weight is required in the first 24 hours so a 5kg lamb needs 750ml given in three feeds of 250ml/feed.

Cow colostrum that has been frozen is also suitable or they could be given a dose of one of the commercially available colostrum powders (Excel Plus). Warming/thawing frozen liquid colostrum is best done by placing the sealed container in a warm water bath and allowing it to heat through slowly.

New lambs are placed in their allocated pen immediately and taught to drink in this area.  After two days lambs should be regrouped according to size and suckling ability.


Whey-based lamb milk replacers (LMR) appear to give the most consistent results, possibly because they are closer in composition to ewe’s milk than some of the whole milk powders and the vegetable fats are easier to digest. Also it is easier to mix and clean the equipment following use. As a bonus they are usually a bit cheaper than whole milk powders. Sprayfo Primo Lamb is the whey-based LMR we use and may well be the only whey-based LMR available in NZ.

Meals, either Sgt Dan Lamb Meal – a ground pelletised palatable meal, 20% protein and an ME of 14 or Moozlee – a high-quality steam-flaked texture feed, 18% protein and an ME of 12.5 are very palatable. Both contain coccidiostat.

No attempt should be made to substitute alternative products unless you are certain they are of equivalent specification and palatability. Meal fed should contain no palm kernel, copra meal or tapioca as lambs don’t like it. Provide fresh water and feed hay ad lib.


Lambs need at least 10-15% of their bodyweight in milk daily so:

Lambs <4kg     500-600ml/day

Lambs 4kg       600ml/day

Lambs >5kg     800ml/day

Mixing rate      200g/litre

Temperature    Very warm 35-40C

Daily schedule

Day 1   125ml 4-5 x daily (for a 4kg lamb)

Day 2-4   250ml 3 x daily

Day 5-11   300ml 3 x daily

Day 12-21   400ml 2 x daily

Day 22-30   600-800ml once a day – see later section on abomasal bloat.


Lambs should be bottle-fed individually at the start – they learn to suckle very quickly (no more than two days). They can then be bottle-fed in rack systems or fed via a multiple feeder. Start on soft teats and once feeding well move to hard teats.

With rack feeders such as the Lamb Bar system each lamb gets access only to its allocated amount of milk. It is best fed in batches of 10-12 for good observation of suckling speed and milk intake.

With multi feeders all lambs drinking get access to the reservoir of milk so these are more suitable after a week of age. Watch for slow and fast drinkers and rearrange into even drinking groups. Teats need to be at 200mm centres for lambs above 5-8kg and 40–45cm above the ground. Design should be such that “greedy” lambs cannot push other lambs off the teat.

Feeding milestones

Sgt Dan Lamb Meal (or Moozlee) should be available from day one. Keep fresh and topped up twice a day. Some lambs appear to get on to the Sgt Dan meal quicker than the Moozlee, with others the reverse applies. Regardless, the more palatable the meal is to begin with the better. You can take advantage of the lamb’s natural tendency to want to continue feeding after their bottle is finished by putting small amounts of meal into their mouths – this gets some of them on to meal quite quickly.

Lambs should be placed outside with access to good-quality grass (1200-1800kg drymatter (DM)/ha 12-15cm long) when they are consuming 100g of meal/lamb/day – usually about 2½-3 weeks of age. Provision of suitable pasture needs planning well ahead.

When on pasture three or four groups of lambs can be mixed into groups of 30-50 depending on the teat feeding system available.

The best weaning criteria is meal consumption. Lambs can be weaned off milk when they are consuming 200g/day of meal or when they weigh 10-12kg. This is usually between four and five weeks of age.

After weaning the concentrate consumption will likely increase to about 400g/day. Meal should be available ad lib and continued be fed in conjunction with grass at the rate of 400-700g/day until 20kg of weight at 8-10 weeks. Lambs can find these meals very palatable and lamb intakes may need restricting around week 10 to 700g/day.

Lambs should be rotated around paddocks of high quality pasture (not less than 1600kg DM/ha) to encourage grass intake.

The above regime should result in about 5kg of milk replacer and 20kg of concentrate being fed per lamb.

