Lambs are one of the cutest, happiest, and most fun loving animals on the planet. They love nothing more than to play with friends and socialise. Hand raising them is not difficult but there are a few things to know.
In one sense lambs are very easy to hand rear and look after however on the other they can be vulnerable for the first few weeks and months. If you are bottle feeding a lamb or know someone who is then here are a few important tips to keep lambs happy and healthy.
Lamb Care Guide
Colostrum. If the lamb you are feeding is a new born it's important to get colostrum into them within the first few hours of life. Colostrum is the milk they first get from their mother which kick starts their immune system. You can get it from a vet or farm shop. If the lamb is older and did not get any colostrum then it will be more susceptible to infection so take extra hygiene precautions and call a vet if they are unwell. Over time they will develop their own immune system.
Make sure you add the correct amount of milk powder. It's really important they get the correct amount of nutrition because they grow so fast. Labels can be misleading and check your measurements. For example don't fill the container with water and then add the milk powder. Instead add a little water, mix in the powder, and then add the remaining water. Weigh the lamb and measure for its total body weight. They need approximately 15% of their body weight across a 24hr period so for a 5kg lamb that would be .15 x 5 = .75 or 750mL per day / 6 = 125mL per feed.
Don't warm the milk in a microwave. This can damage the protein in the milk leading to a deficiency which can prevent them from progressing normally.
Feed small amounts often, especially at first. When they are wth their mothers they bug her for a drink whenever they get a chance, maybe 30 times a day! Small amounts are safer and can help prevent a dangerous condition called bloat. Six or more smaller feeds are better than two large feeds for example.
Take a break when feeding. They will wolf down the bottle in record time but don't be afraid to stop a couple times to give them a quick break.
Hold the bottle correctly. Nose pointing skyward. Make sure their heads are up in the same position they are when they drink from their mother. This helps to make sure the milk goes into the correct place. When they drink from their mothers they kneel down and point their nose almost vertically.
Make sure you have a good quality teat with a controlled flow. Too much too fast isn't good. It should drip not flow when held upside down. Teats with a valve are better.
Prevent bloat. Many bottle fed lambs unfortunately succumb to a condition called bloat. This is when milk goes into the wrong chamber which causes an over growth of bacteria. This can be fatal and very hard to treat so prevention is key. If your lamb has any signs or a bulging stomach call a vet immediately.
How to prevent bloat. The best way to prevent bloat is to remove the lactose from the milk. This is done by yogurtising the milk. It's another step but once you have done it once it's very easy and much easier than trying to treat bloat. Poor Beans got bloat when he was a lamb so his human has learned this the hard way! Please watch the video below by a veterinarian explaining how to yogurtise milk. It's easy. You can warm the yogurtised milk to body temperature right before feeding if you like. Again don't use a microwave and be sure to feed it to them immediately so harmful bacteria do not grow.
Start introducing some solid feed early. Most farm stores will have lamb feed. This is important to help their rumen develop correctly. Introduce small amounts, if they eat too much it can upset their belly. Here is an example of a good lamb muesli.
Vaccination. Lambs and sheep are constantly eating pasture so its easy for them to ingest a range of harmful bacteria. These harmful clostridium bacteria like tetanus build up in the soil and can be deadly. Hand reared lambs need to be vaccinated from 2 weeks old to protect them. If not one day they can look fine and the next morning they're gone. Please talk to a vet about this.
Watch out of diarrhoea. There can be many reasons for this and it can come right on its own but it can be a sign of overfeeding. It's important to measure the amount of milk powder based on the actual weight of the lamb. If the diarrhoea doesn't clear up quickly (24/48hrs max) its best to consult a vet because they may need electrolytes to prevent dehydration.
Watch they don't eat anything poisonous. If you have a lamb at home be careful they don't eat poisonous plants in the garden. Take them to a vet immediately if they are showing any signs of being poisoned.
If you are unsure about anything please contact your local vet.
How to Prevent Bloat by Dr Sarah Clews
How to Yogurtise Milk by Dr Sarah Clews
Beans Had Bloat
Poor baby Beans had bloat and it most likely could have been prevented by following the tips above. Luckily Beans belly didn't get any bigger than this (below) and it didn't cause him breathing problems or major discomfort. The vet thought it's best to wean him early and get him on solid food so it will come right on its own. He would have benefited from more treatment however.
Two is Better Than One
Another important point to remember is that lambs are flock animals and they need a friend. Their natural instinct is to never be alone so if are they will be anxious. It's always best to have two and it makes a huge difference because they will be much happier, more relaxed and less demanding. They are very social and learn a lot from each other and develop better if they have someone to play with. If you have one it shouldn't be hard to find another orphan.
When it was just Beans he wanted to be with his human 24/7 and he didn't like being alone. Then when Frosty came along they bonded very quickly and became best friends forever. This made it much easier because they were happy to run off and spend time together and sleep in the barn rather the house.
Lambs are lovely animals and giving them a good life is very rewarding. In general once they are past their vulnerable stage and are vaccinated once a year they are very hardy animals.
If you are bottle feeding lambs its best to wean them off milk as soon as it's safe to do so because of the risk of bloat. It's important to get them eating solid food from the first week by providing some lamb muesli and making sure they have access to good quality grass and hay. Before weaning its important their adult stomach, the rumen, is fully developed so make sure they are ruminating well and chewing their cud. This means they should be doing lots of chewing when they are resting after having a munch on grass.
Start by reducing the number of feeds slowly but do not dilute the milk or increase the amount per feed just remove one feed a day per week starting from about 5 weeks of age. By 10 weeks they should be down to one small bottle a day. One a day for another few weeks should be ok to keep them happy then one every two days and then one every few days or stop.
It is common for farmers to dock (remove) the tails of lambs. This is because if they are in large remote commercial flocks they can get fly strike. Fly strike is a dangerous condition where a messy behind attracts flies. The flies lay eggs that hatch into maggots which feed on their flesh, yuck! This is a nasty and serious condition that requires immediately medical attention.
However it's not necessary to dock hand raised lambs that will be kept and given a good life because you can always check them easily and trim their tail as needed. You can even spray their tail with a little fly spray if you notice any flies.
If you have a boy he will need to be castrated to prevent unwanted pregnancy and keep the testosterone in check. It's best to do this a bit later in life at about four or five months old. This gives the urethra time to fully develop which is important as they age. If a lamb is castrated earlier the urethra is thinner which can lead to dangerous blockages later in life. This must be done by a veterinarian with the appropriate pain relief.
Beans kept his tail and he loves it. It keeps the muscles in his behind working normally which is better for them. It also protects his behind much better and it's an effective fly swat that can generate a mean whack. If you are unlucky enough to be standing close when he swings at a fly it can really hurt.
Beans is a Wiltshire which is a breed who have kept their natural shedding behaviour. They grow a thick coat in winter and naturally shed it for summer. Other sheep have been bred to grow excess wool without their natural shedding behaviour so they have to be shorn. This is a completely unnatural human bred trait created so people can use the wool.
Instead of wool Wiltshire's have hair on their face, underside, and tail so it is not necessary even for farmers to dock them. The underside of the tail is bare skin as well so they do not have the same problems with flies. Sadly this is not well know and most still get docked. You can read about it from Wiltshire breeders here.