Rearing orphan lambs

// Rearing and Weaning

As farmers strive to maximise their lamb survival, interest in orphan lamb rearing systems has been steadily growing.


While automatic lamb feeders have become popular, farmers are developing different orphan lamb rearing systems that suit their operation and climate.

The Marlborough-based Dawkins family have refined an orphan lamb rearing system as an adjunct to their Beef + Lamb New Zealand Innovation Farm project which focused on indoor triplet lambing.

They have found simplicity to be the key to orphan lamb rearing, as if the system gets too labour intensive, it becomes costly and time-consuming with no obvious benefits.

Every year they rear between 30 and 50 lambs and most of these are sold by the end of January at a minimum of 42kg.

Richard Dawkins say they have both the infrastructure (a large, sunny, well-ventilated shed) and the climate to allow their system to work so well and this might not be the case on other farms in other regions. 
But this is a summary of what they have found to be important for successfully rearing orphan lambs.

  • Maximise the amount of sunlight into the orphan pen. This provides warmth and kills germs.
  • Ventilation is also important. We obviously don't want a cold draught blowing through however, a wet and stagnant environment is a breeding ground for bacteria. A light breeze during the day provides important air flow – we have roller doors which we close at night.
  • Clean straw for bedding.
  • Five feeds per day for lamb health and growth rates. This is very labour intensive so invest in an automatic feeder or build your own 'gravity feeder'. The Dawkins’cost about $200 and significantly cut their labour costs.
  • Feeding cows colostrum has worked very well with no bloat and growth rates between 250 - 300g / day. A cheap option, but not available to everyone of course.
  • Ensure new born lambs have sufficient colostrum from a ewe prior to training them onto a feeder. They tend to bottle feed for two to three days so the lamb is fit and strong before being in the main pen.
  • Keep a watchful eye on any lambs falling behind. These may require bottle feeding or to be placed under a heat lamp.
  • Introduce good quality roughage from day one to assist in rumen development and therefore early weaning. They use lucerne hay as they are weaned after six weeks of age at 16–20kg onto lucerne in the paddock.
  • Ensure clean water is available at all times and give the lambs access to a pen outside as well.

Find out more

B+LNZ has a wealth of information about orphan lambing rearing on its Knowledge Hub. This includes podcast interviews with experienced lamb rearers Kerry Harmer and Lynley Wyeth, videos and written resources at: