How to Care for Bottle Baby Lambs
When a mother sheep cannot care for her lamb, or she refuses to care for her lamb, the job rests with the owner. These lambs are often called bummers, bunters, or bottle babies. Raising them is hard work.
The Basic Care of an Orphan Lamb
Occasionally you may have success grafting the lamb onto another ewe, this is something to try if another ewe has given birth and lost the lamb, or had only a single. Never give a ewe more than three lambs to care for. Even then, two is much better as with three a young ewe will have a hard time keeping track of them, and may sit on one, in addition to having a harder time producing enough milk.
Take care to keep the lamb dry and warm. In some cases this may mean bringing it into your home. Ideally though it should remain in the barn with company of other lambs. The best situation is where a mother is simply too weak to care for her lamb or has not produced milk, but is not pushing it away. I myself have had a situation like this. The mother ewe bonded with her lambs but could not feed them. She provides all other maternal care with the exception that we are bottle feeding her two lambs.
Sometimes you may find a mother simply gets overwhelmed caring for her lambs, and after a few days, one or more of the lambs looks poorly, standing hunched up and generally not thriving. In this case you should watch to see if the ewe is letting the baby suck or not. If she is, then perhaps you need a vet check for the lamb. Otherwise you may just need to supplement the baby by bottle feeding it.
The first and most important thing is to ensure your lamb gets Colostrum, this is the mothers first milk. Colostrum contains the first antibodies and it is very important that the lamb get some within the first 18 hours after birth. It does not have to be their very first drink.
Colostrum can be obtained by milking the ewe, by milking another ewe who has also just given birth, or by purchase. If you have several ewes, you might even want to purchase Colostrum before hand and store it. Colostrum may be purchased from a Veterinarian, or Veterinarian supply store, or some livestock feed stores. It may come frozen or powdered. In an emergency powdered calf colostrum is acceptable. If the lamb is not sucking, Colostrum can be fed by gently squirting it into the lambs mouth with a syringe. Use caution, if you go too fast you risk it entering their lungs. When the lamb is sucking, it can be fed in a bottle.
Unless you have enough sheep milk (as from milking a lactating ewe), you will need to purchase proper lamb milk replacer. This is a powder you can purchase at your livestock feed store. Do not use calf milk. If lamb milk replacer is unavailable look elsewhere, or get goats milk replacer as an emergency.
You can also buy bottles and nipples from your livestock feed store. I like the kind of nipple that attaches to 750ml pop bottles. If you don't have a bottle and nipple on hand, use a syringe or even a turkey baster at first. If you need emergency formula, as the case where it is late and stores are closed, you can use canned evaporated milk, adding a wee bit of molasses will give the lamb extra energy.
Bottle feeding is tricky at first because the lamb will not understand the milk is coming from you. It is their nature to look for a nipple from their mother. Pick up the lamb and hold it in one arm. Then your hand to pry open its mouth and put the nipple in. When I use the plastic pop bottles as bottles, this enables me to gently squeeze some milk into the lamb if it is too week or confused to suck. After a few days the lamb will start to understand what is going on and will be able to drink normally from the bottle while standing.
In a day bottle lambs need about 5 oz of milk per pound of weight. You can figure this out and then break the feedings down to multiple times per day. In the first 24 hours you will want to feed around the clock, usually every 2 hours in the day, every 3 at night. Then to make your life easier, the lamb will be okay over night if you feed as late as possible, and again as early as possible. With the other feedings 3-4 hours apart throughout the day for the first week. The water used to make the formula should be warm, you can test it on your wrist to make sure it is not too hot.
As your lamb gets bigger it will eat bigger meals, but less often. After about 1 week your lamb can be fed every 5-6 hours. You can reduce this so that at 4 weeks of age it only is feeding twice a day. Of course as you reduce the number of feedings you need to increase the feed.
Your lamb should also have hay (or grass) after a few days of age. Lambs normally start to eat by watching their mother. You can teach your lamb to eat by picking grass or hay with your hand, or by having it with other lambs who are eating. Lambs can also have lamb ration feed, a crumbly product you can buy at a feed store. They wont understand that it is food so you may have to put their faces in it. Of course, when introducing any new food it is best done slowly so you do not overwhelm their tummies.
Lambs should have fresh water too, but be careful that the bucket isn't one that a playful lamb will fall into!
If your bottle baby lamb was kept in the house it is important to get it out with the other sheep as soon as possible. Even if you have to keep it in a pen with some of the more gentle ewes and their lambs. Sheep need to bond with other sheep, and if they are not accepted into the flock at a young age, it will be very hard for them later.
Proper care and a good start should help your lamb to survive. Good luck with your little bottle lambs, they are typically friendly and will follow you like a puppy, making for a good pet later on.