John Smart

Interest in artificially rearing lambs has risen with the increase in lamb price this season. Not only are farmers considering the usual waifs and strays but also taking one lamb off those ewes with triplets. This has the advantage of:

  • Improving lamb survival.  Unless you already have loss rates of less than about 15-17% then there is probably room for improvement.  Often loss rates can approach 25%.
  • As ewe fecundity gradually increases, the % of triplets increases.  Triplets invariably have a much lower survival rate compared to twins.  Twin survival rate is usually in the range 78-94% whereas triplet survival is 54-82%.  This loss represents a lot of lost income!
  • The twolambs left on the triplet ewes do better.
  • If there is a good lamb rearing setup there is more of an inclination on the shepherds part to remove those lambs that are “looking dodgy” to the rearing facility rather than wait & see what happens – this fact alone helps improve lamb survival.
  • It removes the mothering-on workload.

Probably the biggest unseen benefit is in knowing you are improving the welfare of newborn lambs and won’t be contributing to the “unseasonal storm” pictures that seem to pop up on TV nearly every lambing season.  These pictures can be flashed round the world in seconds these days and there is the distinct possibility of an overseas backlash occurring at some point in the future.

Following is information written from many years of experience combined with best practice principles designed to help you setup a successful artificial lamb rearing enterprise.  Using these guidelines it is possible to rear a lamb on about 7kg of milk powder and 20kg of concentrate costing around $54 in total.  There are other costs (teats, wood chips, disinfectant etc) but provided labour is available rearing lambs is certainly economic and at the same time it addresses the welfare aspects.  As far as labour is concerned, dare I say it but women are generally better at it than men.


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, implement sheds etc not previously used by adult sheep.  Ideally avoid any contact with sheep yards and woolsheds.

Pens can be made from straw bales, wire gates etc.  Ideally pen divisions should be solid but this is not absolutely necessary.  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/lamb.

Bedding – woodchips/shavings are probably best but straw or sawdust can suffice.  Sawdust can be a bit dusty and lambs can nibble on it and straw can easily become rather dirty.

Water – unrestricted access to drinking water.

Meal troughs – 2 x 1.5m of V-shaped wooden troughs/pen placed preferably 150-200mm off the ground but can be at ground level.  Lengths of plastic spouting also make good troughs.  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.

Drainage – usually not an issue but pens should, if possible have a sloping floor of sand or clay.

Ventilation – the shed must be closed on three sides facing away from the prevailing wind.  The straw bales provide wind and rain shelter at ground level.

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 – penicillin.

If the housing is inferior Woolovers can be used – this should be a last resort though!

Lamb Selection

No particular selection necessary – any orphan lamb.  In the case of triplets any “odd” sized lamb could be selected or for example, select a ram lamb, leaving two ewe lambs on the ewe.  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 should be revived by intra-abdominal injection of 10mls/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 this is available – a total of 15% of body weight is required in the first 24 hours so a 5kg lamb needs 750ml total 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.  The important factor with these is the Immunoglobulin (IgG or antibody) level.  Excel Plus from Milligans at 14% IgG has twice the IgG level of Jumpstart (7%) from Fonterra.   Warming/thawing frozen liquid colostrum is best done by placing the sealed container in a warm water bath & allowing it to heat through slowly.

New lambs are placed in their allocated pen immediately and taught to drink in this area.  After 2 days lambs should be regrouped according to size and suckling ability.


Whey-based lamb milk replacers appear to give the most consistent results – they seem to result in fewer digestive upsets (scours) than other whole milk powders, possibly because they are closer in composition to actual ewe’s milk than some of the whole milk powders and also the vegetable fats are easier to digest.  Also it is easier to mix and clean equipment following their use.  In addition they are usually a bit cheaper.  I recommend Spray Fo Primo Lamb from AgriVantage.

Either Sgt Dan Lamb Meal – a ground pelletised palatable meal, 20% protein and an ME of 14. Contains a coccidiostat.

Or Moozlee – a high quality steam flaked texture feed, 18% protein and an ME of 12.5. Contains coccidiostat.

These meals are very palatable and no attempt should be made to substitute alternative products unless you are certain they are of equivalent specification and palatability.  There will be other equivalent meal products in other areas of the country but these are the ones I am familiar with down south.  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.

Sodium Bentonite – is a specialised clay type product found in NZ which can be added to the meal.  It acts as a buffer against rumen acidosis, absorbs toxins and reduces the possibility of scours.


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 35-40(C

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 multiple fed via a multiple feeder.  Start on soft teats and once feeding well move to hard teats.

