Orphan Lamb Considerations

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Sooner or later, nearly every shepherd has a lamb that needs to be supplemented. Whether it’s a rejected lamb, one whose dam has died, or simply a lamb whose dam has insufficient milk, identifying these lambs early and getting them off to a good start is essential. Other lambs at special risk include twins out of yearling dams, triplets or quads, and lambs whose dams have or have had mastitis. Start by ensuring they receive adequate colostrum at birth and then supplement with a good quality milk replacer through weaning.

It’s best, when possible, for a lamb to be raised by its own mother. It is more likely to receive adequate colostrum, experience less stress, learn natural sheep behavior and be at less risk of digestive disorders because it consumes smaller amounts of milk more frequently. If the ewe has died or has rejected the lamb, grafting the lamb to a different ewe may be possible. Sometimes it’s possible to encourage a ewe to accept a rejected lamb by using a headgate. The effort spent in the beginning is often well worth the savings in time and money for the shepherd and the health of the lamb throughout lactation.

If a ewe isn’t rejecting her lamb, but has insufficient milk, consider leaving the lamb with the dam and providing supplemental feedings. If there are multiple lambs in the litter, you may need to supplement all the lambs, although usually one or two lambs become dominant and only the smaller lambs will need supplementing. Lambs left with their dams and supplemented will experience less stress, will benefit from her attention and protection, and will learn normal sheep behavior.

Sometimes you end up with a true orphan lamb that needs to be artificially raised. If there is a chance that a lamb may need to be artificially raised or supplemented, it’s usually a good idea to introduce the lamb to a bottle right away, as it can be nearly impossible to convince an older lamb to take a bottle if it hasn’t been exposed to one before.

Bottle-fed lambs are at a disadvantage. They experience more stress and lack the protection and role model of a mother. They have increased susceptibility to parasites due to nutritional stress. Since they are fed less frequently with larger volumes of milk at a time, they are more susceptible to digestive disorders. For orphan lambs to thrive, the shepherd must meet the nutritional needs of the lamb in a way that does not disrupt the normal functioning of the lamb’s digestive system.

All ruminants, including lambs, are born with a non-functional rumen. Instead, in young lambs, nutrients and water are absorbed in the abomasum, or true stomach. The esophageal groove shunts milk directly into the abomasum by closing off access to the rumen. The rumen develops over time as it becomes populated with the microbes necessary for fermentation and digestion. This developmental process is slower for lambs fed milk and forage only compared to lambs started early on a quality creep feed.

Considerations associated with artificially raised lambs include:

