Options for artificially rearing surplus lambs

A fully automated feeder system can rear up to 250 lambs per unit and costs approximately €3,500
A fully automated feeder system can rear up to 250 lambs per unit and costs approximately €3,500

Tim Keady and Dr Alan Bohan

As the prolificacy of a flock improves, the number of litters with three or more lambs increases. Some ewes are unable to rear three lambs.

Fostering surplus lambs to ewes rearing singles maybe an option. However in prolific flocks, availability of single bearing ewes is limited thus fostering is not an option for all excess lambs. This article looks at the options available to farmers to artificially rear surplus lambs.

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Regardless of rearing method all lambs should receive adequate colostrum and be removed from the ewe between one and two days of age. Lambs should be supervised for the first few days in the artificial rearing unit to ensure that they are suckling adequately.

Lambs should be grouped according to age and size so that they can be weaned together. Hygiene in the rearing pen is critically important to avoid disease build-up and all feeding equipment should be cleaned regularly. Lambs should be grouped at a maximum of 25 lambs per pen and should have a floor space of 0.6m2 per lamb.

Bottle rearing

This is the cheapest method of rearing surplus lambs. There is the option to purchase a feeder with teats that will feed up to 10 lambs at a time. This method requires the lambs to be fed three to four times daily so it has the highest labour demand of the three options presented in this article. The main issue with this system is that lambs are prone to digestive upsets due to receiving a large volume of milk three to four times daily.

Ad-lib feeders

Ad-lib feeders can rear up to 25 lambs per unit and cost approximately €350. This system can hold up to 50 litres of milk.

These feeders require electricity as they are fitted with a thermostat and a heating element which maintains the milk at a constant temperature.

This system has much reduced instances of digestive upsets as the milk is available ad-lib and the lambs don't gorge on milk three to four times per day. This system has a limited labour requirement of mixing the milk replacer, filling the feeder and frequent cleaning.

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Automated feeder

This system is fully automated and can rear up to 250 lambs per unit and costs approximately €3,500. Mains water and electricity are required for this system. Fresh milk replacer is automatically mixed as required.

The machine heats water and mixes it with milk replacer powder automatically. The automated feeder results in low digestive upsets as the lambs receive freshly mixed milk ad lib.

The automated feeder has the lowest labour requirement of all options as it mixes and refills the milk replacer itself and is also self-cleaning.

Weaning the artificially reared lamb

Milk replacer is a major cost in artificially rearing lambs so they should be weaned as soon as possible without having a negative effect on lamb performance. Keeping lambs on milk replacer for more than 5 to 6 weeks will increase performance but may not be economically viable as milk intake increases with age. Lambs should be weaned when they reach each of the criteria:

  • Minimum of 14kg live weight
  • 35 days of age
  • Consuming 250g of concentrates daily for three consecutive days.

Finishing the artificially reared lamb

Artificially reared lambs can be joined with the rest of the flock once weaned and then finished off grass. However it is beneficial to provide artificially reared lambs with concentrates initially at grass to enable them to adjust to a grass based diet and join with the main flock after the main flock have been weaned.

Alternatively artificially reared lambs can remain indoors on ad-lib concentrates, until drafting for slaughter. This will sustain performance and reduce days to slaughter but will also increase the cost of production.


  • The number of surplus lambs increases as litter size increases
  • Surplus lambs can to be sold or artificially reared
  • Bottle feeding has low set up costs, high labour requirement and risks of digestive upsets
  • Ad-lib feeders have reduced labour requirement and digestive upsets but increased set up costs
  • An automated feeder can rear up to 250 lambs, with the lowest labour input but has the highest set up costs
  • Wean lambs when they reach a minimum of 14kg live weight, 35 days of age and are consuming 250g per day of concentrates.

Dr Tim Keady and Dr Alan Bohan are based at Teagasc's Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre, Athenry, Co Galway. For further information, see sheepnet.network.

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