BottleLambsThis year, I had the opportunity to use raw cow’s milk for my homemade milk replacer recipe, rather than store-bought milk or powdered milk replacer. The lambs did extremely well on it. My impression was that they grew better than bottle lambs from all past years; so I wanted to graph it and see if it was true.

It was!

Below is a graph of Average Daily Gain (ADG) for my bottle lambs over the last four years (based on their sixty-day weights).

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It’s impossible to draw definitive conclusions from this for several reasons. For one, it’s a small data sample: only thirteen lambs over four years. Genetics is probably a factor, as I have been getting some incremental improvements over time from selective breeding. In 2010 I used commercial powdered lamb milk replacer. In 2011, I started using the homemade recipe.

In 2010-2011, I weaned the lambs earlier, shooting for six weeks. (Though, the oldest lamb in the 2011 bunch got to wean at eight weeks, by virtue of being grouped with some younger lambs, and he did the best.). I’ve come to believe that transitioning non-creep-fed lambs to grass is different than conventional practices. It is known that when feeding dry concentrates, lambs can be weaned off milk as early as 2-4weeks. But there isn’t much written about moving lambs from milk straight to green grass.

What I found in weaning them at six weeks was that they objected and cried and begged. They were hungry. And, they developed “hay bellies”- a pot-bellied appearance caused by lambs with immature rumens struggling to take in enough forage. Though they remained generally healthy, they lagged behind their peers in growth.

So, I’ve decided that they really need milk for a full eight weeks to be ready to switch to grass alone. This is what I did last year and this year. The lambs handled the weaning with much less pining. They begged for a few days, but were quickly accepting of me not having any milk, wandering off with disinterest after a few minutes.

BottleLambs2Last year and this year, the bottle lambs had access to free-choice dry COB (corn-oats-barley) for some weeks. But they ate very little, so I’m not sure if this helped them much.

Overall, there are lots of reasons for the bottle lambs to do better as I  improve their management. I do wonder, however, if the raw cow’s milk was a contributor to the better gains this year; in addition to all of the other factors. The milk was extremely palatable (at least in my opinion), compared to powdered milk replacer, or the plastic bottle taste of cheap grocery store milk.

I haven’t kept very precise records of how much the lambs actually consume, but I think they drank more milk this year, based on how much I spent (about $80 per lamb this year compared to $50 per lamb in the past two years, same price of milk). That would make sense if they found it to be delicious rather than just tolerable. I thought it was very easy to get them to accept the bottle compared to previous years- almost too easy, as if they preferred it to the inconvenience of having to try to nurse their dams. I also wonder if the enzymes in raw milk helps them utilize the nutrition better, and perhaps mature their rumens faster.

Bottle lambs are still pretty iffy profit-wise compared to lambs reared by their dams. I think it’s probably a wash whether to sell them as day-olds for $50, or raise them out. And, they are some work; though it’s not hard work, mixing up milk and serving it in a bucket. If they are the result of high fertility, then I think I agree with those who think they are a “bonus”- just a little cash on top of what would otherwise be an average-sized crop. They are nice to have around if you leverage agritourism in any way, because there is nothing cuter for visitors to pet and learn about than a bottle lamb. I had one set of customers who chose a bottle lamb for a pet tell me I should charge more for them, because their friendliness has a lot of value to that market. Hmm, maybe so!

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