Lamb Grafting Tips

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:13 mins read

Grafting is a practice that may take a little extra effort on the front end, but can help to avoid problems in the long run. The grafting methods and tips below work best for us in our management system and may work for you.

Reasons and Methods of Grafting Lambs

There are several reasons to graft lambs. Ewes may have too many lambs, or there may be one lamb who is much smaller than its siblings to compete well. Mismothering events may create situations where lambs need to be grafted to their natural mother or to a foster ewe. Unfortunately, there are times when ewes become ill or die leaving orphan lambs to manage. We prefer grafting over bottle-feeding on our farm because we do not have labor who can continue to bottle feed until weaning. We have found grafting works best with newborns who are less than 24 hours old, but it is successful at 2-3 days of age with a little patience.

There are many methods of grafting, and we’ve tried several: slime, skin/jacket, hobbling, restraint (head-gating, halter-tying), scent covering, and some we just made up in desperation. There is a place for each method, and naturally every shepherd has their preference, but we have the greatest success with the Slime and Head-Gating methods, so the remainder of this discussion will focus on those. Note that the term “alien lamb” is one who is being grafted to a foster ewe, and “adopted lamb” is one who has been successfully grafted to a foster ewe.

Our Grafting Process

Prepare Stanchion Grafting Pens before lambing begins.

  • We have two pens bedded and ready for use because there is no time to waste when a lamb needs to be grafted. The grafting should be immediate and as seamless as possible.
  • Grafting pens consist of an oversized jug with an adjustable locking type head-gate mechanism with solid panels on either side so the ewe cannot easily see or smell the lambs.
    • Homemade wooden headgates with side panels work well, or you can purchase a commercial headgate to fit your system. Remember the key is to secure the ewe comfortably and prevent her seeing or smelling the alien lamb(s) she is reluctantly feeding.
    • The pen is large enough so the headgate can be unlocked, and the ewe released within the pen once daily, to test her acceptance of the lambs. (Ours are roughly 5 by 8 feet).
  • The area in front of the stanchion where the ewe will stand is bedded with a firm pack and soft straw on top. It is important to keep the bedding clean and dry to avoid mastitis.
  • Adjust bedding depth/firmness to enable the head-gated ewe to stand and lie down comfortably.
  • A hay feeder and water pail are positioned at the ewe’s head to facilitate eating and drinking while she is restrained.
  • The pen is otherwise bedded with soft straw. Occasionally, a heat lamp will be positioned so lambs will sleep along the sides of the pen and not next to the ewe. This may avoid the ewe accidentally stepping or laying on a lamb.
  • Jug walls are secure so lambs do not try to escape or visit neighboring lambs.

Slime Grafting:

  • If a lamb needs to be grafted and is up to 24-72 hours old, we attempt slime grafting first.
  • Devise a plan, identify possible foster ewes, and implement the plan as soon as possible.
  • When a candidate foster ewe lambs, we move as fast as possible to slime graft the alien lamb onto her. First, it is important to be confident the ewe has finished lambing (manually check if there is any doubt).
  • Commit 100% to the graft because the natural mother probably won’t take the lamb back once it has been covered with birthing fluids and placental tissues of another ewe.
  • Occasionally, an active newborn or older lamb may need to be hobbled with bailer twine so it doesn’t just jump up and run off or act differently than the foster ewe’s newborns. To hobble a lamb, it is best to loosely tie an opposite front and rear limb with baler twine. It is important the alien behave like the foster ewe’s own lamb(s).
  • Slime the alien lamb with fluids and placental tissues from the foster ewe.
  • Sneak the alien lamb in “stealth mode” trying not to let the foster ewe see what’s happening. It is best if one person can distract the foster ewe with a fresh pail of water or leafy hay while another sneaks in the alien lamb.
  • Place the alien lamb on top or right beside the foster ewe’s newborn lamb(s). If possible, place the lamb right in the puddle of birthing fluids.
  • Walk away and observe for 5-10 minutes. We find about 20% of foster ewes accept the alien lamb either begrudgingly or without question. Jug this new family for at least 24 hours to make sure the graft is solid.