Ad-lib feeding

Where lambs are being ad-lib fed:

  • Initially feed the lambs a restricted amount of milk (750ml/day) as above in three feeds to identify any lambs not drinking well and relocate if necessary. When all lambs in the group are drinking well introduce them to the bulk ad-lib feeder.
  • One ad-lib feeder per 60 lambs should have one teat for every five lambs with the teats at least 8cm apart and 40-45cm above ground.
  • Milk should be fed cold to restrict intake and the container should not be empty for longer than two hours. Daily milk intake is likely to be 1-1.8litres/day.

Feeding cow’s milk

Feeding cow’s milk is not ideal, especially to younger lambs. Ewe’s milk is 30% fat, 23% protein and 27% lactose on a DM basis and a concentration of 200g/litre in liquid form. Cow’s milk is 26% fat, 26% protein and 40-45% lactose and a concentration of 125g/litre in liquid form. Clearly cow’s milk is lower in fat and has excessive amounts of lactose. Total DM and energy is also much lower. High lactose levels may be associated with an increased susceptibility to abomasal bloat.

Animal Health

It is best to assume lambs less than 24 hours old have had no colostrum. For colostrum to be effective for disease prevention, lambs must receive it preferably by <12 hours of age and certainly by no later than 24 hours. In order of preference give:

Ewe colostrum.

  • Commercial colostrum powders – contains antibodies from ewe or cow colostrum.
  • Stored cow colostrum.
  • On arrival each lamb is:
  1. Weighed and identified. If tagged use an imprinted number – tag pen numbers do not last in the suckling environment.
  2. Navel sprayed with iodine taking particular care to ensure a drop forms on the end of the navel. This should be done the first time the lamb is handled – in the paddock.
  • Treat any swollen navels immediately with procaine penicillin at 1ml daily for five days.
  • A prophylactic (preventative) dose of 1ml of penicillin can be given (optional).
  • Check eyes for turned in eyelids (Entropion) and joints for joint ill (navel infections).

Sheds should be disinfected with a broad-spectrum disinfectant (Envirosan, Sterigene Virkon, or Vetsan) before commencement then weekly. Feeders and troughs should also be regularly sprayed with disinfectant.

Entropion is when one or both of the lower eyelids is turned in resulting in eye(s) that are watering and become cloudy. For treatment pull down on the eyelid to unroll it and apply Terramycin powder. If eyelids invert again repeat the unrolling and you can pinch the offending lower eyelid between your thumb and finger. This causes, after half an hour or so, some swelling which helps the eyelid to stay “unrolled”. Alternatively inject 0.5ml saline under the eyelid.

Navel infection or joint ill ios caused when bacteria enter the bloodstream via the fresh navel and commonly end up in joints causing an infective arthritis (joint ill) or in the liver and lungs causing abscesses. In the case of joint ill lambs will be lame and one or more joints may be swollen. In cases of liver and/or lung abscesses the lamb will have a temperature and be noticeably sick.

For treatment give 2-3ml penicillin (Ovipen) and repeat at least twice at 48-hour intervals. Infections of navel origin are very common in the first two weeks. Joint ill will likely require a longer treatment course.

Scabby mouth – If and only if scabby mouth is endemic on the farm, vaccinate all lambs at the time of entry into the shed as pet lambs bunt up against the bottle damaging the skin around the lips and nose which allows easy entry of the virus at an early age if it is present.

Pneumonia – Not usually a common problem. If cases occur the first thing to check is the flow rate of teats. A small lamb on a teat with a large orifice can lead to inhalation pneumonia which will show up as a history of “the lamb was drinking fine but now only drinks a percentage of the bottle and comes on and off the teat a lot”. Treat with antibiotics for five days – contact vet for a suitable antibiotic.

Foot scald – Again not usually common. Will show up as reddened inflamed skin between the hooves on one or more feet. Even quite severe cases respond well to penicillin (Ovipen) given once at 1ml/10kg.

Scours – There are, broadly, two types of lamb scours – nutritional and infectious. The vast majority of cases are the former (or osmotic) and are generally easily fixed.

Nutritional – Due to over feeding, cold feeding, the wrong mixing rates or dated milk powders. At the first sign of a mild scour with the lamb still bright and drinking increase the concentration of milk replacer being fed by around 25% by cutting the water down but using the same amount of milk powder. Reduce the volume fed for two or three feeds as well. This will frequently stop the scour but make sure the lamb has fresh water available and watch for constipation as this can happen quite easily.

