The golden hours: Managing newborn lambs

Results from the Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) lambing survey, conducted on 70 flocks in Wales during the 2010/11 breeding season, demonstrated that 49% of total lamb losses occur at lambing (0-48hrs), with a further 11% occurring 2-14 days post-lambing.

The golden hours: Managing newborn lambs

Colostrum is essential for newborn lambs

Colostrum is the first feed newborn lambs and the key to survival. It's a highly nutritious energy source that helps the lamb to maintain body temperature and survive. It also contains antibodies that are vital to help protect the newborn lamb against disease. Feeding sufficient good quality colostrum immediately after birth will reduce losses from both hypothermia and disease.

Why are newborn lambs so vulnerable?

  • There is no transfer of antibodies across the placenta in ruminants. This means lambs are born with no protection against disease and are reliant on colostrum for passive immunity.
  • Newborn lambs have a very permeable gut lining that can allow any ingested bacteria and toxins into the blood stream. Slow gut movements during the first day of life give ingested bacteria more time to establish and multiply.
  • They have limited energy reserves. All lambs are born with a finite amount of brown fat within their bodies, which acts as a stopgap between birth and the time when a lamb is able to feed.
  • Newborn lambs have a large surface area to body weight ratio which makes them susceptible to heat loss. This means they lose heat at a much higher rate when they are wet than when they are dry.


The ability to survive is largely dependent on the response of the lamb to the climatic environment into which it is born. Lambs are born wet, often into cold or wet conditions and with limited energy reserves. There is a high energy demand to maintain body temperature, and this must be supplied by efficient metabolism of their brown fat and by the ability of the lamb to stand and suckle to obtain milk. Any lambs that do not feed within the first few hours after birth will soon run out of energy reserves to keep warm, and will die very rapidly if there is no intervention, no matter what environment they are born into.

Hypothermia and starvation

Hypothermia and starvation are the two principal causes of early lamb mortality. To maintain its body temperature, the newborn lamb must produce as much heat as it is losing to the environment. If the lamb cannot do this, its body temperature will start to fall. Hypothermia (chilling) is a condition where the lamb's body temperature drops below that required for normal metabolism and body function (below 38.5C). If not remedied, it can lead to death. In newborn lambs, hypothermia usually results from exposure. In lambs over 24 hours old, hypothermia is usually a result of starvation. Starvation can be caused by many factors such as inadequate intake of colostrum, rejection by the ewe, mastitis, inadequate milk production, injury or illness and/or a difficult birth. Careful and regular shepherding is crucial to ensure that lambs have received adequate food and to spot lambs in difficulty early and treat them as needed.

Colostrum the fuel for life

Colostrum is the first feed for the newborn lamb and the key to survival. It is a highly nutritious energy source which helps the lamb to maintain body temperature and survive; it also contains antibodies which are vital to help protect the newborn lamb against disease. The feeding of sufficient good quality colostrum immediately after birth will reduce losses from both hypothermia and disease. Careful feeding of the in-lamb ewe is critical to stimulate the production of quality colostrum and ensures that lambs get the best start in life.

While mothers colostrum is preferable, if ewe colostrum is unavailable, in short supply or of poor quality; then colostrum must be fed quickly from another source. Options include fresh or frozen colostrum from another ewe, bovine colostrum or a high quality natural alterative such as Volac's Lamb Volostrum.

Colostrum should be fed warm (39°C). It should be warmed by standing in a bowl of warm water. Do not microwave colostrum or heat it directly. Temperatures above 45°C can damage the sensitive proteins within colostrum.

Feeding an alternative to colostrum or colostrum supplement

Volac Lamb Volostrum is an ideal alternative or colostrum supplement when ewe colostrum is not available or is in short supply due to multiple births, a sick ewe or a lamb being orphaned. Volostrum is made from high quality whey proteins that have been carefully processed to retain protein quality. It also contains a highly digestible source of energy.

Independent trials have shown that lambs fed Volostrum were as healthy and perform equally as well as those that suckled ewes or were fed artificially on ewe colostrum.

A proven alternative to colostrum

Surplus lambs fed on Volostrum went on to match the performance of those fed ewe colostrum for the first 24 hours of life, according to trial findings from the University College Dublin. Furthermore, mortality was nil.

The trial featured 30 surplus lambs from the Universitys 350-ewe flock, and split in to two groups. Half the lambs were fed ewe colostrum at 50ml/kg birth weight at one, 10 and 18 hours after birth whilst the remainder were each fed at the same intervals, one, 50g sachet of Volac Lamb Volostrum (3 x 50g sachets over 18 hours). All the surplus lambs were reared artificially on Lamlac ad libitum via a Ewe-2 feeder from 24 hours, and weaned at just over six weeks of age.

The two groups of lambs recorded identical pre-weaning growth rates and nil mortality which highlights that when ewe colostrum is in short supply (as is often the case with multiple births) triplet lambs can be successfully artificially reared and achieve high growth rates (table 1), said University College Dublins Dr. Tommy Boland.

Table 1: Lamb performance: ewe colostrum v Volostrum


Colostrum-fed lambs

Volostrum-fed lambs

Birth weight (kg)



Pre-weaning growth rate (g/day)



Weaning weight (kg)



Source: Dr. Tommy Boland

The Irish findings mirror precisely earlier research findings from Harper Adams University, whilst over 30 farm studies have concluded that farmers were satisfied that Volostrum was very effective as a first feed for newborn lambs.