How to Take Care of Lambs
Taking Care of Newborn Lambs
Having bred sheep for over 30 years, I now raise a very old and rare Dutch variety called Drenthe Heath Sheep, or Drents Heideschaap in Dutch. Usually the ewes take very good care of their own lambs, as this breed still stands very close to nature and natural behaviour. But sometimes I do have to step in when, for some reason, the ewe won't or can't feed her lambs by herself.
Not all breeders will take care of a rejected or abandoned lamb. Some say that if a lamb has been rejected by its mom, there must be something wrong and they get rid of both. I don't do that, because there are so many (sometimes external) reasons why ewes won't take care of their lambs. I always give a ewe a second chance to prove that they can be a good mom. If she rejects her lambs a second time the next year, then I know she's not a good mom and I don't breed the ewe again.
A Lamb Is Born
How Do Ewes and Lambs Recognize Each Other?
When a ewe is giving birth, she makes these special noises that sound a bit like snoring. She is talking to her offspring inside. Once the lamb is born, they both make noises. Each lamb and ewe have their specific noise or voice, and that's how a ewe and her lamb will recognize each other in the midst of a big herd. They also recognize each other's smell. Put another lamb in front of a ewe and she will push it away, in not a friendly way. Our ewes have no pardon for lambs of other ewes and will even take it up their horns and swing it in the air.
Within a few hours however, the lambs learn to stay with their moms and keep out of the other ewes' way. In our breed, it is almost impossible to let a ewe raise a lamb that's not her own. In some other breeds this is often done and then one doesn't have to bottle-feed an abandoned lamb. But our ewes are normally very ruthless and will injure or kill a strange lamb if it's getting too close to them.
Some Reasons a Ewe Might Reject Her Lambs
- The ewe has no motherly feelings. It sometimes happens a ewe has no motherly feelings. When a ewe is really, really nasty to her lambs and won't have them near her, then I won't breed with her again.
- Delivery caused the ewe a lot of pain. A young ewe connects birth pain with the lamb and doesn't want it near her. I had this happen once. The young ewe had had a very hard time delivering the lamb, but as I couldn't be sure if it was that or the reason above, I decided not to breed with her again.
- The ewe is too young. If the ewe is too young, she might not know yet what to do with a lamb. This happens quite often when breeding with ewes in the same year they have been born. At least it happens quite often with the breed I have, because this breed matures slowly, like wild animals. I never breed with ewes in the same year they have been born.
- The lamb is sick or weak. There can be something wrong with the lamb. Most ewes sense that and don't bother anymore. Of course you can try to keep the lamb alive, but I don't do that. If the lamb is not good, I'll put it down. No use raising weak animals.
- Something is wrong with the lambs teeth. This causes pain when it's nursing. Lambs are born with teeth in the lower jaw, but they are covered with a soft layer of skin so they won't injure mom's teats while drinking. Sometimes this skin does not cover all of the teeth and then it hurts while the lamb sucks the teat.
- The ewe can be sick. Sometimes ewes suffer from inflammation of the udder, could have a bad udder, or the afterbirth won't come out and becomes infected. In any of these cases, you should call your vet because the ewe could die a painful death.
- The lamb has been touched by strangers. Never let family or friends pick up a newborn lamb. Picking up a lamb too soon can change it's smell and cause the mom to not recognize her own lamb anymore. Even if you're the owner/breeder, be careful not to pet your dog before you pick up a lamb.
- Something scared the hell out of mom. Take precautions that no dogs can scare the mom while giving birth to her lambs. Once, at a friend's place, a ewe had just given birth quite close to the fence and the neighbour's dog suddenly came running and barking. The ewe was so scared that she didn't dare come close to her lamb anymore.
When Ewes Steal Lambs
If you breed lambs, you may encounter this strange situation. Here is what happened on my farm. Maybe hearing this story will prevent you from losing a lamb.
