Lambs have a very high cute factor. There are very few people who can resist saying “awwww” to any lamb under four months old. Under a month of age, they look small and defenseless; always an appealing state to humans. From then on, their antics, their leaping and frolicking, are just downright amusing; appealing to us in a different way. This is true of any lamb, but we humans are especially drawn to the bottle lambs that have bonded with us in a special way. We have replaced their mothers and it is to us, directly, that they look for nourishment, warmth, cleanliness, and affection, the latter being what heightens their cute factor. Bottle lambs like to be cuddled, they like the closeness of our voices and our body heat, they like being scratched and stimulated physically and, even in this, we have replaced the bottle lamb’s mother to some degree.
There are many reasons a lamb may become a bottle lamb. It’s mother may have died giving birth, or the lamb may have been rejected at birth by a mother drawn more to the other siblings. Some lambs become bottle lambs after the first few days of their life simply because their mothers are unable to produce enough milk, perhaps because she has given birth to two or more lambs, perhaps because half of her udder is non-productive. Then there are the young ewe lambs giving birth for the first time, who may simply have no idea about motherhood and walk away from their young. The bottle lambs that have never suckled at the nipple have not received colostrum from the mother and, during the first 24 hours of their lives, they have special needs beyond just milk. Colostrum is the thin yellowish fluid secreted by the mammary glands at the time of parturition that is rich in antibodies and minerals, preceding the production of true milk. Newborn lambs, even those destined for bottles, must have colostrum to survive and flourish.
Whatever the reason for the lamb needing to be bottle-fed to survive, most shepherds have a strong motivation to keep these young lambs alive. We keep sheep in order to, with hope, make money each year. We raise meat lambs. Everything born here is destined for the meat market, except our breeding stock and any ewe lambs that we consider good enough to include in our herd. In order to get them to market, they first have to survive.
There is no certainty in sheep, other than the fact that we will sell all saleable lambs at a certain age and/or weight. There are no guarantees with sheep either, no guarantee that each year will be profitable, no guarantee that each ewe will produce two healthy lambs. In fact, it sometimes seems as if sheep need no excuse to just lay down and die. No sane person would invest their time, energy and money into something as unpredictable as sheep without accepting the uncertainties involved. Well, I suppose there is one certainty: no-one will ever get rich by raising just a few sheep.
Each year we hope that our 35 ewes will produce seventy lambs fit for market, and each year we are happy if there are more than 35 lambs. We aim at 200% production, but reality is sometimes closer to 100%. These figures are based on the expectation that each ewe will produce at least two lambs. One of the things we do to help the ewes fulfill this expectation is to increase the protein content of their diet for approximately two weeks before exposing them to the buck. Depending on the summer grazing conditions, this can be done by moving them to a new lush pasture, or by supplementing their graze with grain. This is called “flushing” and encourages the ewe to release more eggs during estrus.
Lambing is a busy time and there comes a point in any flock where the size of the flock determines whether the shepherd has the resources to invest in keeping bottle lambs. For us, with a small flock, every lamb that we can keep alive is worth it. We have the time and energy to invest in individual lambs, a shepherd with a much larger flock of ewes may not. From birth to weaning, a bottle lamb uses approximately one 25 lb. bag of milk replacer, which costs $30.00 at our local grain elevator. Even if we had a dairy goat to eliminate the need for bagged milk replacer, the cost of feeding a goat would have to be balanced against the price a lamb brings at market. Financially, while it is prudent to keep bottle lambs, time and energy are usually what prevent the shepherd of a larger flock from raising them. They are often able to sell or give bottle lambs to people wanting one for their children to raise, or to people like us, who can just include them with our own bottle lambs.
Many people in this area like to lamb as early as possible in the year, many plan to start lambing as early as Christmas. Their reason is the price of feeder lambs at market. This price fluctuates between March and August, with the highest prices seemingly in early March when there is a shortage of lambs. I say seemingly, because there are just no guarantees with sheep. Everyone seems to try to be first to market and have their feeder lambs sold before the price drops, as it usually does. We have found that prices also seem to go up again when there is a shortage of lambs at the end of this early season. This is far more interesting to us because lambing in January brings extra hidden, but very real, costs. Heating lamps are essential to the lambs born in January in these northern climates. After weaning, lambs will need a longer period on hay and grain, as grass does not grow as early as March in South Dakota. These hidden costs have persuaded us that the few extra cents on the pound in March do not compensate for the losses or extra costs, and that the gamble on prices rising in August is one worth taking. The biggest concern is that ewes giving birth to two or more lambs in the middle of winter are more likely to need assistance with raising their lambs. Winter conditions seem to produce more bottle lambs and this cost eats into any profits.
