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During their youth, lambs will eat three different types of food: milk, roughage and grain. Each step in this nutritional process is important to their growth and development, and must be monitored carefully.
As soon as a lamb is able to stand -- about 30 minutes after being born -- his first instinct is to find milk. By the time he's an hour old he's already had his first meal, and it's one of the most important that he'll ever eat. The first milk produced by a lamb's mother is full of "colostrum," a power-shake of antibodies, vitamins, minerals and healthy fat to help protect the little guy during his first few days in the real world.
It's a sad truth that some ewes die while giving birth, or may reject their offspring. In this case, the orphaned lamb will need to be hand-fed by bottle. Use milk replacement typically made with a combination of cow's colostrum and ewe's milk, as this combination is naturally more nutritious -- and successful in raising healthy lambs -- than cow's milk or goat's milk. Milk replacer can be hand-mixed or purchased commercially.
Hungry Little Suckers
As he experiences his first few weeks of life, a newborn lamb will eat almost constantly, suckling once or twice each hour. He will slow as he grows older and begin to eat solid foods, but will help himself to his mother's milk for about five weeks.
Sometimes, even when the mother sheep is producing milk, she may not be producing enough for her lamb. This is often the case when she gives birth to twins, and cannot provide the amount of milk for both to thrive. In this case, such as with orphaned lambs, bottle-feeding helps take the pressure off of mother sheep, and give both little lambs a fighting chance. Bottle-fed lambs need to be fed every three hours.
Alfalfa hay, chaff, straw or other forms of roughage should be made available to the lamb even before he has weaned. He'll naturally begin nibbling on these valuable sources of fiber, which will benefit the development of his "rumen," or first stomach.
Soon afterward, his milk and roughage can be supplemented with grain pellets. The grain preparation will increase slowly until he is consuming more grain, grass and hay than milk. At that time, he can be weaned from milk, and move fully into an adult diet.
While weaning lambs is not difficult, and can be done at varying speeds, this time is an important one for careful observation. Lambs suffering consistent diarrhea, who seem depressed or lethargic, have outbreaks of sores or other ailments may need to return to milk supplementation. Nutritional imbalances at this growing time of their life can have a devastating effect, and possibly be lethal if not kept under a watchful eye.
When in doubt, always have a livestock veterinarian close at hand to help guide your little flock into happy, active and thriving juvenile sheep.