I once had a ewe who used to steal lambs from other ewes, long before she was due to deliver her own. The first time it happened, I thought she had given birth overnight. But then later that day I heard the lamb bleating, and discovered the "mom" didn't even had an udder yet. I thought something was wrong with her so I took both ewe and lamb home and started to bottle-feed the lamb (artificial colostrum first). Two months later, when all ewes and their lambs had been moved to another meadow, I was doing my daily inspection tour when I discovered a tiny little lamb in the grass. I thought, 'That can not be, all of the ewes have given birth.' Then here comes this ewe, the one I mentioned above, and I saw that she had a big, swollen udder. It was only then that I realized that this was her lamb and that she'd stolen the other from another ewe's set of twins right after it was born.
The second time she had stolen one of twins that already were about two weeks old. She wouldn't let it go and was fighting off the lamb's true mom. It took me quite a while and a lot of running around before I could catch her. I had to take her away from the other ewes and kept her in the barn until she delivered her own babies three weeks later.
Sick Ewe and Triplet Lambs on the Bottle
A Story of Triplet Rejected Lambs
This year I had an ewe who was carrying a heavy load. I reckoned she had twins inside. The last week of her pregnancy she could hardly stand up, she tripped a lot over her own feet, but she still ate well.
The birth went very well and quickly, but she didn't react at all to the screaming triplets that had come out. She didn't reject them either, but she turned away when the lambs tried to find her nipples. So I checked if everything down there was in order, only to find that this ewe only had a very small udder with hardly any milk in it. Last year there had been no problem at all with this ewe.
I called the vet to find out what could be the matter. He told me that probably due to the space these triplets took inside the belly, there wasn't enough room for the stomach to contain a lot of the necessary food. So in fact this ewe was starving herself to death, giving all she got to her triplets inside. After the birth, she was weak and needed all her strength to keep herself going.
This was the first time I have encountered this in 30 years of breeding.
It Is Very Important That a Ewe and her Lamb Have Time to Bond.
Especially with a breed like ours, which is still so close to nature, you have to be careful to not disturb the bonding between the ewe and her newborn lamb. The ewe might not object to her normal caretaker (the breeder), but she might object to strangers touching her lamb. Strangers have a scent she doesn't know. If a stranger picks up the lamb and holds it for a while, the lamb may take on their scent. The ewe might not recognize her lamb anymore and will reject it. Sometimes I let friends watch a birth, but always from a distance.
It is essential to give the mom and child the time to bond. When they're giving birth out in the field, a ewe will always find a place away from the other sheep, somewhere in a corner of the meadow. She will stay there sometimes for several days, until she thinks it's time to introduce her lambs to the other sheep. Some ewes are so protective that they will attack a ewe or lamb that comes too close. This year even I got a head bang from a ewe when I tried to see if her lamb was a boy or a girl. "Hands off!' she said. "It's mine."
Caring for a Rejected Lamb
Give the Lamb Colostrum Within 24 Hours of Birth
All lambs must drink a certain amount of colostrum right after birth and within 24 hours, or they will be vulnarable to all kind of diseases and will die sooner or later.
The colostrum contains all kinds of stuff to protect the lamb from getting sick. You can get colostrum either by milking the ewe, or if that doesn't work you can use colostrum from cows or goats. You can do that beforehand and keep it in the freezer in small cubes so it will take not too long to melt.
Nowadays you can also buy artificial colostrum. Each breeder should have two or three packs on hand when the lambing season starts, just to be on the safe side, because ewes often lamb at night.
If you don't have all of this on hand, another possibility is the following recipe:
- One quart fresh raw cow or goat milk (use good quality pasteurized cow's milk if raw is not available).
- Two egg yolks.
- Two teaspoons of glucose or lactose (if unavailable, use sugar).
- One teaspoon cod liver oil.
- Mix well and give to the lamb in small portions.
This formula however doesn't contain any of the antibodies that lambs need. As lambs don't get immunity via the placenta before birth, they have to ingest it through colostrum. This formula might, however, keep the lamb alive until you can get colostrum from elsewhere.
Coaxing Another Ewe to Adopt a Rejected Lamb
Most ewes won't accept the lamb of another ewe, but sometimes you're lucky. It can only be done if you have two or more ewes delivering lambs at about the same time.
