Sandra Taylor

Snow can fall at any time of the year in the Canterbury high country and this extreme climate can make lambing challenging even with the best management.

Paul and Kerry Harmer farm Castleridge Station in the Ashburton gorge and were concerned about the economic loss associated with lamb wastage as well as the animal welfare implications.

Determined to address the issue, the couple have set up a lamb-rearing system – which includes automatic feeders – that minimises lamb losses and generates a profit of $50/head – including labour.

At a recent Beef + Lamb New Zealand Farming for Profit field day in Central Canterbury, Kerry outlined the system and the benefits it has generated to their business.

Automatic lamb feeder mixes the milk and keeps one litre warm.

The couple run 14,000 Merino ewes, 12,000 of which are put to a Poll Dorset terminal sire.

While they have no problem getting the ewes in lamb, Kerry says the ewes tend to be more focused on looking after themselves in adverse weather and will often leave one lamb behind.

Unusually for high country farmers, Kerry and Paul actively shepherd their lambing ewes, so are well positioned to gather-up orphaned lambs. They used to hand-rear them but seven years ago invested in an automatic lamb feeder and have not looked back.

“It has been the best thing for the lambs and for us.”

They now have three automatic feeders, two de Laval and one Lely.
The feeder is a simple system, with milk powder going in the hopper at the top. It mixes the powder and water and an element keeps one litre of milk warm.
One feeder will feed 260 lambs and the Harmers have two feeders in the shed and one outside. Last year, 860 lambs went through the shed.

Kerry explained that they do mother-on ewes that have lost lambs and around 300 lambs were mothered on to ewes, although some did spend time on the feeder before being mothered on. A total of 750 were weaned off the feeders, although the costs of the system were calculated on 860 lambs.

Last year, when the lambs came into the shed, their navels were sprayed and they were put under a heat lamp. This year they will spray the navels in the paddock to prevent contamination during transport.

If lambs are weak, they are given a warm glucose solution, otherwise they are given warm colostrum. Ideally the lambs would be fully fed colostrum for three days, but it is not feasible in this system. Instead they have two days of colostrum, two to three-days of whole milk and are then put on to whey-based milk powder.

Because they haven’t had sufficient colostrum, the lambs are given a 10-in-one vaccine and are treated for scabby mouth.

Straw is used in the lamb boxes, which is where the lambs go when they first go into the shed, otherwise they are on a bed of woodchips.

Virkon is used on the straw lamb boxes and Salosan, a powder disinfectant is used on the woodchip pens.

As the lambs get older, they progress along the pens. The lambs have ad-lib access to the milk feeder so they can get as many feeds as they want per day – this means they don’t gorge. They also have access to pea-vine hay and starter mix (meal) from the outset.

Kerry says as the lambs get bigger, they gradually drop the temperature of the milk and from four to five days of age these lambs are given outdoor access and the lambs choose to go outside.

Kerry and Paul have built a lamb shelter but the lambs have constant access to milk and feed which Kerry believes is key to their survival outside. They have installed their third automatic feeder in a shipping container so the lambs are drinking from a metal wall.

The outdoor feeder means there are a maximum of 500 lambs in the shed at one time, the balance are outdoors and this reduces crowding indoors and keeps the area clean and dry.

When it comes to weaning, the Harmers work on the principle of weaning the best lambs at around five to six weeks, nothing under 15kg.

The weaned lambs go on to a good clover paddock in their deer unit so they can’t try and make their way back to the lamb feeder.

At least half of these lambs are sold at the Harmers’ onfarm lamb sale in February.
Kerry has calculated this lamb-rearing system generates a profit of $50/head. This includes labour costs and Kerry says they do employ very good staff to run the lamb rearing system. One English shepherd has been returning every year and is very familiar with indoor lamb rearing systems.

She urges all commercial sheep breeders to think seriously about such a system to minimise lamb losses for both economic and animal welfare reasons.

Costs for automatic lamb feeder system

These are Kerry and Paul’s costs, so are a rough ball park only.

  • Cost to purchase a machine, about $8500, will feed up to 260 lambs
  • Milk powder $58/head
  • Labour $8.14/head
  • Power $2.50/head
  • Disinfectant/teats $1.05/head
  • Bedding $1.45/head
  • Nuts/hay $1.86/head
  • Total cost $73/head
  • Average price of lambs sold $123/head
  • Profit of $50/head.

Top tips

Kerry and Paul Harmer’s top tips for feeding orphan lambs:

  • Hygiene is critical.
  • Spray all navels.
  • Change / add to bedding to keep dry, have drainage in floors of sheds. Use a dry disinfectant to mop up moisture (Stalosan).
  • Use 10-in-1 vaccine, scabby mouth if it’s on the farm.
  • Have a good recording system for everyone to know what’s what.
  • Colostrum is king, if you can, fully feed for at least three days. Cow’s colostrum is fine, but don’t water it down.
  • Get the lambs outside for as much of the day as possible as soon as possible. They will choose to be outside when they are just few days old and it’s much cleaner and healthier.
  • Provide water, salt blocks and fibre (pea vine, good quality hay) as well as a starter mix from day one to get the rumen going.
  • Whey powder works, order early.