News & Advice

Rearing Orphan Lambs

Sep 7, 2017 | Dry stock, Sheep

With the bad spell of weather during the early lambing period, we are seeing a considerable number of orphan lambs. As New Zealand ewe productivity slowly increases, the number of triplet baring ewes has increased too. Leaving three lambs on a ewe is an option although the lambs will always be small, lamb losses are higher and the ewes do have an increased risk of mastitis, due to excess udder trauma. Lifting a triplet and hand rearing is a viable option, if a bit of time and effort is invested in the management of these lambs.


In a recent study by Beed and Lamb New Zealand, cow colostrum was found to be the best feed for orphan lambs. It gave better growth rates and fewer digestive problems, such as bloat. Cow colostrum is not available to everyone and the next best option is powdered milk, mixed 7:1 with live yoghurt i.e. yoghurt with Lactobacillus added. The yoghurt can be home made, will keep for a week in the fridge and can be used to start a new batch. Mixing yoghurt with the milk, not only reduces the incidence of bloat, but reduces the incidence of other digestive infections and stimulates the ‘good’ gut bacteria.
The following feeding plan is designed for lambs, housed in pens, with free access to meal. Any meal used must be designed for young lambs, palatability is vital and lamb meal should not contain palm kernel, tapioca or copra meal as they will not eat it. Preventing access to grass encourages meal consumption. Ad Lib, good quality hay should also be available. This plan is only a guide and in some cases the large volume feeds of over 350 ml will not be well tolerated. If the lambs bloat or scour with this regime, a return to the lower feed level is advised.


Lambs are best housed in covered pens with straw or untreated sawdust bedding, and mucked out regularly to avoid the build up of moisture and pathogens.


Healthy lambs, over 9kgs, and at least a month old can be weaned onto pasture. They should be still fed meal initially and given only a small area of pasture until they become accustomed to the extra space. After weaning off milk, the meal can be reduced slowly over 6 weeks, e.g. 250g/day for 2 weeks then 150g/day for 2 weeks then 50g/day for the final 2 weeks. In order to effectively wean at this age, lambs need access to very good quality leafy pasture with good legume content, if this is not available, meal feeding will need to be continued.

Disease issues

Orphan lambs are high risk animals and do have to be reared with care and attention to detail to avoid substantial losses. Lambs are less susceptible to rotavirus than calves but more prone to bloat. Especially high risk, are hogget lambs born to unvaccinated mothers that receive little or no colostrum.
Orphan lambs should get a 6 In 1 vaccine at 5 weeks old, repeated at around 12 weeks old when they are given their first drench. The use of 6 in 1 or Covexin 10 is recommended as Clostridium Sordellii, the additional disease in these vaccines, has been associated with bloat in lambs.

If scabby mouth is a problem it can become very severe in orphan lambs and vaccination should be instigated for the whole group as soon as signs appear.

Lambs should be checked for scouring, bloating or lack of appetite at each feed, and any slow feeders identified. Bloat is caused by clostridial bacteria and precipitated by over feeding or lack of colostrum. Adding yoghurt to milk and changing from soft to hard teats once feeding is established, are good preventative measures. Compartmentalised feeders help prevent over feeding. Treatment of bloat involves giving baking soda, oil and electrolytes.

Bacterial infections, such as navel/joint ill, pneumonia, conjunctivitis, will require prompt antibiotic therapy to prevent infections spread. Contact your nearest Anexa FVC clinic for advice if orphan lambs show signs of infectious disease.

Ref; B&LNZ, R&D Brief 146, Rearing Orphan Lambs.

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