Getting another ewe to adopt a lamb that is not their own is difficult. There are several methods you can try, but you have to be very careful because you could end up with another lamb you have to bottle-feed. If the ewe you have in mind gets too stressed, she might reject her own lamb too, and that is not what you want.
Some used methods to get a lamb adopted:
- Smear the rejected lamb in with the birth fluid of the other ewe and put it in front of her. She might think she delivered twins. There is a small chance you can deceive the ewe. It has never worked for me though.
- Some breeders who have a stillborn lamb remove that lamb's skin and put the skin over the rejected lamb. Put the lamb in front of the ewe who lost her lamb. I have never tried this.
- There are so-called "adoption sprays" which you use on both lambs, both the rejected and not rejected in an effort to deceive the mom. This has never worked for me.
Sometimes you get lucky and a ewe is overwhelmed by motherly feelings and reacts very strongly to the sound of a distressed, rejected lamb. This happens sometimes with ewes who had lambs before and it happened to one of mine just at the right time. The ewe voluntarily adopted a rejected lamb at the moment she was in labour of her own lambs. I was so happy, I could have kissed her for taking the upcoming bottle-feeding load off my shoulders.
If You Have to Bottle-Feed
When a lamb cannot nurse off a ewe and the breeder decides to bottle-feed, the bottle-feeding must continue for at least two months, but preferable a bit longer. It is time-consuming. I only do it if I think the lamb has a fair chance of growing into a healthy sheep. To raise a weak lamb at all costs is not good for you, the lamb, and certainly not for your herd if you want to keep the breed healthy and strong.
Newborn lambs drink little amounts, but often, so as a start you have to feed them every two hours. You can either use a beer bottle with a rubber teat or you can buy a special lamb feeding bottle. I've used both during the past years, but lately I prefer the feeding bottles. They allow you to know exactly how much the lamb is drinking because they have a graduation scale printed on them.
A healthy lamb does not necessarily need to be fed at night. It will survive the night without and is all the more willing to drink early in the morning when it's hungry. If you have a very weak lamb, then you must feed it at night too. For the first days, it can be a bit difficult to get the lamb to drink from the bottle. You have to keep trying over and over until he or she grasps it.
Feeding schedule for the first week: Every two hours from early morning to late evening.
- 8:00 a.m.
- 10:00 a.m.
- 12:00 p.m.
- 2:00 p.m.
- 4:00 p.m.
- 6:00 p.m.
- 8:00 p.m.
- 10:00 p.m.
If you go to bed late, then give the last feeding at midnight.
- After the first two weeks, feedings can be spaced to every three hours, but don't forget to increase their portion a bit too.
In the second month, the lambs will increase their portions but drink less often, just like human babies. Slowly increase the hours between feeding times, the lamb will be drinking a much larger portion than in the beginning. Follow the instructions on the package and be a bit creative. If a lamb keeps bleating, it's not getting enough milk.
Keep Lamb Warm and With Other Sheep
Some breeders separate an abandoned lamb from the other sheep and put it in a small box under a hanging heating lamp. I never do that, because then the lamb is isolated and when it's not among its own kind. It is possible for the lamb to forget it is a lamb and not a human being, because it will associate itself with its caretaker.
Back in 2001, when the foot and mouth disease exploded over Europe, I had an abandoned lamb. We were not allowed to move any sheep, but instead of letting it die in the meadow I took it home to bottle-feed it. As I was almost the first person it saw, the lamb thought I was her mom and she followed me everywhere. It was of course cute to see, but when I brought it back to the meadow after two months, the other sheep scared the hell out of her and she ran away from them, screaming for help.
She would run to people passing by the meadow, screaming her lungs out and following them all the way to the end of the meadow. It took her several weeks to learn to be a sheep again. Whenever I came into the meadow, she would come up and walk right in front of me, making me fall over her. In the end I had to sell her, because I kept stepping on her.
From then on, I have kept abandoned lambs in the company of other sheep. For the first week I keep them in the barn until the lamb knows that her food is coming from me. They learn fast and within a day or two they will come running over when you call them.
