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Colostrum Help Saves Lambs

By Jesse DeGroff

Anyone who raises sheep knows lambing season can be a difficult time for ewes, vets, and sheep producers alike.

Keeping newborn lambs alive and healthy is essential to the success of the entire sheep production operation.

Unfortunately, things don’t always happen the way we plan them to, and certain aspects of lambing seem beyond the control of even the most experienced flockmaster.

It’s hard to put up with stillborns-even worse when lambs are lost due to bad weather or sickness. That is why educated sheep producers minimize risks by careful attention to newborn nutrition, particularly colostrum intake.

What Is Colostrum, And Why Is It So Important To Lambs?

Colostrum is the “first milk” produced by all mammalian mothers, including ewes, immediately after birth.

La Belle's sheep-formula colostrum stays good for three years with no special storage.
La Belle’s sheep-formula colostrum stays good for three years with no special storage.

Colostrum is rich in nutrients, such as protein and fat that promote growth and development. It’s also the newborn lamb’s only source of antibodies to provide immune protection, neutralizing bacteria and viruses to prevent infection.

At birth, newborn lambs don’t carry any protective antibodies, because antibodies do not generally cross the placenta from the mother to the fetus. Instead, the health, survival, and performance of newborn lambs is greatly dependent on the ingestion of colostrum.

Depending on their birth size, lambs require between 6-16 ounces of colostrum-10% of their weight in colostrum-within the first 24 hours of life. The ability of the newborn lamb to absorb the antibodies in colostrum is at its peak within the first few hours of life and decreases over time. The value of getting even a few ounces of high-quality colostrum into the lamb within the first two hours after birth cannot be overemphasized.

Which Lambs Need Supplemental Colostrum?

All newborn lambs need colostrum, but not all ewes adequately produce it. Flockmasters are able to assess the colostrum status of the ewe by checking for signs that might indicate an increased need to supplement, such as:

  • Excessively thick colostrum
  • Small udders
  • Slow colostrum flow at stripping
  • Multiple births

It is also important to observe the health of the newborn.

Supplemental colostrum has a very positive effect on the survival and vitality of lambs that won’t suckle.

Supplemental colostrum has a strong positive effect on physically weak or orphaned lambs, too.

This is why it has become common practice among producers to freeze any and all surplus colostrum they can salvage for use in supplemental feeding at a later time. Of course this is a limited resource, because healthy ewes normally produce only about 24 ounces of colostrum. Further, unsuitable storage and/or improper thawing can greatly injure the activity of the protective antibodies in colostrum.

Alternative Colostrum Supplements

Recognizing the importance of post-natal nutrition to the health of the newborn, many producers rely on alternative forms of first-day formulas, such as frozen bovine colostrum, cow or goat milk, or milk replacers. But while milk and milk replacers provide important nutrients to aid in the growth and development of the lamb, they don’t provide antibodies, so vital to prevent infection. And although using some form of colostrum is always better than none at all, the wrong kind might actually increase scouring or esophageal and digestive problems. Raw colostrum, for example, becomes a perfect medium for growing disease germs if the liquid wasn’t treated correctly-and freezing won’t usually kill the infectious contaminants. Typical calf supplements are intended for calves, not sheep, and so may contain levels of selenium, copper, and other ingredients appropriate for larger animals, but risky to the health of newborn lambs.

Why Use Sheep-Specific Colostrum?

The basic components of colostrum are similar between different mammals, so that in general colostrum is not considered species specific. Cows produce colostrum in abundance, which is why bovine colostrum has become the most widely used source of supplemental colostrum with applications in both animal and human health.

Experts in the field know that while bovine colostrum may provide a nutritional base for a variety of species, there are still species-specific requirements for different types of livestock.

One company that has made big strides in sheep-specific colostrum formulation is La Belle, Inc. (www.labelleinc.com), a family-based business that is now the largest collector, manufacturer, and supplier of bovine colostrum in the world.

In cooperation with individual growers, distributors, and research specialists, they have now introduced a line of scientifically formulated products based on bovine colostrum but nutritionally tailored exactly for sheep. Their brand name for this is the “Platinum Series.”

Starting with a bovine colostrum base, they then add vitamins, minerals, and lamb-compatible probiotics. Then the mix is carefully spray dried. They also have it tested, to ensure antibody activity has been maximized in the final product.

Giving Bums A Chance

An unsung, underlying cause of many problems for small, weak, orphaned or undernourished (bum) lambs is the shepherd’s long, unpredictable hours in the lambing shed: That’s when mistakes and accidental neglect become more likely.

Successful lambing shed managers all agree that the more convenient their shepherding duties are, the more good lambs they have to show for their efforts.

La Belle has taken this into account with their Platinum Series. This product boasts an amazing 3-year shelf life, and requires no special storage or thawing prior to use. That means tired shepherds can give it to problem lambs a lot quicker than they would if they had to slowly thaw those colostrum ice cubes back at the house-early absorption is the key.

Although the ewe will no longer be producing colostrum and the absorption of antibodies is reduced after the first day, the La Belle product provides additional nutrients that will continue to benefit the newborn, so they recommend feeding it to the lamb throughout the first seven days-either alone or in combination with a good milk replacer. As packaged, Platinum Series Lamb Formula will feed five lambs for seven days.

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