Techniques for rearing triplet and orphan lambs

Spring Lamb lying in field in evening sun
Spring Lamb lying in field in evening sun

FarmIreland Team

THE average litter size of the Irish lowland ewe flock has not increased much over the last 20 years, hovering around 1.3 lambs reared per ewe joined with the ram.

Pre-2005 ewes were used in certain situations to harvest premiums and the lambs were nearly of secondary importance.

One of the main reasons often cited by producers for their lack of interest in increasing litter size are the problems associated with triplet births: smaller, weaker lambs and the extra workload associated in cross-fostering and rearing pet lambs. Yet on the other hand I come across farmers that have very high litter sizes and have no such problems or fears.

Every extra lamb that is reared successfully is a potential €100 in extra output.

In this article I will describe some to the techniques that I have come across on farms that help in the rearing of triplet and orphan lambs.

Allowing the ewe to rear three lambs

Teagasc has conducted a study on allowing ewes to rear three lambs and the effect that this had on lamb performance, drafting date and the extra concentrate required. The following are the steps that should be taken if you plan to allow triplet bearing ewes to suckle three lambs.

1) Identify triplet bearing ewes by scanning and feed preferentially during the last 7-8 weeks of pregnancy to improve birth weight of the lambs.

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2) Only allow ewes that have a good milk supply and equal-sized lambs to rear all three lambs.

3) Separate ewes from the main flock after lambing and run as a separate group.

4) Ewes should have access to good grass (pasture height 5-7cm from lambing to weaning).

5) Ewes should receive 1kg concentrates/hd/day for the first 3 weeks of lactation. If grass is scarce, concentrate feeding should be continued for an additional 3 weeks.

6) Triplet lambs should be offered creep feed ad lib from about one week of age until six weeks of age and restricted concentrates (0.3kg/hd/day) until ten weeks of age.

7) Ewes can successfully rear three lambs given an extra 60kg of concentrates (21kg to the ewe and 13kg to the lambs).

8) Offering lambs creep from ten weeks of age to weaning or from ten weeks of age to sale increased concentrate usage by 20kg and 40kg, respectively, per lamb resulting in a reduction of 20 days and 45 days, respectively, to sale.

9) The cost of 60kg of concentrates at €180/t is €11.


Removing triplet and orphan lambs and cross-fostering these onto single bearing ewes at lambing - what are the tricks?

1) Keep your 'spare' lambs close to the single bearing ewes.

2) When a single bearing ewe starts lambing, assist in the lambing and remove her own lamb immediately and replace with the lamb that you intend to foster.

3) Rub lambing fluids on the foster lamb and sprinkle some table salt on the lamb (this will encourage the ewe to lick the lamb).

4) Use cable ties to tie the foster lamb's legs so that it can not get up immediately. Cable ties are easier to fasten and remove than baler twine.

5) Keep the newborn lamb warm while the adoption takes place.

6) After 20 minutes replace the ewe's own lamb into the pen.

7) Remove the cable ties from the foster lambs legs to allow it to suckle.

Some farmers wash the pet lambs to remove the smell of their dam before rubbing on the lambing fluids of the foster mother.

If the above method fails, step in immediately and insert a fostering head gate into the pen to restrain the ewe.

Rearing pet lambs

Invariably, on most sheep farms there will be a small number of lambs that for various reasons will not be suitable for cross-fostering and that will have to be reared as pets.

Feeding pet lambs with a bottle and teat is a time consuming practice and should be avoided.

It is possible to purchase systems which will feed pet lambs through a teat and tube attached to a bucket that holds the milk and keeps it warm. In this case the only labour required is to clean the equipment and replace the milk once a day.

The lambs have ad lib access to the milk at all times and are weaned onto meals and roughage at eight weeks of age. At eight weeks the lambs can be turned out to grass and fed concentrates in a creep feeder.