A Practical Approach to Colostrum Feeding Lambs

 

 

 


In my last blog post I outlined our program for managing newborn multiples. The key to the program is being very routine in colostrum feeding within the first twelve hours of life. What I would like to do in this post is get a little more specific about the colostrum itself.

When Alyssa and I took over the sheep flock from Alyssa’s parents, we were milking ewes with extra colostrum and freezing it in icecube trays for those lambs that needed it. Anyone who has ever milked a sheep knows how labour intensive this can be. If you read a technical resource on neonatal lamb care they will give you the same spiel every time; that the best colostrum comes from the lambs mother, second best from another ewe in the flock, third best comes from a ewe from a different flock and so forth down to cow’s colostrum at the bottom. Now, this is not a technical document, this is intended to be one farmer giving hard learned advice to another farmer. I’m sure the vets and nutritionists are quite correct in their analysis of colostrum effectiveness, but they aren’t the ones squatting milking a ewe only to have her step in the pail, picking out the straw and freezing what’s left, running out of frozen colostrum one quarter of the way through the lambing season and being way beyond too tired to go milk another ewe.

The truth is, it is much better to feed lots of colostrum to your lambs that need it than to be a stickler for using colostrum milked from your own flock. That’s why we have started using dry cow colostrum from our local UFA. We have seen noticeable increases in our lamb survival since we started using it. It’s very easy to prepare and really not expensive at all considering the benefit you’ll receive.


Our first cautious step into using dried colostrum was to order a pail of LambGro/KidGro. I was quite pleased to be using what I thought was sheep colostrum. After all, sheep colostrum from another flock is ‘third best’, right? Part way through the pail, I actually read the label and realized that, despite the name, LambGro/KidGro, it is indeed dried cow colostrum. Well, that was it, I realized the colostrum actually labeled for calves was far less expensive to buy, and with the mixing instructions from the pail of LambGro I had all I needed.

Now, keep in mind, I’m no veterinarian. In fact, I haven’t even been to college, but sometimes good ideas don’t come from a textbook. All I can tell you is that I’m glad we made the switch to using cow colostrum.

Here’s a free printable version of the mixing instructions we use.

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colostrum mixing instructions

Keep in mind that birth size will affect the amount the lamb will consume. Newborn lambs are very good at knowing how much they want and have a strong suck reflex in the first few hours. That’s why we use a bottle instead of tube feeding. We find that it does them good to get the suck going and they can pull off when they’re full. If you think they quit too soon try to put them on again and if they refuse it they’re probably good. Of course, check their tummy for fullness, as that’s always the best indicator. But generally, what we mix up as ‘one feeding’ is pretty close to the right amount.


Colostrum is also much thicker than milk replacer. It can be tough to get all the lumps out especially when you’re mixing a small batch in a small container. A good whisk works well, but we discovered something that works even better. This is just a dollar store version of a piece of Tupperware that Alyssa uses in the kitchen for sauces. It just takes a few good shakes to get a nice smooth mix. I’d go for the Tupperware one next time. The markings wore off this one pretty quick and the lid leaks a little.

For more detailed information about which lambs need to be fed, and how often, check out this post about our jug flagging system.


All the best,

Miles

Our Lambing Jug Flag System ~ Reduce Your Lamb Losses For Pennies


Running Rideau ewes means lots of multiple births. This is a big advantage, but you have to be prepared to manage the extra lambs. Everyone on the farm needs to be on the same page, knowing which lambs need extra attention. 

We’ve developed a system to monitor lambs that is very effective and very simple. All it requires is some carabiners, two different colors of flag tape and livestock marking paint. 


Here’s our protocol:
RULE ONE – Any ewe with triplets or more receives a pink flag on her jug. Put the flag on the fourth rung down on the panel. (You’ll have to adjust this step if you have different style panels.) Each lamb in these pens is supplemented with colostrum at this point.


RULE TWO – Feed colostrum to lambs in flagged pens every three hours. The goal is to have the lambs fed four times within the first twelve hours of life. Move the flag up one rung after each feeding. This way everybody knows what stage each pen is at. 


RULE THREE – At some point during the first twelve hours use the marking paint to mark the lamb or lambs that you select to be fostered onto milk replacer. (I usually look for the lamb that is the oddball ie. larger or smaller than the siblings. However, sometimes it makes more sense to choose the lambs that take the bottle most easily) Focus most of your colostrum feeding attention on the lambs selected for fostering. If a lambs belly looks full and the lamb refuses the bottle, don’t worry about forcing colostrum the lamb is doing fine. 


RULE FOUR – Any ewe who has poor milk is flagged with an orange flag. If she has no milk, we give her two orange flags. Lambs in these pens must be given a very high level of attention in order to get a healthy start. Follow the same colostrum feeding protocol in these pens. If you think the ewe will be able to handle one lamb, you can leave one on her. After the remainder are fostered, keep a very close eye on the one you have left behind for at least 24 hours. Mark these ewes down for culling. 


RULE FIVE – Once the first twelve hours are complete, the flag will be on the top rung and you can foster selected lambs into your milk feeding pen. It’s much easier to foster lambs before they are 24 hours old. Their suck reflex is much stronger. 


And that’s basically it. This system has reduced our lamb mortality significantly. It gives an instantaneous reference for each person who comes into the barn. It eliminates the need for checking paper records to find lambs that need help. And when things get really busy, it’s an excellent visual reminder not to forget about these pens. 


If you have any suggestions for how you would implement a protocol like this, or any questions, please share. 

Opa’s Believe It or Not!

Here’s how it happened. I was working in the barn with Alyssa’s dad (Opa to our kids). We were installing some new water bowls in our lambing jugs. Lambing was already busy, and as new lambs were born we would put away the ewe with her new lambs in a jug. Towards the end of the day Opa was working near one of the lambing pens where one ewe had a nice little set of triplets. He brought her out of the pen, down the alley and into her 4×4 jug. We checked her milk, marked her down on the chart and, after finishing up our work, headed in for the night. 

Later that night, I came back to check ewes. From some distance away I could see the ewe with triplets. It looked like there were more than three lambs in her pen. It’s not unusual for a ewe to drop another lamb after a delay of a couple hours if she gets interrupted in the process. So, I went to check her. The closer I got the more lambs I saw. Four, five, six! Nope SEVEN! I couldn’t believe it! Seven healthy active lambs. A new record for us! We have seen six in the past, but they are rarely strong and healthy. These lambs were certainly below our normal birth weight but, considering that she had about 3 times as many lambs as our average ewe, the lambs looked amazing. She had them all up and drinking and she wasn’t rejecting any of them. 

The interesting thing is that if she had lambed out in the group pen I would have assumed that she was stealing some lambs from another ewe, but since she had the last 4 of them in an individual pen I knew they had to be hers. 

I put her out into a makeshift pen in the alley so that she would have enough room for all her lambs. In keeping with our protocol for large sets of multiples I fed colostrum to all the lambs to ease the competition pressure among the lambs and to make sure that all of them received adequate antibodies. In this case I had to put a blue spot on the lambs as I fed them to make sure that I didn’t miss one. 

The next morning she was still beautifully mothering all her lambs and everybody came out to have a look. What an exciting event. It made me think that if every ewe could manage this many lambs so well it would be great to have seven all the time, but it’s probably better if this is just an occasional surprise.