Rack feeders – With rack feeders such as the Lamb Bar system each lamb gets access only to its allocated amount of milk.  Best fed in batches of 10-12 for good observation.

Example of a rack feeder.n of suckling speed and milk intake.

Multi feeders – With multi feeders all lambs drinking get access to the reservoir of milk so these are more suitable for use after a week of age.  Watch for slow and fast drinkers – 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.

Example of a multi feeder.

Feeding Milestones

Sgt Dan Lamb Meal (or Moozlee) to 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 seems to apply.  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 onto meal quite quickly.

Lambs to be placed outside with access to good quality grass (1200-1800kg DM/ha 100-150mm long) when they are consuming 100g of Moozlee/Sgt Dan/lamb/day – usually at about 2½-3 weeks of age.  The provision of suitable pasture needs planned 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 Moozlee/Sgt Dan 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.   Moozlee/Sgt Dan should be available ad lib and must be continued to 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 restricted by around week 10 to 700g/day.

Lambs to 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 5-7kg of milk replacer and 20kg of concentrate being fed/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, 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.  The feeder should have one teat/five lambs with the teats at least 8cm apart and 40-45cm above the ground.
  • Milk should be fed cold to restrict milk intake and the container should not be empty for longer than two hours.  The daily milk intake is likely to be around 1-1.8 litres/day.

Automated Lamb Feeding

Technology has developed to the extent that there are now automated feeders which can read individual’s EID tags and be programmed to track their individual intakes and regulate the amount of milk they get per feed and the total amount per day.  Also, while not best practice, if there was to be a change of feed type, for example a change of milk powders, the machine can be programmed to gradually phase out the one component while gradually increasing the proportion of the other thereby helping to reduce the likelihood of any digestive upsets.

Advantages over more manual feeding systems include:

  • Reduced time spent in the lamb rearing shed.
  • It more closely mimics what happens in nature as lambs feed little and often.  This should result in less animal health issues, especially with what has been the main problem with artificially reared lambs – that is abomasal bloat.

Disadvantages include:

  • The capital cost of the ‘robotic’ feeder – $6500-$7000 (in 2018).
  • Probably results in slightly more milk powder being consumed than with a manual system (but not as much as an ad-lib system).

Feeding Cow’s Milk

The formulation of ewe’s milk is 30% fat, 23% protein and 27% lactose on a DM basis with a concentration of 200g/litre in the liquid form.  In comparison cow’s milk has 26% fat, 26% protein and 40-45% lactose on a DM basis with a concentration of 125gm/litre in the liquid form.   Clearly cow’s milk is lower in fat and has excessive amounts of lactose.  Total DM and energy is also much lower.

NB: High levels of lactose is most likely associated with an increased susceptibility to abomasal bloat.

Cow’s milk can be modified to more closely resemble that of ewes’ milk by three methods:

  1. Add cream at the rate of 30g/litre – expensive?
  2. Fortify with a lamb milk replacer to lift the concentration.  This can be done by adding 75g of replacer/litre or 7.5kg/100litres of cow’s milk.  The actual brand of replacer is probably not too critical but again the whey based powder with its higher fat level would, on paper anyway, be best.
  3. Modify the lactose level by yoghurtising the milk.  The Lactobacillus bacteria will use the lactose to make the yoghurt.  This product will be thicker than milk and may be harder to go through the teats.  Works very well in calves.  See below for instructions to yoghurtise the milk.

Animal Health

If lambs are less than 24 hours old it is, as stated above, best to assume they have had no colostrum.  For colostrum to be effective as far as disease prevention goes, lambs must receive it preferably by <12 hours of age and certainly by no later than 24 hours of age.  In order of preference give:

  • Actual ewe colostrum.
  • Commercial colostrum powders – contains antibodies from ewe or cow colostrum.
  • Stored cow colostrum.

On arrival each lamb is:

  • Weighed and identified.  If tagged use an imprinted number – tag pen numbers do not last in the suckling environment.
  • 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 – ie: in the paddock.
  • Treat any swollen navels immediately with procaine penicillin at the rate of 1ml daily for five days.
  • A prophylactic (preventative) dose of 1ml of penicillin can be given – (optional).


  • Eyes for turned in eyelids (Entropion).
  • Joints for joint ill (navel infections).

Sheds should be disinfected with a broad spectrum disinfectant (Envirosan, Sterigene Virkon, Vetsan) prior to commencement and then weekly thereafter.  Also feeders and troughs should be regularly sprayed with disinfectant.

