Few shepherds plan for bottle lambs. We get a lot of people asking about them — because watching bottle lambs feed is so heartwarming — but few people realize that they’re also a LOT of work. In the first 24 hours of life, a lamb nurses about every 2 hours. At this point, the lamb is drinking colostrum, the critical first milk that provides immunity to many of the microbes that can be a danger in those first weeks of life. The shepherd has no choice about feeding colostrum — without it, the lamb will die. Without enough of it, the lamb may not survive or it may grow so slowly that it cannot become a productive flock member. We plan on about a half gallon of colostrum for each bottle lamb, and getting it is tricky since it’s considered to be ‘liquid gold’ among livestock producers.
Once the bottle lamb moves beyond colostrum (after 24 to 48 hours), we slowly make the switch to milk replacer — but feeding is still labor intensive, at least once during the night and about every 2 or 3 hours during the daytime. After a couple of days, we begin to space these feedings out, pushing to 4 hours between and then eventually giving up the nighttime feeding. Moving too quickly will stress the lamb, risking illness or death. Resources are wasted if you feed too often. The milk replacer must be dumped after 24 hours, and it takes time and energy to heat the bottles, get them all out to the barn, and feed the lambs.
This year we have seven bottle lambs. Yes, seven. We didn’t plan it; it just happened as lambing progressed. When Heavenly had her twin ewe lambs, I made a conscious decision to supplement both of the girls with bottles because Heavenly had milk on only one side of her bag. I know from experience that a ewe can usually feed twins on one side at birth, but problems develop as the lambs grow and require more milk than one side can produce. My thinking was to supplement both of the girls, but Heavenly and the ewe lambs had other ideas. Little Rachel, only hours old, happily took to the bottle from the very first feeding, but her sister Rebekah had no interest at all. In a very short time, Heavenly was nudging Rachel towards me at every visit to the barn; Rachel became my bottle lamb, while Rebekah happily fed from her mom. It was a lot of work, but I finally got Rachel down to only three feedings a day. And then came the rest of the bunch.
I knew that Gabby might not be able to feed her lambs this year. She hadn’t produced lambs for several years, but the last time she did, we couldn’t get the milk down into her teats. Her lambs that year — had they lived — would have become bottle lambs. I bred her again this past fall in continued hopes of getting a daughter to add to our flock. I was willing to deal with bottles if that was part of getting another of Gabby’s daughters. Luckily, Gabby carried her twins to term and blessed us with a ram lamb (Rave) and a very dark ewe lamb (Raven), both of whom became bottle lambs at birth.
Surprisingly, within 24 hours of the birth of Gabby’s twins, Hope went into labor and delivered triplets. She has never had problems with feeding her lambs, but when I went to strip out the natural plug at the end of her teats, I could get no milk. I tried and tried, since she had a huge bag full of colostrum for her triplets — but it was not to be. In that short span of time that included the Gabby’s and Hope’s births, our number of bottle lambs increased from one to six. I was back to every-two-hour barn visits to feed out those bottles.
As I slowly worked to get the six lambs onto some kind of schedule in that first week, I started to notice that Kiera’s smallest ram lamb, Riggs, always looked hungry — and if I offered him the remnants of a bottle after feeding the others, he always sucked hungrily, downing 8 to 12 ounces at a time. He was born only a day before the others, and as I came to know him better, I realized that the problem was not lack of milk or even a lack of desire by Kiera to feed her twins. No, Riggs was hungry for an entirely different reason: he was intimidated!
Riggs’ brother, Rizzo, is an assertive young ram who takes the milk that he assumes is his. Since we breed for gentle and respectful rams, every once in a while we get one that is quite soft and timid in nature — and that was what I saw in Riggs. Even when I offered him a bottle, he would only take it if I held it very still at arm’s length and made no eye contact. He’d slowly come forward and gently suck at the nipple, but if anyone in the vicinity moved or looked at him, he would immediately back off. Needless to say, my heart went out to this hungry boy, and I began to bring out a bottle just for him. My bottle lambs now numbered seven.
With so many lambs looking for their bottles at the same time, it was nearly impossible to feed them all before I had to be back out in the barn with more bottles. I could only hold two bottles at a time, and with all of the hungry-lamb frenzy as I entered into the mixing pen, it was hard to get any of them to latch on for long. Any lamb lucky enough to score a nipple was soon knocked off of the bottle by another hungry lamb determined to get some for themselves. Riggs had no chance until the very end of each feeding, long after the bottles had started to cool. I knew I had to do something different, and I could see two possible solutions: either offer them milk via a bucket with multiple teats OR continue to bring bottles, but find a way to mount them so that every lamb could find a place at a nipple. In the end, I decided on the latter.
Although a bucket works well, the milk loses its warmth fairly quickly in cold weather. This is an advantage in avoiding spoiled milk but a disadvantage when it comes to feeding lambs. In my experience, lambs will drink the milk very well when it is warm but less well when it begins to chill. If the bucket is out there for the whole day, the lambs try to drink as much as possible when it first comes out, but then the rest is wasted as they shun the cold milk. I really want good growth in these lambs, since many of them will be joining our flock. Good early growth tends to go hand-in-hand with good overall growth and a nice, big adult size — all things we look for. I decided it was worth it to make up individual warm bottles if it meant better growth and health for the lambs.
This year’s bottle lambs all lined up at the bottle racks, sucking down their midday bottles this past Sunday. Since this photo was taken, Riggs (in the blue coat) has decided he much prefers the last slot on the left to avoid the crush of the rest of the lambs.
As a result, I bought bottle racks that we’ve mounted to the panels that frame the mixing pen. I take seven 16-ounce bottles of milk replacer out to the barn four times each day (changing to three times a day this Sunday) and as I enter the barn, my bottle lambs all jump up from whatever they might be doing and run towards the barn entrance. After closing the door behind me, I load the seven bottles into the seven racks lined up just inside the barn door, and each lamb races to grab a nipple and start sucking. Inevitably, one lamb can’t find a free nipple, so I help by carrying them to the empty station, where they immediately grab the teat and start drinking. Riggs typically claims the nipple on the far end, after all of the rest have lined up and started at their bottles. This way, he isn’t bothered by the shoving and bouncing of the rest of the lambs as they maneuver into position.
It takes me about 20 minutes to make the 28 bottles for the day and about 10 minutes to heat up the seven bottles for a feeding if they have been chilled in the fridge. Believe it or not, it takes the lambs only about 1-1/2 to 2 minutes to down their 12 to 16 ounces and walk away. (I actually timed it yesterday because I couldn’t believe how quickly they gulp their milk!) We’ve finally made it to the point where bottle feeding is no longer my focus of the day, but it’s been a long time coming. I don’t think people realize what’s involved when they excitedly request that we “make a bottle lamb, because they are just so sweet!” Yes, they are very sweet. But they’re also a terrific amount of work. Thankfully for this year, that work is mostly behind us.