Warm-Milk Feeding for Orphan Lambs

Back in the 1970s when I started raising sheep, I soon learned that to be successful I would need a workable, efficient orphan-lamb feeding system. After studying the methods used to feed veal calves, I adopted a warm-milk feeding system.

My goals were to use hand-feeding labor efficiently, have healthy orphan lambs, use the least amount of milk replacer and have a smooth transition to dry feed.

The obvious question is why use warm milk. Some of the important reasons: 1) warm milk is natural temperature, making nipple acceptance better; and 2) warm milk feed efficiency is higher—lambs don’t over consume milk. Hence enterotoxemia problem eliminated and lambs are weaned off milk with 12.5 lbs. or less of milk replacer.

One of the key features of my system is having two feeding schedules: an 8-hour schedule with feedings at 6 a.m., 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.; and a 12-hour schedule with feedings at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The 8-hour schedule is used only to start lambs on bottles using about 12 oz. per feeding. Lambs are then shifted to 12-hour feedings using 16 oz. per feeding. This allows the shepherd to get a good night of sleep between the 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. feedings. This works well if only one person is involved with both lambing and orphan raising.

By trial and error I have found that using commercial lamb starters (18-20% protein) with no hay works the best. Using higher protein starter can cause enterotoxemia and the hay leads to poor growth rates. If lambs overeat starter, they will back off milk for a feeding. By observing a lamb that is not interested in milk and has full belly, you will know it is full of feed.

It is important to offer no water during milk feeding as this will only slow rate of gain. When lambs are regularly consuming feed, dilute milk to half strength for a few feedings and then go to straight room-temperature water until lambs are drinking non-teat water.

Four lambs per 16 square feet on a slotted-floor pen is ideal, but a higher density is workable. Lambs have access to free stalls for feeding. This prevents robbing of milk by more aggressive lambs. Dry feed is offered at the front of the stall, which is well lit. Stall fronts can be one side of creep area for lambs on ewes since both groups are on the same starter feed.

Bottle holders are of my own design and allow for quick install and takeoff. A typical feeding rotation would be to install 12 bottles in the first three pens, then return and dismantle first pen, using those bottle holders for the fourth pen and so on.

It’s surprising how little time it takes a lamb on 12-hour feedings to slurp down 16 oz. of milk. Sick lambs can be spotted at the 12-hour feeding interval and oral medication can be delivered through milk feeding.