We have been raising animals on our farm for over 10 years—sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs, ponies, donkeys, and a pig.
Shepherding and Bottle Lambs
Shepherding includes many things, like building fences, feeding your flock, shearing, and sometimes (more often than you want): raising a bottle lamb. A bottle raised lamb is generally something that we try to avoid. Not only are they a lot of work, expensive, and stressful to worry about the little one, but it usually means there was some problem that led to the lamb being pulled from its mother.
But there are good sides, too. A bottle lamb will always remember that you were once their "mama" and they will be affectionate to you their whole life if you continue that bond. It can be frustrating when a sheep that was once bottle fed wants to snuggle, when you are trying to get things done, but then it is nice to know that they have such a positive view of you.
Reasons for Bottle Lambs
There are many reasons a lamb will need to be bottle fed. Inexperienced dams sometimes get confused and ignore the lamb. Also, udder problems are a common cause, especially if the dam has twins. Sometimes a ewe doesn’t have the strength after a particularly hard labor to care for her newborn lamb. Death of the dam, confused lambs, weak or sick lambs, and scenarios you cannot possibly predict can all result in bottle feeding a lamb.
The first bottle lamb on our farm was simply abandoned by her mother. Luckily, we found the little girl in time. This lamb was so tiny and weak, and I wasn’t sure if she was going to make it. We slowly nursed her back to health, and she became known as “Baby” and is currently the oldest sheep on our farm.
The Best Milk Replacemer for Your Bottle Lambs
Lambs require a high amount of protein, fat, calories and calcium, and because they are small, lambs consume just a small amount of milk each feeding. To make every feeding count, the milk needs to be concentrated to provide the lambs what they need (following the package instructions will provide the right concentration).
We have always used Browns Lamb Milk Replacer with very good results. The lambs grow well and are healthy with very little digestive issues.
Never use a milk replacement that is not specially designed for sheep, this can in worst cases lead to serious health issues.
Never use a milk replacement that is not specially designed for sheep
Bottle Feeding Practices
There are numerous bottles and nipples for lambs on the market. We choose the plastic lamb bottles that come with the bottle and a screw-on rubber nipple. Though they cost more, we find that these bottles work best. The sides of the bottles are marked for easy portion measurement and the nipples can be adjusted to regulate milk flow.
You can buy some nipples that can be stretched over a regular pop bottle, but we wouldn’t recommend those. When the lamb sucks, it creates a vacuum inside the bottle and the milk doesn’t flow very well. This not only frustrates the lambs but it can cause an upset stomach. Sometimes, the nipples pop off, and there is nothing worse than seeing the whole feeding spill all over the floor.
It is important to never feed milk to lambs out of a bucket. A sheep’s udder is positioned in such a way that the lamb has to kink its head back at an angle to reach the teat. Though this looks awkward to us, the lambs head position is very important as it allows the milk to bypass the rumen (first stomach) and proceed directly to the second stomach. When a lamb drinks from a bucket (a position similar to grazing) the milk enters the rumen first. The rumen is meant to digest grass, and the bacteria found there will destroy some of the milk protein before it can be absorbed by the animal. When bottle feeding, it is very important to hold the bottle in a position so the lamb looks like it is nursing.
I have never been one to sterilize the bottles before use. Its not a matter of being lazy, though in the middle of the night I want the feedings to go as quickly as possible so I can go back to bed. It just seems to me that if a lamb can drink from an udder that is surrounded by wool, dirt and poop, then a bottle that was washed with soap is unnecessary. I think in the case of animal rearing, too sterilized can be more detrimental to their immune system than a little bit of "clean" dirt.
Integrating Bottle Lambs Into The Flock
Another important aspect of raising bottle lambs is integrating them back into the flock. Bottle lambs are very bonded to you as their mother and would be perfectly content following you around for the rest of their life. But this might not be of everyone's best interest.
The best way, we find, is to keep the bottle lambs separate from the flock while they are little and require regular feedings. As soon as they are old enough to be fed only twice daily, we move them back with the flock. Unfortunately, they will spend the first few days baaing for you. A strong, sturdy fence is essential at this point as the little guys will climb, crawl, squirm or jump through just about anything to stay with you. Be persistent, otherwise you will end up with a whole bunch of sheep in your house.
Ways to Avoid Bottle Feeding
There are other ways to solve lambing issues other than bottle feeding the lamb. If the problem is that the dam is confused or inexperienced and so rejects the lamb, put mom and baby in a small pen immediately after birth. This is often enough to help the mom and her lamb to sort things out themselves.
To help minimize the work load during lambing, we have started selling bottle lambs as soon as we think they are stable enough to survive. Bottle lambs make excellent pets, and we are always glad when we find good new homes for our "bottle-babies".
It is always a good feeling to see a little lamb who had a rough start pull through and rejoin the flock. That being said, we are very lucky that we haven’t had a bottle lamb in two years. I guess that makes up for the years when we had a lot more! Whether it is raising a bottle lamb or keeping our sheep on pasture, we try to care for our animals as naturally as possible to keep them happy and healthy.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Bellwether Farming