Colostrum management for lambs

See our advice and top tips for feeding and managing colostrum for lambs.  

Lambs are born with no antibodies and rely on the ‘passive transfer’ of antibodies from the ewe to the lamb via colostrum. This must take place within the first few hours of life, as the ability of the lamb to absorb these antibodies rapidly declines after birth.

Importance of colostrum in lambs

A strong, healthy lamb, up and sucking within 15 minutes of birth has a 90–95% chance of still being alive 90 days later.

In a recent study, surveys showed that 74% of flocks had been supplemented with less than the industry recommendation. If insufficient antibodies are absorbed, lambs are at a significantly increased risk of death and disease during the pre-weaning period. This is called partial passive transfer (PPT) or failure of passive transfer (FPT) if no antibodies are absorbed.

The study also found no association between oral antibiotic usage and health/production benefits in lambs.

Risk factors for partial or failure of passive transfer include:

  • Assistance with colostrum feeding - not supplementing with enough colostrum
  • Ewes not at target body condition
  • Inadequate pre-lambing nutrition (protein and energy) results in reduced colostrum yield and quality. It also reduces the mothering ability of the ewe

Taking sufficient colostrum is vital to provide the lamb with essential immunoglobulins and to protect against clostridial and other diseases, depending on the ewe’s vaccination status.

More resources

Reducing lamb losses for better returns

Development of an Integrated Neonatal Survival and Sustainable Antibiotic Plan

Nutrition

Optimum pre-lambing nutrition is essential. Not only does this allow the ewe to produce good quality colostrum, but it also provides her with the nutrients she needs for full placental development through to a good lambing.

Mid-pregnancy

The objective of ewe nutrition at this stage, between days 50 and 90, is to ensure the placenta develops to optimum size. This is essential for good birthweight, survival and growth rate of lambs. Research suggests a higher mortality rate following maternal undernutrition in mid-pregnancy.

Manage ewes to maintain body condition score.

Scanning is a good time to separate triplet-bearing ewes and any twin-bearing ewe lambs for early, preferential feeding and management.

Final two months of pregnancy

During late pregnancy, around 75% of foetal growth takes place, with a corresponding increase in the ewe’s requirements for energy and protein – ration according to litter size. 

There is a clear relationship between the ewe’s energy intake over the last three weeks of pregnancy and colostrum production. Most mammary gland development takes place during the last month of pregnancy.

Inadequate nutrition reduces the quantity of colostrum and milk produced and delays the onset of lactation and increases the thickness of colostrum, which the lamb may find more difficult to extract from the teat.

Well-fed ewes have a better maternal ability than those which are under-fed or over-fed.

Top tips:

  • You could ask the vet to take some blood samples two to three weeks before lambing to assess the adequacy of nutrition in late pregnancy
  • Ensure ewes maintain their target body condition score in the last six weeks of pregnancy - target 3.0–3.5 for lowland and 2.5 for upland ewes
  • Young first-time lambers (ewe lambs or shearlings) should be fed in separate groups, by litter size, to adult ewes

For more information on the nutritional requirements of ewes, see Feeding the ewe or watch the webinar on ewe nutrition

Quantity and Quickly

Make sure lambs receive 50 ml/kg of colostrum as soon as possible after birth and within 4–6 hours. In 24 hours, a newborn lamb must receive the equivalent of 200 ml/kg body weight in colostrum.

Example: a 5 kg lamb needs 1 litre of colostrum in the first day of life.

After six hours, the lamb’s ability to absorb the immunoglobulins into its bloodstream has reduced, which is why it is important to get colostrum in quickly.

The primary immunoglobulin in colostrum is immunoglobulin G (IgG). Its concentration in milk decreases rapidly after parturition, at approximately 3.3 mg/ml per hour, diminishing to zero by about 23 hours post-lambing.

Quality

Lambs fed adequate quality colostrum do not succumb to watery mouth.

Colostrum from the ewe is preferred, to provide immunity to farm-specific diseases.

Alternative to ewe's colostrum, in order of preference:

  1. Colostrum from another ewe in the flock
  2. Pooled cows' colostrum
  3. Artificial colostrum

Artificial colostrum is designed as a supplement, not a replacement for ewes’ colostrum and should only be used as a last resort.

Guidance for using pooled cows' colostrum

Discuss the risks of anaemia with your vet; in some cows, their colostrum has been found to contain antibodies which cause a breakdown of red blood cells in sheep. Pooling the colostrum can reduce the risk.

If you farm cows as well as sheep, ideally use their colostrum as it will contain IgG to your farm-specific pathogens. If using colostrum from another herd, make sure the donor cows are healthy, screened for Johnes disease and vaccinated with the standard clostridial vaccine.

For useful hints on feeding colostrum and dealing with other health issues at lambing, watch the video, BRP lamb survival guide: health and welfare:

Storage, defrosting and heating

Fresh colostrum must be used as soon as possible and within one hour or stored in the fridge or freezer. Colostrum will keep in the fridge (4°C) for up to seven days and it can be frozen (-18 to -20°C) for use within six months.

Top tips:

  • Harvest with clean hands or gloves and use clean containers
  • Label containers with the date of collection
  • Store in small amounts for ease of defrosting (it cannot be refrozen)
  • Defrost and heat in a warm water bath – using a microwave or boiling water will damage the antibodies
  • Do not heat above 40ᵒC as temperatures above this will cause deterioration in the protein in the colostrum, destroying the antibodies
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