Infectious – Much less common than nutritional scours – in non-weaned lambs they will likely be due to Cryptosporidia, E. coli or Salmonella. An early diagnosis is essential. Samples need to be submitted to a lab or vet clinic. For these or if the treatment for nutritional scours isn’t effective and/or the lamb is dull or lost its appetite then you need to institute electrolyte therapy as would be the case with scouring calves. Remove from milk and give ad-lib electrolytes (eg: Revive). When milk is reintroduced use the reduced volume / increased concentration approach outlined above. In rare cases like Salmonellosis antibiotic treatment may be needed – these must not be fed in the milk as a preventative.

In recently weaned older lambs coccidiosis due to a protozoal parasite causing a nasty diarrhoea, sometimes containing blood can occasionally be an issue. Outbreaks are usually associated with a high stocking rate and moist/muddy conditions. If grass is short then due to a combination of decreased resistance and lambs being forced to graze low, thereby ingesting more coccidial oocysts, this can exacerbate the disease. There is a treatment (Baycox C) which needs to be given promptly in an outbreak to be really effective. Prevention consists of providing clean fresh grazing (don’t wean lambs on to the same paddocks in consecutive years) and a clean water source. Ensure the meal fed contains a coccidiostat.

Internal parasites (worms) are unlikely to be an issue until lambs have been eating mainly or wholly pasture for at least three weeks. Avoiding weaning lambs on to the same paddocks in consecutive years will, as with coccidiosis, help reduce the likelihood of premature or excessive exposure to the L3 parasite larvae.

Vaccinations – It is safest to assume there has been no colostrum intake and thus no clostridial protection will be present at tailing so give Lamb Vaccine at tailing. Lambs can then have a standard five in one vaccination programme and be vaccinated against Clostridial diseases (Pulpy Kidney etc) with Ultravac 5 in 1 at 6-10 weeks of age and again 4-6 weeks later.

Abomasal bloat – The biggest cause of death among hand-reared lambs, usually from about three-four weeks of age onwards. Lambs become acutely bloated 1-2 hours after feeding (so this is the time to check on them). Acute depression, a swollen tense abdomen, pain (colic) and death is rapid if lambs are not treated. It usually occurs after three weeks of age while on large amounts (>500mls) of milk replacer once daily and is due to the sudden gorging and uneven intake.

Flooding of a large amount of milk into the intestinal tract provides an ideal substrate for Sarcinia bacteria (a soil-borne bacterium) to multiply which results in huge amounts of gas being produced (bloat) and acidification of the intestinal contents that can result in rupture of the stomach and sometimes the abdominal wall.

Treatment is 3ml of penicillin orally ASAP. If this isn’t going to work quickly enough (if the lamb is basically on its last gasp) you will need to deflate the stomach with a needle. Put the lamb on its back and in the midline between the end of the sternum (ribcage) and the navel plunge a 16Gx1 needle straight in and hold it there applying very slight downward pressure as the stomach deflates. Afterwards inject a dose of penicillin into the muscle in the usual way (1ml/10kg). As this condition is an acute emergency you need to be well-organised – have penicillin, a needle handy and know exactly what to do.

Prevention – You will need to do one of the following:

  • Put lambs back on to a twice-daily feeding regime until weaning.
  • There is good evidence that injection of iron (by reducing the inclination of lambs to eat dirt to improve their iron intake) helps prevent abomasal bloat by reducing the intake of the causative bacteria. An injection of Gleptosil (1½–2ml) at 2-5 days of age repeated again (2ml) three-four weeks later.
  • Addition of baking soda to the milk (10-15g/l) is also often effective in preventing abomasal bloat.
  • Another preventative method is the addition of formalin to the milk – at 1ml of 10% formalin/l of milk.
  • Acidification (yoghurtising) of milk or milk replacer has also been shown to be very effective. See below for details.
  • I would suggest that if an injection of Gleptosil works then this is the simplest (and at around 30c/dose it isn’t expensive) preventative strategy to adopt. If it doesn’t seem to be effective then you need to try one of the other methods.

Ruminal bloat – due to acidosis from over-feeding of concentrates. This will not be seen with Moozlee or Sgt Dan but could occur if any attempt is made to substitute these with straight grain.

