Orphan Lamb Feeding Guide

Lamb feeding is an essential aspect of livestock farming. Lambs require a highly nutritious dietary plan in order to grow and develop a strong immune system. In fact, their survival is dependent on the type of feed offered. Ewe mortality is sometimes experienced by farmers, leaving lambs in need of colostrum. Colostrum is the thick rich milk available from the ewe in the first two days after lambing. Note that colostrum is necessary for the well-being of lambs and so its unavailability is often life threatening. Farmers are therefore left with the task of ensuring that orphan lambs are provided with adequate colostrum of superior quality. Although this sounds like a daunting task, it is fairly easy and highly rewarding. There are various ways that can be used to ensure that orphan lambs are provided with enough feed. To add on, a feeding schedule is of the essence hence farmers have to possess relevant know how on orphan lamb feeding.

Type and Amount of Feed

The life expectancy of lambs is dependent on the quality, type and amount of feed provided. Their immune system is relatively poor at birth, and so they are highly susceptible to disease and infection. Diseases are the leading causes of mortality in new born lambs. Even upon survival, their productivity tends to be low. For this reason, there is need for farmer to master the skills required for the maintenance of healthy livestock. Liquid feeding is required for the first weeks until lambs are about 3 weeks old when they can tolerate solid feeds. During this period, colostrum makes up animal feed. According to various agricultural research, the following provides the basis for orphan lamb feeding:

Day Feed Amount No of feeds/day Total Amount/day
1 Colostrum 75-100ml 4/5  
2-7 Milk/milk replacer 60-90ml 5 300-450ml
8-14 Milk/milk replacer 120ml 4 480ml
15-21 Milk/milk replacer 200ml 3 600ml
22-28 Milk/milk replacer 250ml 3 750ml
29-35 Milk/milk replacer 300/450ml 3/2 respectively 900ml
36-42 Milk/milk replacer 600ml 2 1200ml
Until Weaning Milk/milk replacer 600ml 2 1200ml



Orphan lamb feeding is sometimes achieved through hand feeding. This is often practised when a lactating ewe is unavailable or for some reason unable to take on the role of mothering the orphan lamb. In some cases, ewes are removed much sooner or can desert the lamb. If this occurs within the first 24 hours of birth, the farmer takes on the role of providing colostrum to young livestock. Lambs that do not receive colostrum have a survival rate that is below 50% as they tend to be unthrifty and more susceptible to diseases. When feeding orphan lambs, it is recommended to feed colostrum 75 to 100 ml 6 hourly for 3 feeds. Initially, lambs should be trained using a bottle to ensure they can suck properly. Once the lamb is able to drink from the bottle (this may take one or more feeds), it can be trained on a multi-suckle bucket or similar. For large groups of lambs, it may be more efficient to upscale from these multi-suckle buckets to automated feeders that can provide a continuous supply of milk to the group, saving time on manually mixing and feeding milk. If the lamb is very small, bottle feeding may not be an effective method. Under such circumstances, orphan lamb feeding should involve providing less colostrum in frequent intervals until the lamb gains a strong suckling reflex. Small feeds every 3-4 hours should suffice.

Farmers can obtain colostrum from ewes that have recently lambed. An estimate of 250ml of colostrum can be acquired without negatively impacting animal health. A good point to be aware of is that quality colostrum is produced within the first 2 hours of lambing, hence it is the ideal time to milk livestock. The colostrum can be frozen and stored in small amounts for use during the lambing season; but prior to feeding orphan lambs, it needs to be thawed slowly to ensure the antibodies are not damaged. Experts vouch for thawing frozen colostrum in water at 37oC. A popular alternative in the agricultural community is to use colostrum from freshly calved cows. Artificial colostrum can be developed using 680 ml cow’s milk, 1 beaten egg, 5 ml cod liver oil and 10 ml glucose. Home-made colostrum does not contain antibodies needed for healthy lambs so supplements must be offered.


Feeding orphan lambs is usually ensured through adoption, also referred to as fostering. This basically involves transferring the mothership role or allowing another ewe to take on the feeding role. As previously mentioned, this should be done within the first hours of birth for the development of a strong immune system therefore protecting the young livestock from diseases. Ideally, the lamb should receive 10% of its bodyweight in colostrum by 24 hours after birth. Colostrum can be sourced from a ewe shortly after she lambs. It is better to source colostrum from healthy ewes in the same flock. Older ewes that have had a greater exposure to diseases and infections are not recommended foster mothers.

There are a number of techniques used for fostering lambs. Some fostering techniques such as crates involve severe restriction of ewes, and these should be used as a last resort as they are less effective and can result in poor welfare for the ewe and lambs. Farmers need to be aware of effective methods that can create a bond between the foster mother and the orphan lamb. These methods should not compromise on the welfare of bot animals. A suggested method is wet fostering. This is when lambs are moved between ewes at birth, when they are still wet. For slightly older dry orphan lambs, this can be achieved by covering them with foetal fluids from the foster ewe.

Although less popular in most areas around the globe, another fostering method involves skinning the dead lamb to create a ‘jumper’ for the foster lamb. The tail is left on and the skin is made to cover the anus of the foster lamb; it should also be well fitting to ensure successful orphan lamb feeding. This technique is practised by some farmers in cases where the ewe has lost its lambs. To add on, this unconventional method has proven to be effective in numerous situations. However, ewes may continue to butt the lambs. It therefore becomes necessary to put them on halt thereby preventing severe damage. When doing so, ensure that the length of the halter allows the ewe to feed, drink and lie down normally.