Pregnant ewes from a few years ago.

One of the reasons we raise American Blackbelly (ABB) sheep is because they are so easy during lambing season. They tend to give birth during the day, and rarely need assistance. We’ve lost one ewe to a very large baby she was too small to birth, and helped pull one lamb last year, that didn’t need much help other than a tug (we only intervened because the baby had been partially out for about 30 minutes). And that’s in all the births we’ve had starting in 2013. Probably several hundred lambs in going on 9 years.

We do, occasionally, end up with a bottle baby. It’s often to lambs born early in the season, when its still cold. I always think mama looks around and thinks, “There’s no grass. I can’t feed two of these.” I don’t think we’ve ever had a ewe outright reject a lamb when they only had a single baby in 9 years. And we do always wonder if mama doesn’t know something we don’t, in terms of the long term health of the lamb, when she rejects one of them.

One of this year’s bottle babies.

When this first happened, I scrambled to learn how to feed these little guys. Stories abounded of people keeping lambs in the house in dog crates and feeding ever 3 hours in the middle of the night. The lamb is completely imprinted on humans and the human is exhausted with the feeding schedule. But these were standard Suffolk or Dorper lambs. The ones people often say are just “trying” to die for the first few weeks. Blackbellys are stronger than that. They have been bred to survive, not “saved by human intervention” for hundreds of generations.

So I came up with my own system specific to bottle feed to this breed. And I’ve just realized I’ve never really written about it. It’s time to remedy that.

So…you have a bottle baby. Mom is pushing the baby away and not letting it nurse. Here’s what we do.

First, it helps to have what you need on hand ahead of time. I keep colostrum, a bag of milk replacer, and small “pritchard” nipples that fit on water/pop bottles on hand at all times, just in case. This will run you around $40.

If you haven’t seen mom feed at all (we give them a few hours – and honestly, because we’re not watching our flock 24/7, I’m sure babies are often 8 hours old or older by the time we realize they are being rejected), this baby needs a warm belly full of milk and colostrum as soon as possible. Colostrum is the first milk the mom produces, and its full of extra fats, nutrients and antibodies that a newborn baby needs. You can buy artificial colostrum at your local feed store. The only brand I’ve used is Durvet Lamb and Kid Colostrum Powder. It’s the only one I’ve found locally that is specific to lambs/goats. I’m a proponent of finding milk replacers that are breed specific, as I think they are better formulated to that specific type of animal, but an all purpose colostrum is better than nothing if that’s all you can find or you have multiple animal types you might need to feed.

The instructions on the Durvet colostrum state “Administer to newborn goats or lambs as soon as possible after birth: one teaspoonful in milk or milk replacer. Continue administration of product as long as on milk replacer or milk.” Of course, this makes NO sense. One teaspoon in how much milk? And “as long as on milk replacer”? That’s up to 8 weeks. There’s no reason to feed colostrum for 8 WEEKS. I finally called the company and asked for clarification. Their advice: 1 tsp per 4 oz of milk. I now have it written on sharpie on the container.

It’s my understanding that some brands of artificial colostrum aren’t mixed into the milk, but instead are a stand alone product. Follow your package directions. Colostrum should be fed for up to the first four days of feeding. So I just mix up a couple of pounds of milk replacer with colostrum added, and when its gone, I switch to just the milk replacer.

I also try to specifically buy lamb milk replacer rather than a generic all purpose brand. The general instructions are 4 oz of milk replacer (it smells like vanilla) to one pint (16 oz/one pound) of water (your brand may vary – follow directions on package). I mix it by weight because I have a scale (though you can do this by volume). I just use very warm tap water. It’s easier to mix if you add the milk powder to the water rather than the other way around. I like to mix it ahead of time and let it hydrate for an hour or so before feeding if I have the time. I have zero experience feeding actual milk (cow/goat) to lambs. So, if this is your situation, read up on what you need to do. I do know that the fat/protein content will differ between species. Lamb milk is VERY rich and is higher in fat/protein/carbs than cow or goat milk.

Probably my all time favorite lamb baby picture. Ginger and her lamb, 2014

I start with a pint of mixed milk replacer, and as the lambs get bigger and eats more, I mix up to 1/2 gallon at a time (lets hear it for endless mason jars). Store mixed milk in the fridge until needed, just like regular milk, and give it a shake before pouring. Heat the amount needed in the microwave (don’t microwave the bottle, heat separately and then pour into the bottle). You want the milk to be about 110 degrees. You get a feel for how long this takes after a while. For 8 oz, from fridge to heated is 45 seconds in my microwave. It’s nice to have a thermometer. I find if the milk is too hot or too cold, they don’t want to drink it, though they are less picky as they get older.

Pour heated milk and/or colostrum into your bottle and cap with pritchard nipple. Note, these nipples come closed. In my experience, its better to split the nipple down the center with an exacto knife lengthwise, rather than just snipping the end off. That way they don’t really open much until the nipple is in the baby’s mouth, making for less mess.

Lambs need about 15% to 20% of their body weight in milk replacer daily. So for example:

5 lb lamb X 16oz / lb= 80 oz lamb. 20% of 80 oz (80 x .20) = 16 oz daily.

Remember, ABB’s are a lot smaller than conventional sheep. They are often under 5 lbs at birth. So its better to go by their weight initially if you’re new to this. They will not eat as much as a conventional newborn lamb would.