Acidifying (yoghurtising) milk or milk replacers – Yoghurt contains Lactobaccillus species (good bacteria) that help prevent most “bad” bacteria from multiplying in the gut. This “yoghurtised” milk can be introduced from about day five-seven (although it can be given to lambs from two days of age) with a gradual transition from warm to cold feeding as follows:

Small numbers of lambs (1-4):

Make up double the amount of milk replacer you need in a lidded bucket of at least twice the volume of the milk in it.

Use water that is warmer than you would feed to the lambs but not as hot as a fresh cup of tea. This gets the yoghurt growing fast without the need for a heating pad.

Dump a large container of unsweetened acidophilus yoghurt into the bucket of warm milk replacer and whisk well.

Leave in the hot water cupboard for 6-12 hours, depending on how long it takes to thicken. The mix may vary from bubbly thick shake to crusty cream cheese sitting on top of clear liquid to thick commercial yoghurt.

When it’s time to feed the lambs, whisk it up, decant the amount you need (dilute a little with cold water if necessary or cut the lambs’ teats open a bit if it’s too thick) and feed away.

You can give the lambs a half yoghurt/half ordinary milk replacer mix when you first introduce it but they normally go on to the yoghurt without any problems.

Make up an equal volume of milk replacer to that removed, again quite warm and whisk into the existing yoghurt mix and put back in the hot water cupboard ready for the next feed.

You may occasionally need to recharge the mixture with extra yoghurt if it gets too thin or seems not to be fermenting well.

Medium numbers of lambs (5-20):

Put 3l of warm water in a bucket.

Add 1kg of calf milk powder and mix with an electric stick blender of at least 250 Watts power.

Add 200ml of acidophilus yoghurt (eg: Ezy-Yo from the supermarket). Mix, then cover with a lid or sheets of newspaper.

Keep the mix warm for the next few hours. The easiest method is to place the bucket on a brewer’s mat (cost $50 for a 25W solid heating mat). If the air temperature is too cold the milk will take a long time to ferment. Another option is to put the bucket in an insulated box or chilly-bin with something like a hot water bottle as a source of heat.

The yoghurt should set within 8-12 hours and may have a soft crust with some liquid at the bottom or may resemble thick commercial yoghurt.

Top up with cold water to 8l, mix and feed directly to lambs.

Remove 200ml of this yoghurt as the starter for the next batch.

Large numbers of lambs (>20):

For the starter either buy 2l of acidophilus yoghurt or add 50ml of acidophilus yoghurt to 2lt of warm calf milk replacer at 40C and keep warm for 8-12 hours to set.

Put 30l of warm water (40C) in an 80l plastic container. Add 10kg of milk replacer and 2l of starter.

Mix until smooth. A powerful electric stick blender, submersible pump or electric drill with a mixer attachment is useful.

Put a lid or sheets of newspaper on the container and supply warmth until set (24 hours). The container could have an insulating blanket put around it. Setting of the yoghurt also depends on the room temperature. The set mixture may have a thick cheesy crust and liquid at the bottom.

Add water to give a total of 80l. Mix or sieve to remove any lumps.

Remove 2l of the liquid yoghurt as a starter for the next batch.

The yoghurt will last up to five days in a cool place. Clean the bucket/container between batches. The lamb feeders should be kept in a cool place or in the shade. This can be used under ad-lib or set-feeding regimes (such as once or twice-a-day) and does not add much extra expense.

On this type of system a lamb can be reared on 5kg of milk replacer and 20kg of lamb meal which works out at around $45/head. Obviously there are other incidental costs – teats, disinfectant, sawdust etc. So provided labour is available (dare I suggest that women make better lamb-rearers than men) then given price projections lamb rearing is both practical and economic. Plus as a bonus you have helped address what is no doubt an animal welfare issue. Ad-lib systems with automatic feeders will use more milk powder which increases the cost but correspondingly will have a reduced labour input.

Should you experience problems, especially repeated ones with orphan lambs contact your local veterinarian who will be able to assist in identifying and correcting any underlying issues. The commonest (and severest) problem experienced by far for most people rearing lambs is abomasal bloat and this is now quite preventable.

  • John Smart is a veterinarian with Clutha Vets Animal Health Centre, Balclutha


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