At this stage many mid-season flocks will be approaching lambing, if the first lambs are not already on the ground. The first few weeks of the lamb's life are the most challenging as the lamb has to struggle to cope with its new environment and all the challenges that the weather and disease can bring.
The biggest killers of newborn lambs are starvation, exposure and infections. Luckily, nature has provided a unique substance that can equip the newborn lamb to withstand these threats. Its name? Colostrum.
Colostrum, or beestings, is a unique product and it performs numerous tasks once ingested by the lamb.
The first aim of colostrum is to provide sustenance to the lamb. It is high in energy and protein and therefore will prevent hunger and equip the lamb to better withstand the elements.
The second purpose of colostrum is to provide the newborn lamb with a passive immune system. Lambs are born without an immune system. But for the first 24 hours of their life they are able to absorb antibodies through the gut wall into their blood stream.
Colostrum contains vital antibodies that help the lamb to defend itself from infections until it can develop its own immune system.
The third important function that colostrum fulfils is that it acts as a laxative to clean the lambs digestive system.
Ensuring that lambs get adequate colostrum is the most important task facing the shepherd after lambing the ewe. The amount of colostrum that is consumed and the time frame within which it is consumed are very important.
Your aim should be that each lamb should receive at least 20pc of its bodyweight in colostrum in the first 24 hours of life. Of the 20pc, 5pc should be consumed in the first six hours of life with a further 5pc before the lamb is 12 hours old.
This means that a lamb that weighs 5kg needs to get 250ml (5pc) within the first six hours of life and a further three feeds of 250ml before it is 24 hours old.
That's a total of one litre of colostrum. For a ewe with twins that means she needs to produce two litres of colostrum within the first 24 hours.
Ewes that have received adequate feed throughout late pregnancy should be able to meet this target. It is a good idea to start up a colostrum bank from ewes that have excess and store this in the fridge (for up to six weeks) for lambs from ewes with inadequate supplies. Commercially available colostrum substitutes and colostrum from cows can also be used but are not as good as the real thing. If you intend to use cow's colostrum you should increase the feeding rate by 30pc due to lower concentration of nutrients and, where possible, mix the colostrum from a number of cows.
Colostrum can be frozen to help store it over long periods of time. You should, however, take care when thawing it out as it is very high in protein which can be denatured by excess heat. It is essential that when thawing out frozen colostrum it is done gradually and at a temperature not exceeding 60°C. Never defrost frozen colostrum in a microwave.
It is important not to underestimate the importance of getting the colostrum into the lambs as soon as possible after birth. The efficiency with which antibodies are absorbed through the gut wall decreases rapidly after the first 12 hours of life.
Where the lamb is not able to suck properly -- due to poor teat placement, weak lamb, etc -- the lamb should be fed using a bottle and teat or a stomach tube.
After lambing, each ewe should have their teats drawn to ensure that the seal is broken, thus enabling the lamb to suck easily and to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of colostrum available.
If you are finding that your ewes are short of colostrum you need to increase the level of meal and/or the protein quantity/quality immediately.
You should aim to feed between 200g and 240g of protein/head/day. Soyabean meal is the best protein source available.