Higher returns for lamb plus animal welfare concerns have led to increased interest in orphan lamb rearing systems. Sandra Taylor spoke to three sheep farmers, who are also experienced lamb rearers, about their management practices.

Simplicity is the key to the Dawkins family’s indoor lamb rearing system.

The family farms in Blenheim and runs an indoor triplet-ewe lambing and orphan lamb rearing system to help maximise lambing percentages in their high-performance ewe flock. They rear between 30 and 50 lambs every year, most being sold by the end of January at a minimum of 42kg.

After four years as Beef + Lamb New Zealand Innovation Farmers focusing on the indoor triplet-ewe lambing, they have refined both this and their orphan lamb rearing systems.

Richard Dawkins says they found that when their lamb rearing system got too labour intensive it became costly and time-consuming with no obvious benefits.

He admits that they have both the infrastructure (a large, sunny, well-ventilated shed) and the climate to allow their system to work so well and this might not be the case on farms in other regions.

What they say works for them:

  • Maximising the amount of sunlight into the orphan pen to provide warmth and kill germs.
  • Ventilation is also important. We obviously don’t want a cold draught blowing through but a wet and stagnant environment is a breeding ground for bacteria. A light breeze during the day provides important air flow. We have roller doors that we close at night.

bedding is placed down. After the initial Virkon treatment the dry disinfectant Stalosan-f is used liberally and frequently. It absorbs moisture and disinfects, so is sprinkled over the top of bedding. It is also sprinkled amongst layers of bedding. Teats are sprayed with Virkon regularly.

  • The shed is cleaned out completely once or twice over the lamb rearing season once the lambs are big enough to be outside.
  • All lambs need a separate source of clean, fresh water from day one. This is particularly important as lambs get bigger and are at greater risk of developing bloat. Lambs must not be allowed to substitute milk for water – milk is food, water is for thirst.
  • Lambs need access to fibre from day one to aid rumen development. Kerry and Paul initially use hay nets filled with pea vine (NOT pea straw), which is similar in feed value to lucerne hay. Good quality hay of any description can be used.
  • From days four to five they introduce the lambs to a lamb starter mix. This is fed in troughs fashioned from spouting. Start with small amounts and change frequently to keep fresh.
  • Get indoor lambs outside as soon as possible. Allow ad lib access to outdoor areas so lambs can play, get a dose of vitamin D, and exercise. Lambs will take themselves back inside when they are cold and/or hungry.
  • Warm whole milk is ideal for young lambs for the first two weeks. After a few weeks bloat becomes more of a risk so Kerry transitions to whey. Yoghurtised milk will also work. After two weeks the temperature of the milk can be reduced so that by three weeks the lambs are drinking cold milk.
  • Watery mouth is caused by an E coli infection. This can be treated by applying white penicillin directly over the tongue.
  • Kerry and Paul use a scabby mouth scratch at 10 days.
  • Hand-reared lambs need a clostridial vaccine at around 10 days because they may not have received antibodies through their mother’s colostrum.
  • Some rearers use an appropriate vaccine at tailing to ensure protection against tetanus.
  • Lambs are weaned at a minimum of 16kg if they are eating a decent amount of grass.


The Hobans farm on coastal hill country near Waipara. Maria rears orphan lambs and has invested in an automatic feeder. She admits she has learnt from Kerry Harmer and they share similar management practices.

What Maria says works for them:

  • I use whey powder. I only had one bloated lamb last year as opposed to previous years (without the feeder) when we fed ordinary milk replacer and lost many to bloat.
  • The De Laval feeder is calibrated to make only a small amount of milk available initially when there are only a few lambs. This is because any milk not drunk is left to go cold. The amount of milk mixed is increased when lamb numbers increase.
  • The shed is set up in three parts: young lambs/learner drinkers, experts/greedy guts, and the hospital pen.
  • Hygiene is most important. All navels are iodine sprayed. Shed is regularly Virkoned (antimicrobial spray). Fresh straw or bedding is spread out often. Any sick or scouring lambs are separated into the hospital pen.
  • Have a very clear order of what happens when lambs are dropped at the shed door – lambs are iodine sprayed, fed colostrum (powdered and mixed if newborn), bottle fed initially to get them going, then introduced to the feeder.
  • Patience is key when transitioning lambs from bottle to machine. Some catch on quickly, others take a lot of time.
  • I tag lambs on arrival and write a number on their tag. I record on a spreadsheet/whiteboard their date of arrival, how many colostrum feeds they have received, and what paddock they came from just to get an idea of any trend that might be occurring. Any other treatments etc are also recorded.
  • Lambs have continuous access to good grass/clover as soon as they have expert drinking status.
  • All lambs have access to meal in their pens. I spend a lot of time popping it in their mouths after they’ve had milk just to get them used to it. This is good for their rumen development and reduces the amount of milk drunk in later weeks.