  • Colostrum: All lambs need to receive colostrum in the first 12-24 hours of life. Since orphan lambs experience more stress, it’s especially important that they receive sufficient colostrum. Fresh colostrum from a mature ewe in your own flock is ideal. Ewes with singles or a large milk supply may be milked, saving enough for their own lambs, and their colostrum used or frozen to use later as needed. If fresh or frozen colostrum is not available, colostrum replacer (not supplement) for lambs can also be purchased but be aware, the quality varies widely.
  • Housing options: Leaving lambs with their dam, even if she has no milk, is usually preferable as she will mother the lamb and teach normal sheep behavior. Even orphan lambs often do better when housed with the flock. They quickly learn to come for their bottle, but will live with the flock. Watch, though, that they don’t develop the habit of stealing milk from unsuspecting ewes. If there is more than one orphan lamb, keeping them in a separate pen may be more convenient. Lambs are social animals and should never be kept alone.
  • Feeding options: One or two lambs can be fed with a bottle, especially if they’re staying with the flock. If lambs are kept in a separate pen, they can be fed with bottles, a lamb bar, a bucket feeder or Lac-Tek machine. Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the number of lambs being fed, facilities, expense and time available to the shepherd.
  • Quality of milk replacer: Only use a milk replacer labeled for lambs. A good quality milk replacer contains the needed protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, yeast and probiotics necessary for easy digestion. A milk replacer from animal protein will be easier to digest than one from soy protein. Easier digestion reduces the risk of bacterial overgrowth caused by undigested milk passing further down the GI tract.
  • Mixing: Be sure to mix the correct ratio of milk replacer to water every time. Diluting the replacer leads to nutritional stress and poor weight gain. If the formula is too concentrated, excess fluid will be pulled into the GI tract to compensate, leading to scours.
  • Sanitation: Make sure bottles, nipples, milk buckets and/or equipment are cleaned frequently with soap and water. It’s best to mix only the amount of replacer needed for each feeding. Bacterial biofilms accumulate in the equipment if allowed to sit for extended periods of time. Don’t save milk left over from a feeding; refrigerating unused formula slows down, but does not stop, the growth of bacteria. When formula is re-heated, the lamb’s oral bacteria that was transferred to the milk from the previous feeding continues to grow and is a common way to lose lambs to bacterial scours or clostridium. Also be sure to keep their pen clean, dry, well bedded and draft free.
  • Schedule: Just like human babies, bottle lambs do best when fed on a schedule. Calculate the volume needed per day and divide it into as many meals per day, evenly spaced, as you are reasonably able to feed. Lambs don’t need to be fed in the middle of the night. The number of daily feedings can be reduced and the amount fed increased as the lamb gets older. For example, when feeding three times a day, spread the feedings out every 7-8 hours (7 am, 2 pm, 9 pm).
  • Overfeeding: Ideally, lambs should be fed smaller amounts of replacer more frequently. Weigh lambs weekly to make sure they are growing and adjust the amount fed as they gain weight. Never feed more than 16 ounces per feeding. If a lamb refuses to nurse, it’s usually an indicator of indigestion from a prior feeding.
  • Digestive disorders:
    The major cause of illness and death in orphan lambs is from scours, bloat, acidosis or clostridial disease. Bottle lambs should be vaccinated early, usually around 2 weeks of age with a booster CDT 2-4 weeks later. Orphan lambs also benefit from B complex (thiamine) and Vitamin E supplementation since they are at risk for deficiency.
  • Positioning: Deliver bottle or bucket feedings in a way that mimics the normal position of a lamb nursing from its ewe. With a milk bar or bucket feeding, make sure there are enough teats available for the number of orphan lambs being fed. Competition encourages gorging.
  • Creep: Make sure orphan lambs always have access to clean water, a mineral mix, and soft, palatable hay. Offering a quality creep feed will encourage early rumen development, better growth and allow for earlier weaning. Creep feed should be fed free choice and not allowed to run out, as refilling an empty feeder will encourage gorging.
  • Sales: Some producers elect to sell their orphan lambs rather than incur the time and expense of raising the lambs themselves. Be sure these lambs have had a sufficient supply of quality colostrum and that the buyer understands everything involved in artificially raising lambs successfully.
  • Weaning: Milk replacer is expensive. While some producers have had success weaning lambs as young as 30 days old, this should only be attempted if the lamb has reached 30 lbs, is readily consuming creep feed and can be carefully monitored. When possible, feeding for six weeks or 40 lbs is a more realistic goal. Lambs fed only milk and forage do not have fully developed rumens until 50-60 days old and will not thrive if weaned earlier onto straight forage diets.


    Raising healthy orphan lambs to weaning can be a challenge since they are at a distinct disadvantage compared to naturally raised lambs. They often miss out on the love, warmth and protection of their dam, have greater nutritional stress, and may have difficulty assimilating in a group with other ewes and lambs. They’re also really cute and it’s easy to feel sorry for them. But it’s important to treat bottle lambs as the sheep they will become, rather than as pets. Behavior that is cute in a 15 lb lamb can be obnoxious and even dangerous in a 150 lb adult. To ensure a smooth transition, it’s best to provide a consistent feeding schedule, good quality milk replacer and ensure a safe, clean environment, either housed with the rest of the flock or in group pen with other orphan lambs.

A typical feeding schedule is given below. Small or weak lambs may benefit from more frequent feedings.

Age in Days

Amount Fed and Frequency

Day 1

Lambs should receive at least 10% of their body weight in colostrum within the first 24 hours. Feed multiple small meals evenly spaced throughout the day

Days 2-3

Gradually increase amount fed over the next few days to 20% of body weight. Feed multiple small meals evenly spaced throughout the day.

Days 4-14

Feed 4 times/day, approximately every 6 hours.

Begin to offer free choice creep feed and good quality soft, leafy hay.

Days 15-28

Feed no more than 48 oz in a 24-hour period or 16 oz per feeding: Feed 3 times/day (or 4 times/day if possible) and free choice creep feed and good quality soft, leafy hay.

Days 29-weaning

Begin reducing milk supplementation to 12-16 oz twice daily until weaning.

Example: Colostrum – an 8 lb lamb needs a total of 12 ounces (8 x 16 x 0.1) fed in small amounts in the first 24 hours. A 10 lb lamb needs a total of 16 ounces (10 x 16 x 0.1).

Example: Older Lamb – A 10 lb lamb needs a total of 32 oz daily (10x16x0.2). If fed 4 times/day, each feeding would be 8oz (32 oz / 4 feedings/day)

The following EAPK blogs have related information you may find useful.

Ruminations on Lambing Season

Udder Health in Ewes: Mastitis, Udder Scores and Management

Lamb Grafting Tips

Scours: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

It All Starts in the Rumen

Polio in Sheep: A Medical Emergency

By: EAPK Communications Committee


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