We try not to interfere too soon, preferring that the ewe has every chance of raising her own offspring. When it does become obvious that the lamb is going to need help to survive, we bring the lambs into the kitchen, where we have a specially prepared pen made of hog panel cut-offs, measuring approximately 4ftx4ft. Usually, on being brought into the house they are in a sad state. They are already suffering from hypothermia and often dehydration, as well. Our black lab will lick them, simulating the ewe’s own method of encouraging the lambs to become active, and as she does this we will prepare warm milk replacer. The quickest way to raise its core temperature is to get some warm food into the lamb. Many authorities will state that, as newborn lambs have no body fat, it is recommended that 8oz of milk be fed as soon as possible. We have found that with seriously traumatized lambs, feeding any more than 2oz at that point risks the lamb going into shock, so we tube-feed 2oz once (a newborn lamb will have colostrum replacement mixed into this 2oz measure). We then concentrate on warming the lamb up in other ways. A warm bath, a vigorous rubbing with a bath towel, even a warm finger in its mouth till it starts sucking and will take more warm milk by the normal method, are all methods we will employ to bring a lamb to a more conscious state. Many of our lambs have even joined us for a nap on the couch so that they can benefit from our own body heat. You know when they are warmed up sufficiently when you wake to a lamb nibbling on your chin trying to suckle!
We try to intubate as few lambs as possible, preferring to take the time to teach them to suck from a bottle. We use pop bottles which easily take a nipple specifically sized for a lamb’s mouth. Lambs that have been nursing on the ewe for several days usually have issues with suddenly sucking from a rubber nipple, but we do try to teach them, even if we have to intubate to ensure sufficient nourishment. Once the lambs are used to the rubber nipples, we progress to a bucket which has nipples around the bottom. These nipples are a special type of unit that includes a ballcock so that there are no leaks. We try to do this as soon as possible so that they can feed themselves, a far more natural process, but also one that decreases the labor required and brings them closer to the day they can return to the barn. Here I have to mention another disadvantage to lambing in January, milking buckets in the barn will result in the milk in the nipples freezing. Lambs that have already suffered from hypothermia are more likely to succumb again, and it is prudent to wait until the lambs have a healthy fat layer to protect them. This means January lambs will live in our kitchen at least a couple of weeks longer than those born in April.
There are obvious disadvantages to raising livestock, especially very young livestock, in your kitchen! While the indoor pen is in use, a permanent feature in our kitchen is a mop and bucket. Though we use absorbent mats in the pen, the mats need changing and laundering frequently. I have seen no other animal that, for its size, produces so much urine! There is also an added incentive to reading the directions on the milk replacer bag, no one wants a lamb with loose bowels because of having ingested a mixture too rich for his system. Enough said on this topic, I’m sure.
We name each of our bottle lambs, as it makes it more convenient to keep track of what each has received and how each is doing. The first male bottle lamb is traditionally named Fred, and, so far, the Freds always seem to do well. Fred usually gets spoiled, too. As they are herd animals, they benefit from social interaction, so, until Fred gets company, he will join us to watch TV on the couch and run freely around the kitchen when we are in there to supervise. Once he gets company, this stops! It is not amusing to watch six bottle lambs scamper over the couch, each stopping only to leave a mess while your attention is diverted by another.
As early as one week old, a lamb will show interest in nibbling at hay and corn, given the opportunity. This natural progression is important in any lamb’s development, whether it be a bottle lamb or one being raised by its mother. We make small amounts of both available in the kitchen using dog feeders. A ewe will start weaning her offspring between a month and six weeks of age, with a bottle lamb we will try to aim at that same goal. During this process we will keep a keen eye on the bottle lambs to ensure no further setbacks in the lamb’s growth and development. Milk replacer for lambs is more expensive than grain or hay, but losing a bottle lamb as a result of early weaning is a complete waste of effort and money. Bottle lambs have usually returned to the barn by the age of two weeks (regardless of the state of our sanity!) and their weaning is accomplished by gradually reducing the number of milk feedings.
Each year we build a creep pen in the barn. This is a small pen to which only lambs have access. In this pen they have free access to both corn and hay without competition from the mature sheep. We also feed our bottle lambs their milk in this pen so that they gradually become part of the flock. We hang heat lamps in the creep pen to encourage all lambs to use it. In a remarkably short time the only way to recognize the bottle lambs is by their response to a milk bucket. Reaching this point is our goal and marks our success in raising bottle lambs.
Apart from time and effort, the only real investment in a bottle lamb is that one bag of milk replacer, which costs approximately $30. Each bottle lamb will require one bag to reach weaning age. If we had a dairy goat (which we will next year), only one goat would be needed to feed all our bottle lambs. The expense of feeding that one goat would be far less than the cost of just two bags of milk replacer. It is perhaps a thought for those who keep dairy goats, but not sheep, to relieve local shepherds of their bottle lambs and raise those lambs for market with no extra financial investment. A feeder lamb at market weight (70-90 lbs) can bring more than $1.25 per lb, if marketed at the right time. It can also be a wonderful opportunity for a child to not only learn responsibility, but also to reap the financial rewards of raising their own livestock without the burden of a flock of sheep. It is worth considering.