Using Powdered Milk
Like you would use special powdered formula for a human baby, there's a special powder milk for lambs. It containes all the minerals and vitamins that lambs need. Be sure to buy the right one, not milk for calves, and never use cow's milk that humans drink.
Normally shops that sell farm animal food supplies will surely have this milk replacer available. Don't buy the small bags; buy ake the big ones right away because you will need more than one until bottle-feeding is done.
The bags include directions for how to dilute the formula with water. Follow those directions, or your lamb willl get sick. The first poop the lamb makes should be black. After that the color will be bright yellow and it can be very sticky stuff. It may stick to the lamb's tail and legs. Watch out that the tail doesn't get "glued" to its behind, or the lamb won't be able to get its poop out. You can clean its behind with a cloth and warm water.
A Baby Bottle Nipple Is Not Suitable for Lambs
So, why can't I feed a lamb with a baby bottle? Well, the difference lies in the length of the nipples. Women have short nipples and ewes have long teats. Using a nipple made for a human baby, the lamb won't be able to get a good grip. You can try it if nothing else is available, but it won't be easy for the lamb drink enough milk. In almost every store that sells farm animal supplies, you can find special lamb nursery bottles with the right size nipples.
Bottle-Feeding my Lambs
Lambs Must Be Bottle-Fed for at Least Two Months
If you want the lambs to grow up healthy, you need to bottle feed them at least until they are about two or two and a half months old. By that time, I myself give them one or two bottles a day (or fill the milk bar once a day) until they are three months old, but that's because our breed is a slowly growing breed.
At the age of about two weeks, the lambs start to nibble on grass or hay and when they grow older you notice that they start chewing their cut too, but they still need their milk.
When you watch ewes, feeding their lambs, you can see that the ewe gets less and less patience when the lambs want to drink. They too decrease their feeding times slowly until they refuse to let them drink at all. Lambs of two months old still need some extra food and you can give that in the form of lamb concentrates.
One main different thing in the food need of our breed to other breeds, is that our breed needs copper in their minerals. If they don't get it or don't get enough, they get very sick in the long run. So a bucket with minerals containing copper is essential for their health. Every piece of meadow is different in how many natural minerals and vitamines it containes. Providing them as an extra to the sheep is a must and they won't overeat themselves, they just take what they need. Some years they don't empty one bucket, other years they eat 3 of them. One never can tell.
If you should obtain a few ewes/lambs, please make some inquiries about their food/mineral/vitamines needs, because they can be quite different for different breeds. What one sheep breed needs, could well kill another.
What if There Are More Lambs to Feed?
In case you have more than one lamb to bottle-feed, look for multi-teat milk bar feeders. You can teach multiple lambs to drink from these feeders. It takes some time, because some lambs are smart and some are not or are just stubborn.
The down side of above milk bar feeders is that you don't have any control about the amount of milk each lamb really drinks. The strong lambs will take the biggest portions and the weak lambs often get not enough. I therefor replaced my multi-teat milk bar feeder with a multi bottle milk bar feeder which gives you exact control over how much every lamb gets.
Last year (2015) due to circomstances, I had to bottle-feed 8 lambs at the same time. In the video below you can see how I managed that.
Creative Breeders Feeding Abandoned Lambs
Not all donkeys will allow this! It just happened that this sheep breeder also breeds donkeys and this one was willing to let the lambs drink if the owner held her head.
I'd Rather See This During Lambing Season
Feeding Supplemental Mix
Sheep mix is supplemental food for pregnant ewes, as they need extra nutrition to carry out their pregnancy and to produce more milk. You can feed lambs a special supplemental mix from the age of three to four weeks.
Sheep mix consists of grained dried nutrition including all the minerals they need. It really helps the lambs to prepare for winter. Lambs born in late summer especially benefit from sheep mix, because by the time they start eating grass, the grass is low in vitamins.
The length of time you have to feed sheep mix depends on the condition of ewes and lambs. I stop feeding sheep mix when the grass is growing again in spring and the sheep and lambs can eat the new grass.