Head Gate Grafting:

  • If the slime graft fails, proceed with a Head Gate Graft.
  • If the candidate foster ewe lambed more than an hour before the alien lamb was born, we don’t waste time attempting a slime graft because it probably won’t work. In that case we just go to the head gate procedure.
  • If possible, it’s nice to have a foster ewe candidate on an “adoption waiting list”. Good foster candidates are mature ewes with a single live lamb born in the last couple of days; or ewe lambs that lost a single birth lamb that day (hasn’t dried up yet).
  • Sometimes it is necessary to hold a family together until a suitable foster ewe becomes available. The key is to proactively identify potential foster ewes, so you are ready when you have a lamb who needs to be grafted.
  • If possible, don’t ear tag or band either alien or natural lambs until after grafting. Ewes may be very sensitive to any change in smell or appearance of a lamb; some foster ewes may even reject their own lamb in the process of grafting an alien if they become suspicious.
  • Decide which lamb will be grafted in advance (normally the odd-sized lamb, or a particularly robust lamb). Remain flexible in your decision because it is best to have similar sized lambs in the grafted family.
  • First, head gate the recipient ewe. If she has a lamb of her own put that in with her also.
  • Monitor things closely until the ewe settles down. She is going to jump around and fight for a while when she is first locked into the head gate. It is important to make sure the restrained ewe does not injure a lamb.
  • Keep the ewe family from whom you took a lamb away in a location far away from the grafting pen to reduce communication and contact after separation. This is another important reason to graft a robust, aggressive lamb rather than a timid lamb (see below). A robust lamb will simply want to eat and will attempt to nurse from the head-gated foster ewe, but a timid lamb will often return the calls of its natural birth mother and will not want to nurse from the foster ewe.
  • Sometimes a head-gated ewe will not allow nursing. To encourage a foster ewe to allow an alien lamb to nurse you can try the following techniques.
    • Stand beside the head-gated ewe, putting a heavy hand on her back to keep her from kicking/dancing while the alien lamb(s) tries to nurse.
    • Manually restrain the ewe’s rear legs to allow the alien lamb(s)to nurse until the ewe decides to accept the lamb(s). Hobbles can be used, but the ewe can still dance, or she may simply lay down to prevent the alien lamb(s) from nursing.
    • You may need to milk the head-gated ewe and bottle feed the alien lamb(s) to ensure they get adequate milk. Remember that if the foster ewe freshened more than 24 hours earlier, you should either milk the natural mother or another newly freshened ewe in your barn who still has colostrum. It is paramount that the grafted lamb receives adequate colostrum.
    • Try to avoid feeding an alien lamb milk replacer. Ideally, an alien lamb should only nurse or be fed milk from the foster ewe. Over time, the alien lamb will begin to smell familiar to the foster ewe, and she will bond more quickly and stronger to her grafted lamb.
  • After a minimum of 24 hours, we let the ewe out of the headgate and check for acceptance.
    • If the foster ewe does not butt the lamb and allows it to nurse from the side, she does not need to be returned to the headgate, but the family should be jugged for a minimum of 3 additional days.
    • If the foster ewe butts the alien lamb more than once or twice or doesn’t allow it to nurse from the side, she immediately goes back into the headgate for another 24 hours. This process continues daily until she accepts the alien lamb as her own grafted (adopted) baby.
  • Things we will try during the acceptance-testing phase with stubborn ewes:
    • Distract the ewe with leafy loose hay or a small handful of corn or fresh grass in one corner of the jug.
    • Take away the lamb she “likes” for the first few minutes after release
    • Take away both lambs for a couple of minutes and then only reintroduce the alien lamb to see if she accepts it
    • Stand close to the ewe inside the jug to “warn” her not to cause issues
    • Bring a dog into the barn just close enough to annoy the ewe and enhance her instinct to protect her lambs

We have found that the size of the alien lamb is not always as important for grafting success as is the personality of the lamb. A tiny, but tough lamb will stay in the fight and figure out how to either win the ewe over or learn how to get what it needs, even if the ewe does not entirely accept the lamb.

Timid lambs are much harder to graft. Timid lambs are typically created when they get knocked around too much at some point in the process (an example is a badly mismothered lamb, or a failed slime grafted lamb that was left in too long). We try hard not to allow lambs to get knocked around and become timid during any part of the process.

Grafted lambs will learn how to dart in alongside another lamb and steal the teat to nurse before the ewe discovers it is not her “favorite” lamb. Others learn to nurse from behind the ewe. An alien lamb must participate in the grafting process and have the fortitude to NOT give up. Once a ewe allows the alien lamb to nurse satisfactorily, we considered it an “adopted” lamb. We paint the foster ewe and adopted lamb(s) before releasing them onto pasture so we can monitor progress and return them to the head-gate pen if necessary.


By: Vince Pope




Print Friendly, PDF & Email