Lambs and Bottle Babies
Updated: Feb 28, 2022
So, if you raise lambs, you are likely going to end up with bottle babies. Sometimes things happen. Sometimes lambs are literally orphaned, although that has been really rare on our farm. We have had moms get mastitis in both udders and can't feed their babies. Usually, for some reason, mama just doesn't bond with one or more of her babies.
Lambies! And 3 of these are bottle babies. OH NO!
This can be more common with mamas of multiples. Sheep go into a kind of trance when they give birth, and sometimes, they may forget they gave birth to their other babies. Sometimes they just get confused.
There are some things you can do to fix it. You can rub the abandoned lamb with after birth, to make it smell right to mama again. Sometimes we milk the mom and feed the baby from that milk, again, so the lamb smells right to her. We often also will hold mama still and let the baby nurse.
I speak from experience, that nursing sometimes hurts. And little lambies can have sharp teeth sometimes. They get really engorged prior to birth. Sometimes one latch-on is all they need to realize that nursing actually feels good and will relieve that pressure.
Yeah, udders get really full prior to birth! This is Onyx hours before having twins.
But even when we do all that we can, sometimes mama just doesn't get it. Ugh. So out come the bottles. With triplets, we actually always ASSUME that one lamb will be abandoned, so we prep, at the least, to supplement if mom can't produce enough milk. Sometimes we are lucky, and triplets can be fed well by their own mom.
Yay for webcams. This looks like a video of Larry bottle feeding a lamb. But watch the mom on the right. She keeps stepping away from one of her lambs. This little dude is not a bottle baby.
So let's walk through the protocol. When lambs are born, we get prepped to weigh them, tag their ears, name them - of course, and spray their navels. I'll show you...
This is our lamb geat - scale, ear tags, tag applicator, betadyne, navel spray, bag for taking weights and carrying all the gear! Lamby bottles and gloves for when it's cold!
The weight is just for tracking purposes in my crazy spreadsheet of lamb data. The ear tags are for ID purposes. We are well past having a few lambs each year and being able to memorize all their color patterns and who they belong to, so ear tags ID them. And we get a quick visual as to what year they were born (we change colors each year, and the year is part of the ID number on the tag) and ladies get tagged in the left ear, and rams on the right - so it's another way to make a quick ID on the lambs. The navel spray helps dry up their umbilical cords, as this is an entry way for disease until is dries up and falls off.
This is how we weight our lambs!
Once lambs are born, which often happens over night, we determine the mama, get them sorted into a nursery stall. This is where we can weight, tag, etc. It's also where we observe for a while to make sure that mama is letting them all nurse. If not, we check her udders. We milk each teat to make sure the wax plug has been removed, and we check for mastitis. We have treatments for mastitis, and sometimes we can save the udder in time, sometimes we can clear it up by the next lambing. In some cases, we lose productivity on that udder for good. That makes mama a bad option for multiples in the future. The observation part, we look for a few things. One, of course, it looking to see if the lamb has latched on. Sometimes you can't get near without the mama losing her mind, so even from a distance, a wagging tail is a good sign the lamb has latched.
Another thing to look for is a cold, hungry lamb. This hunched position in this lamb is one of a cold, hungry baby. When we see this, even from a lamb that seems to be nursing, says baby isn't getting enough milk. Sometimes this turns into just a supplement situation, sometimes it's a full on bottle baby. But we have to jump in ASAP. Lambs have to be warm to nurse. If they are really cold, they can't digest their food, and there is no point in giving them a bottle. A quick test - put your pinky finger in their mouth - if the mouth feels cold, you have a cold baby and it needs to be warmed up ASAP. This is when lambs come inside!! If the mouth is warm, you can try a bottle. It's weird and foreign to a little lamb and it takes some practice. But a hungry lamb WILL nurse from a bottle.
This is a cold, hungry baby whose mama won't let him nurse.
So if mama just can't or won't take a lamb or two - in come the bottles. Lambs require colostrum in their first 24 hours. This promotes proper brain development and sets them up for a great, healthy future. We keep powder on hand to make this if a mama is a failure. After 24 hours, they move to lamb replacer. We always have these things on hand.
A few years ago, we had a string of triplets, a quad mama that couldn't feed any of her babies and just insanity. We had 7 bottle lambs. I moved from hand feeding, to using bottle cages to hold the bottles (I can hold 3 at a time, using my knees!) to a nipple bucket. The nipple bucket is a life saver! We actually have 2, each with 4 nipples on it, so we can feed lots of babies.
When babies are really tiny, they prefer warm milk. That's how it comes from mama. As they get older and move vibrant - they care less about the temp and more about EATING. Right now, we are still in warm milk phase. Eventually, the bucket really works, as you can fill it up in the morning, and they can nurse when they want to all day long.
It takes a few days, but we can train the lambs to drink from bottles mounted to cages in the fence
Using the bottle cages and the nipple bucket starts to distance us humans from the food experience. If we continue to hold bottles for babies their whole life - they associate us with food. For ram lambs, this can be a problem as they have no natural fear of us, and they don't respect personal space. So we like to take us out of that equation.
I use the nipple bucket at night, so lambs can nurse whenever they want. Also, the cow can't get to it and mess it up! And I can watch on my camera to make sure the lambs are nursing, or sleeping with full tummies!
So right now, we have 4 bottle babies. UGH! These are not new moms, but newish moms. One has mastitis. The others have zero excuse! But the babies are really catching on. The bottle racks are working, the nipple bucket is working. They are all well fed, bouncy little lambies. Some are trying to sneak off other moms, and more power to them if they are successful!
The fun thing is, they will start nibbling grass at any time. As time goes on, they don't really increase their milk consumption, as they do start eating solids - and it sort of fills in their needs as they grow. Eventually, milk mostly becomes their source of hydration, instead of their complete source of food. And then eventually, they are big enough to reach the hydrant, they stop needing milk. And then we get to chill out and enjoy them!!
This is a happy lamb, with a full tummy!
So until then, let's make sure Freddy, our silly steer, doesn't chew the nipples off the bottles or the bucket. He's aiming for it. But I'm an engineer - I keep spare parts around for just that kind of trouble!