How often to feed a newborn lamb

There are several reasons why newborn lambs may need to be fed by human hand. They may be weak and unable to feed by themselves. Their mother may have died or may be sick, or it may reject her lamb or simply not have enough milk to feed it herself.

If you’ve been charged with feeding a newborn lamb, you’ll want to know how often it should be fed, as well as best practices for meeting its nutritional requirements.

Let’s take a closer look at what you can do to successfully feed a newborn lamb and understand how often to do so.

First steps and frequency of colostrum replacer feeds

The first step in successfully feeding a newborn lamb is to ensure it is warm and dry. This is important because it will not be able to digest milk otherwise.

Start by ensuring that it has a clean, warm and dry environment to be fed in. Clean straw should be provided as bedding and replaced daily as necessary.

An orphan lamb will most likely be damp and cold due to heat loss and an inability to control its own temperature.

Dry the newborn lamb off with a towel, rubbing it for stimulation, and position it in front of a heater. This process should take around 30 minutes.

Lambs should receive a colostrum replacer in the first 12 to 24 hours of life. Colostrum is the first milk that a ewe produces and is packed with antibodies, protein, minerals and other nutrients to give the lamb the best start in life and help build its immune system.

You should give the newborn lamb at least one feed of 50 mL of colostrum replacer within the first 12 hours of life. Ideally, it should receive three feeds of 100 mL of colostrum replacer over a period of 18 hours.

Best practices for milk replacer mixing

After the colostrum replacer, you can move on to the milk replacer.

The first thing to do is to ensure that the milk replacer you’re using is suitable for newborn lambs.

Depending on breed and birthweight, a typical regime would be to give the lamb minimum 0.5L for small lambs up to 1L for larger lambs of prepared milk replacer split into four to five feeds on days 1, 2 and 3.

For days 4 to 7, offer 1 L divided into four feeds.

From day 7 until the lamb is weaned, give 1.5 L divided into four feeds to start with and then split this amount into two feeds until the lamb is weaned.

When preparing the feed, take care to mix the milk replacer properly. Add half the water at a temperature of 40 to 50 degrees Celsius. Weigh the correct amount of milk replacer and add it to the water. Stir for 1 to 3 minutes until the mixture is smooth. Add the rest of the water and feed to the newborn lamb at a temperature of 40 to 42 degrees Celsius.

How to start feeding

The first thing you will need to do is ensure that the lamb has a sucking reflex. You can do this by placing a clean finger in its mouth. It should start to suck and its tongue should feel warm.

Note that the lamb should stand while being fed while you hold its head up.

You can use a baby bottle with an artificial teat that provides good airflow. Check that the teat’s hole is not too big to prevent bloating through over gorging. To do this, turn the bottle upside down. If the milk flows out without restriction, then you will know that the hole is too big.

To encourage the lamb to feed, you can press the teat of the bottle against its lips gently.

Do not try to feed the lamb if it is unable to swallow or is unresponsive, as this can result in infection, pneumonia and other serious health consequences.

Ensure that you give the lamb short breaks of 5 seconds to stop it drinking too quickly.

Frequency of milk feeds

To mimic a lamb’s natural feeding pattern, offer small and frequent feeds. Offer the newborn lamb a feed every 2 to 3  hours during the day for its first 2 weeks. At night, you can feed every 4 to 5 hours.

You can work out the amount to feed every time by dividing up the total amount of milk needed per day. As a rule of thumb, lambs should receive 10 to 20 per cent of their body weight in milk once every 24 hours.

Keeping equipment clean

It’s imperative that you keep all mixing and feeding equipment like mixing buckets, bottles and teats scrupulously clean to get rid of milk residue and avoid infections.

Wash teats and bottles in cold, clean water, rinse with boiled water and allow them to air dry.

Mixing buckets need to be washed once a day in warm water and detergent, then rinsed with boiled water.

If you are rearing a group of lambs, ensure that dung is removed from their pen or shelter regularly. You must also clean the area regularly with a disinfectant effective against the bacteria and viruses that affect lambs.

What about weaning?

If the lamb under your care has made it to weaning age, then you’ve done a good job.

You can start introducing your lamb to grass and hay at approximately 8 weeks old. Or you can work out the appropriate time by multiplying its birth weight by 3 and waiting for it to achieve this weight.

Lambs should be fully weaned by 13 weeks, when they can continue to enjoy a diet of hay, grass and water.

Earlier weaning is possible if the lamb is introduced to solid starter feeds (pellets or crushed grain mix). Often a drizzle of molasses on top is useful to encourage uptake. The starches in starter feeds will stimulate rumen development quicker than relying on forage diets. In these systems lambs can be weaned as early as 6-8 week with careful management – talk to successful rearer to ensure best outcomes with early weaning programs.

A good foundation to raise strong and healthy lambs

Feeding a newborn lamb may be hard work, but it’s a rewarding process as you see the animal grow and become stronger day by day.

Knowing the basics about feeding newborn lambs — including how often to feed, how to look after equipment and understanding their differing needs as they grow — will give you a good foundation to raise strong and healthy lambs.