Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

See the costs involved in rearing pet lambs (Is it worth the hassle?)

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron feeding a lamb – Photo: BBC/PA Wire
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron feeding a lamb – Photo: BBC/PA Wire
Ciaran Moran

Ciaran Moran

Cost effective rearing of surplus lambs has the potential to significantly improve profit margins on sheep farmers Michael Gottstein of Teagasc told the National Sheep Conference recently.

He said even allowing for a pre rearing value of €15 per orphan/surplus lamb the rearing costs of €28, €53 & €70 clearly demonstrate that orphan/surplus lambs have the potential to significantly increase margins leaving a net margin ranging from €16 to €58 each.

Gottstein says increasing litter size has long been recognized as one of the key factors driving profitability in Irish Sheep Flocks.

He said data from both the national farm survey and Teagasc profit monitors clearly demonstrate that high litter size flocks achieve greater profit margins annually.

"Despite this, the average litter size of lowland sheep flocks in Ireland has not increased significantly in the last forty years even with advances in animal breeding and nutrition which are key factors affecting fecundity in breeding ewes.

"The increased levels of triplet bearing ewes and associated work load of dealing with surplus lambs is often sighted by farmers as being one of the obstacles preventing the uptake of more prolific maternal breeds such as the Belclare, Bluefaced Leicester and Lleyn," he said

However, according to Gottstein said there are a number of options for artificially rearing surplus lambs.

Options for dealing with surplus lambs

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In general even on moderately prolific flock there will be a small number of lambs that for one reason or another are not reared by a ewe.

Where the numbers are small then often these lambs are bottle-reared which is a labour intensive task.

In high litter size flocks (>2.1) the number of surplus lambs can be significant.

The options available to farmers in this situation are as follows;

1. Sell surplus lambs

Over the last number of years the development of internet advertising ( enable real time advertising and a significant market has been developed for surplus lambs with returns varying depending on stage of the season and region (i.e. availability).

However, it should be noted that all lambs sold need to be tagged and accompanied with correctly completed dispatch documentation.

2.Rear the lambs as triplets on their dam.

Work carried out at Teagasc has shown that if suitably fed, many ewes are capable of rearing three lambs.

In order to be successful, ewes rearing three lambs must have evenly sized offspring, be good milkers and must be managed as a separate flock.

To achieve this, ewes should be supplemented with 0.5kg of a high quality concentrate daily in addition to good grass for the first five weeks of lactation. In addition lambs should be offered concentrates up to a maximum of 300grams per head per day.

However, it should be noted that there will be a number of ewes that will fail to successful rear three lambs and this may only become apparent a few weeks into lactation when it is clear that one of the lambs is underfed. Where this happens it can be very difficult to‘train’ these lambs to drink milk replacer once they have been taken in from the field.

3. Artificially rear surplus lambs

There are a number of options for artificially rearing surplus lambs.

He said there are a number of labour saving devices which can significantly reduce the labour input required to rear surplus lambs, including:


Multi feeder buckets with four or six nipples or bottle racks which are filled three to four times daily for small numbers of lambs.

These are cheap to purchase and other than replacing worn teats do not incur any running/maintenance costs.

These systems have no facility for keeping milk warm and hence need to be filled three to four times daily and do not provide lambs with ad libitum access to milk.


Ad Libitum feeding using simple lamb feeding devices  are effectively thermostatically controlled   containers which hold between 20 & 50 litres of premixed milk replacer and can feed 20 – 25 lambs per unit.

These devices cost between €270 and €400 per unit and require mains electricity to operate.


Automated lamb feeders which automatically mix milk replacer powder with warm water in small quantities as the lambs drink.

The machines are plumped into a water supply and require mains electricity and one unit can feed up to 240 lambs via 16 teats.

These units can cost several thousand euros but eliminate most of the labour associated with feeding lambs and are suitable for flocks which have large numbers of surplus lambs annually.

All that is required is that the machine is cleaned periodically and that powdered milk replacer is added as required.


rearing pet lambs costs.PNG

Key artificial rearing guidelines

  • Ensure lambs receive adequate colostrum
  • Remove surplus lambs from dam at 24 hours (max 48hours) after birth.
  • Supervise suckling for the first 1-3 days until lambs are trained to feeding
  • Feed warm milk initially and reduce temperature of milk as the lambs get older
  • Pen in groups of maximum 25 similar sized lambs
  • Allow a floor space of 0.6 m² per lamb.
  • Teat height should be 30 – 38cm from the ground
  • Ideally have a slatted area around the feeding area to allow for better drainage
  • Feed ad-libitum cold milk until weaning (mix powder with cold water. Do not mix with warm water and allow to cool)
  • Wean lambs abruptly once they reach each of the following criteria
    • Reached minimum of 9kg liveweight or 2.5 times birth weight whichever is greater.
    • 35 days of age (five weeks)
    • Consuming 250grams of creep daily on three consecutive days.

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