Entropion – One or both of the lower eyelids is turned in resulting in eye(s) that are watering and become cloudy.

Treatment – Pull down on the eyelid to unroll it and apply some 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 – Bacteria enter the bloodstream via the fresh navel andcommonly 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.

Treatment – 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.

Watery Mouth – This is caused by an oral infection of E. coli a bacteria commonly found in faeces and as such housed lambs would be a little more prone to getting it than lambs out on pasture although on some farms, especially those with bare dirt along shelter belts it can be quite common even in lambs on their mothers.

Lambs ingest the E. coli in the first day or two of life and the E. coli release a toxin which causes a guts ache.  In response to the pain the lamb salivates excessively (the watery mouth) followed often by bloating from excessive gas production and death can occur in as little as 6 hours.  A lack of colostrum predisposes to watery mouth.  T

he best treatment for Watery Mouth, because it works quickest, is an oral dose of 2ml of Spectinomycin 50mg/ml.  Watery Mouth can only occur in lambs up to three days of age – any older lambs with excess salivation probably have a developing septicaemia and should be treated with injectable antibiotics – oral Spectinomycin will not be effective in these older lambs.

Pneumonia – Not usually a common problem.  If some 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 a common problem.  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 speaking, two types of lamb scours – nutritional and infectious.  The vast majority of cases are the former – nutritional (or osmotic) and as such 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 de due to Cryptosporidia, E. coli or Salmonella.  An early diagnosis is essential.  Samples need to be submitted to lab/vet clinic.   For these or if the treatment for nutritional scours isn’t effective and/or the lamb is dull or inappetant 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 older lambs that have been recently weaned 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, Toltrazuril (Baycox C or Catolyst) which needs given promptly in an outbreak to be really effective.  Prevention consists of providing clean fresh grazing (don’t wean lambs onto the same paddocks in consecutive years) and a clean water source.  Ensure that 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 and avoiding weaning lambs onto the same paddocks in consecutive years will, as with coccidiosis, help reduce the likelihood of premature or excessive exposure to the causative agent, in this case L3 parasite larvae.

Vaccinations – It is safest to assume there has been no colostrum intake & thus no clostridial protection will be present at tailing so give “Lamb Vaccine” at tailing.  Lambs can then have a standard 5 in 1 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 – This has been the biggest cause of death amongst hand reared lambs, usually from about 3-4 weeks of age onwards.  Lambs become acutely bloated about 1-2 hours after feeding (so this is the time to check on them).  There is 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 (>500ml) of milk replacer once daily and is due to the sudden gorging and uneven intake.  The flooding of a large amount of milk into the intestinal tract provides an ideal substrate for Sarcina bacteria (a soil borne bacterium lambs pick up from the environment) to multiply in which results in huge amounts of gas being produced (bloat) and acidification of the intestinal contents which can cause rupture of the stomach and sometimes the abdominal wall.

Treatment – 3ml of penicillin orally ASAP.  If this isn’t going to work quickly enough (ie: 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 16G x 1” needle straight in & 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 before hand – have penicillin, a 16G x 1” needle handy and know beforehand exactly what to do!

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

Put lambs back onto a twice-daily feeding regime until weaning.

There is good evidence that the 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.  I suggest an injection of Gleptosil (1½-2ml) at 2-5 days of age repeated again (2ml) about 3-4 weeks later.

Addition of baking soda to the milk (10-15gm/l) is also often effective in preventing abomasal bloat.

Another preventative method is the addition of formalin to the milk – the rate is 1ml of 10% formalin/lt of milk.

Acidification (yoghurtising) of milk or milk replacer has also been shown to be very effective.  See below for details.

Feeding whey based milk replacer (Spray Fo), while it may not totally eliminate abomasal bloat, it definitely does reduce the incidence of it compared to the whole milk powder lamb replacers.

Ad-lib type feeders, especially the modern ones which through reading the lambs EID tag and regulating its milk intake appropriately, should eliminate most if not all abomasal bloat as lamb’s intake in any one feed is restricted as is the total for the day.

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 5-7 (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.

If you like 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 & mix with an electric stick blender of at least 250watts 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 eg: chilly-bin with something like a hottie as a source of heat.

The yoghurt should set within 8-12 hours and may have a soft crust on top 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 200mls of this liquid yoghurt for use 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 2l of warm calf milk replacer at 40C & keep warm for 8 – 12 hours to set.

Put 30lt 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).  A brewer’s mat can be used under the container as the heat source.  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 80lt.  Mix or sieve to remove any lumps.

Remove 2l of the liquid yoghurt to use 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.

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