This question has plagued sheep farmers since the invention of the “bottle baby.”
Sheep, wonderful creatures that they are, come equipped to feed two lambs. That does not mean they produce only two lambs. Many a ewe will surprise her shepherd one frosty morning with triplets, quads, and even the occasional litter.
Three lambs plus two nipples always creates competition. Often the smallest lamb is the weakest, and the weakest doesn’t get enough milk.
So, now what?
The answer many times is to take a lamb away. If you’re lucky, you can graft it onto another mama. We’re usually not lucky.
When all else has failed, the bottle baby is born. Who among us hasn’t had one of these little bundles of barn smells roaming around the kitchen?
The question is, which little lamb should follow you home? Which should stay with Birth Mama?
Which One Do You Choose?
Triplets are rarely a matched set. This means you have options.
Choose a lamb based on when you want to wean. If you want your ewes dried up as soon as possible like in a twice-per-year lambing operation, take away the runt. If you want to stop bottle-feeding as soon as possible, take the large lamb. It’s that simple.
Forget the old wives’ tales!
“Take the largest lamb. It has the best chance of survival.”
“Take the smallest. It’ll probably die anyway.”
“Take a ram. You were going to send it to market anyway.”
“Don’t take a ram. Bottle-fed rams are dangerous.” (This one should be considered at times- I’d never bottle feed a ram I intended to keep.)
And on, and on, and on.
Just The Facts
I’ve found the largest lamb in the set will have its teeth grow in first. The smallest will be the last, and the mid-sized in between.
Little lambs will “gum” solid food, but don’t swallow. (If they do swallow, they tend to get constipated.) Once a lamb can chew somewhat and start to eat solids, this encourages the rumen to develop. The earlier the teeth come in, the earlier the rumen develops fully. Ergo the first lamb with teeth will be the first to support itself and no longer need milk. That’s why you choose the lamb based on when you want it weaned.
The Answer For Most
Most of us still operate on the notion that each ewe should lamb once a year. We’re not worried about drying off the ewes as soon as possible. We are worried about getting the lambs out of our hair.
If this applies to you, take the large lamb. They can be weaned the soonest.
This saves you money.
According to The Sheep Book by Ron Parker1, research at Agriculture Canada’s Animal Research Institute has found that lambs need to be weaned between three and six weeks of age. They’re too expensive to feed on replacer any longer. But sheep milk replacer is better than goat or cow’s milk, second only to the real thing.
So, by taking the largest lamb to be hand raised, you save on milk replacer and midnight feedings.
How I Found The Answer
When I started a sheep supply store, I got ambitious. I wanted to raise bonus lambs and see if I could learn something. My grandparents always had a few when I was little. I wanted to find out why some of their bottle babies did poorly and others grew like weeds. So I started the Bum Lamb Project.
Through this I was given 11 lambs to raise.
With these lambs in my kitchen and demanding my constant attention, I really noticed their different eating hab its. Since some of the lambs were from ewes that died or sets of quads, I had some lambs that were full siblings. The difference in their teeth, how it related to their size, and what they ate was right in front of me.
The Bum Lamb Project
I take unwanted bonus lambs and raise them. I don’t pay for the lamb, but the producer gives up the chore of feeding the lamb and the cost of the milk replacer. Those who donated the first 11 lambs called it “a service I provide.” Many of the first lambs were rams, so when I weaned them, they were sent to the auction market to help pay for all the milk replacer.
In the future, I hope to keep some to adulthood. I want to study them to see if there are differences in production between bottle-fed adults and those raised by sheep.
I’m always ready to accept more lambs. They don’t have to be winter born. If you have a lamb you would like to donate, contact me. I can’t pay for them, but I buy all the milk replacer and raise them myself.
EDITOR’S NOTE: YOU CAN HELP THE RESEARCH
The Bottle Lamb Project has given preliminary results. That is, Ms. Gunther has some theories with supporting evidence. Without donated lambs, there can be little progress.
If you want to help, and have computer/web access, visit the Bum Lamb Project website listed at the start of this article. On the website, you will find information about donating lambs. If donating lambs isn’t for you, there are forms on the site you can fill out about your lambs. That way more data can still be accumulated. Every little bit helps.
Ms. Gunther can also be reached at (908) 369-4088, but calls on this line should be for donations only.
Ms. Gunther also operates the only “sheep-only” livestock supply house in New Jersey. It’s called The Folded Flock. Look for her booth at the Salem Wool Growers Festival, and at the Garden State Sheep Breeders Festival and the Hunterdon County Fair.
1Parker, Ron. The Sheep Book. Swallow Press / Ohio University Press. Athens, Ohio. c. 2001