News & Advice

Rearing Orphan Lambs

Aug 26, 2016 | Dry stock, Dry stock animal health & welfare, Sheep

With the bad spell of weather during the early lambing period, the hang over effects of facial eczema (FE) and the grass availability pre-tupping, we are seeing more than the usual amount of orphaned lambs. Some ewes with liver damage from FE are struggling to cope with the physiological stress approaching peak lactation, and they are succumbing to metabolic issues, leaving lambs to be hand reared. Conversely a large number of triplets have also been reported this season.


In a recent study by Beef 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. 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.


Lambs are best housed in covered pens with straw or untreated sawdust bedding.
Pens must be 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 per day for 2 weeks then 150g per 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 they are 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 5 In 1 vaccine at 5 weeks old, repeated at around 12 weeks old when they are given their first drench.
If scabby mouth is a problem it can become very severe in orphan lambs and the 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 is brought about 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 and conjunctivitis will require prompt antibiotic therapy to prevent spreading of infection. Contact your nearest Anexa 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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