Catching them up and getting them fed initially can be a bit of a challenge. I normally resort to holding the lamb in my lap and prying their mouth open with my finger to get the nipple in initially. But it doesn’t usually take long for them to get the hang of suckling, and then they start to recognize you as the source of food. Within about 2 days they hear your voice and come running. I don’t try to feed them more than they want. There’s normally a good long suck initially. And then they will turn their head/spit the nipple, likely in order to take a breath. I offer it to them a second time, and they will often take a smaller second drink. But if they are turning their head away a lot after that first drink, I figure their little bellies are full and so I don’t fight them. They know when they are done. Listen to them. (Note: I have zero experience “tubing” lambs. I’ve never done it. I hope to never have to. I’d want to learn it in person rather than on YouTube if I needed to learn it). Some people swear by nutri-drench for babies as well, but I’ve never used it.

Here’s my feeding schedule.

  • Day 1 through 3: every 3 hours (6 feedings a day, with an 8 hour break at night)
  • Day 4 through 7: every 4 hours (4 feedings a day, with an 8 hour break at night)
  • Day 8 through 21: every 6 hours (3 feedings a day, with an 8 hour break at night)
  • Day 21 through 35: every 8 hours (2 feedings a day, with an 8 hour break at night)
  • Day 35 until weaning: (1 feeding per day)

Additional thoughts/notes:

If a 5 lb lamb needs 16 oz of milk replacer a day, and is fed 6 times, that’s 2 2/3 oz per feeding. Which is about 1/3 cup. Not a lot. Any milk that doesn’t get eaten during a feeding I just dump back into my jar in the fridge for the next time (that stuff is expensive). I always try to have more in the bottle than they will drink in a sitting, just in case they are especially hungry. So as soon as they finish a bottle, I up the amount I offer them the next time.

When I’m not feeding, the lamb is WITH THE HERD. I don’t bring them in. I don’t keep them in a dog crate. I don’t feed during the night. I have never lost a lamb to starvation. We have a heat lamp secured in a horse stall with straw so they can get out of the cold if they want to, and they often do figure this out and seek out this warm dry spot when the weather is especially bad. This may not work with conventional sheep. In fact, it probably WON’T work with conventional sheep. But that’s why we don’t raise conventional sheep. I don’t want them imprinted on me. I want them to understand and be part of their herd. I don’t have a hero complex. The less they need me the better!

Our goal? For sheep to be sheep!

I’m not convinced mom is feeding ever 2-3 hours in the middle of the night. I think, mostly, everyone is bedded down and sleeping. When I had my first bottle baby, I asked myself, what am I willing to do and not do to save this animal. We sell weened lambs at about $75 a piece. A bag of milk replacer plus colostrum plus nipples will run you around $40. A 7 lb bag of milk replacer will make 28 lbs of milk. Inevitably I need more than one bag to get a lamb to weening age (I generally go to 8 weeks). So while I’m not hard-hearted, I am also in business and costs DO factor into our decisions around how we handle bottle babies. We also tend to have a lot of ram lambs (often way over a 50/50 split) and the ram lambs are also often the bottle babies. They aren’t likely to be kept long term and earn their keep through future offspring. Taking on a bottle baby means I’m tethered to the farm like glue for 8 weeks, and especially in that first month. All of this went into that calculation to not feed these babies in the middle of the night. And its worked!

I know there are milk “bars” or “buckets” where you can train your lambs to feed at a station that you just add room temperature milk to. And this might work for ours. But its so rare for us to have more than one bottle baby at a time that it just hasn’t been worth investing in the infrastructure. Some years we don’t have any bottle babies at all. And because the lamb is with the herd, the whole herd would have access to the milk station. My guess is that this would be a disaster.

This year, we lost our oldest ewe after she had triplets. She was the offspring of Cocoa, our heard matriarch, who was half ABB and half Soay – the Soay is what brought in the tendency to have triplets). She had successfully raised triplets in the past. But this year she rejected two of them. We had a get away trip planned, and I didn’t want to strap our house sitter with feeding less than a week old lambs 6 times a day, so I just put an ad on my Facebook page looking for someone wanting to take on these “bummer” lambs for free. Within 24 hours, they had a new home and I didn’t have to feed them for the next 8 weeks. A few days later, the mama passed away (which is likely why she rejected two – she knew she wasn’t up to it). When we did the math, we realized she was 8 years old. That’s old to give birth to triplets. (We need a retirement home for our old ewes where they don’t end up bred). So the third baby (all three were rams) want to another family who was looking for a friend for a bummer they already had. And my thought was, why haven’t I done this sooner, lol. Both families had kids, and the kids are loving raising these lambs. Everyone is going great. It’s been a win/win for everyone.

The last of the triplets at his new home. These babies are all living their best life, and the best part? It’s not at my house, lol.

Meanwhile we have 4 lambs who are happily thriving with their mamas. It’s an H year (if we name animals, we name them all with the same first letter – starting with A in 2014, so 2021 = H). Two that were born within a few days of each other are best buddies, and chase and play with each other all of the time. One, who we know is a ewe, we’re calling Hannah. The other, who we’re not sure of, I’m calling Hamilton, because I recently saw the Broadway production on TV, and now I’m obsessed!

And we were able to get away to Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort in Leavenworth for a few days. First time we’ve left the farm since September. Lets hear it for all the mama’s in the world!

Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort. Plenty of snow even though it was 40 degrees and rainy. Highly recommend the place. It’s like summer camp for adults. Eco friendly, no TV’s in the rooms, no cars outside of the parking lot, which is away from the cabins, hot tub, restaurants, bar, library…it’s just a lovely get away.

© 2021 Miles Away Farm, where we’re miles away with being down with baby season (we have 5 more ewes to go this year, and have chicken eggs in the incubator) but now that the weather is warming up and the grass is starting to grow, the pressure is off!