Lambs receive 100 percent of their nutrition from their mothers starting at birth. Colostrum is the first milk, produced for only 24 to 48 hours after delivery. Colostrum contains nutrients that fuel heat production and help prevent hypothermia (chilling). Colostrum also contains several antibodies passed from the mother, in addition to good bacteria that will help the lamb develop a healthy gut.
Colostrum quickly transitions to milk after delivery, and for the first eight weeks lambs should have 24/7 access to their mother for nursing. Even as young as a few days old, lambs will start to eat hay and drink water, mainly because they see older flock members eating that way.
Allowing them to experiment and eat free-choice hay and grain creates a natural balance between their mother’s nutrition and the nutrition around them.
Six weeks old is an appropriate age to introduce creep feeding, without taking away access to the mother. Introducing a creep feeding system allows the lamb to access food whenever they want, without having to worry about competing for food with older animals.
Creep feeding can be as simple as creating a small entry point that only fits the lamb giving them access to the food. Or it can be more expensive, using creep feeders available from agricultural sites and/or stores.
Read more: When is the best time for weaning lambs?
At approximately 8 weeks old, it is safe to start weaning—if you do it slowly. Weaning should be at least a two-week process, starting with creep feeding.
When weaning officially begins, you will need to have an area where the lambs cannot access the mothers. For a certain amount of time, the lambs should only be able to eat from the creep feed. Lambs will begin to drink water and eat feed/hay on their own.
Once the block of time is up, lambs can be turned back out to the ewes. The amount of time can be lengthened each day. This slow and gradual process is best physically and mentally for the ewe and lambs.
At about 10 weeks old, lambs should be ready to move away from their mothers.
During weaning, you need to watch the ewe to make sure her udders are not engorged. If she seems to swell and inflame, you can allow the lamb to suckle from her to relieve that pressure. If her udders become hard and red, and don’t seem to change when the lamb suckles, she may have mastitis. In this case, you will need to consult your vet about possible remedies to relieve her condition, which can lead to infection.
Also watch the body conformity of the lamb during weaning. Lambs should be robust, strong in stance and gaining weight. If they appear to be losing weight, lethargic or weak in stance, you will need to increase their time with the mom.
Even if the baby and mom continue to live on the same property, they will still need a two-week separation to allow the ewe’s milk supply to dry up.
There will be a lot of baaaaaa-ing. The lambs will think they are lost and need to alert their mothers to find them. But as long as you are making the weaning process gradual and not harsh, the ewe and lambs will learn to adjust in a safe and healthy way.