Colostrum performs three very important roles in newborn lambs.
- It provides an easily digestible source of energy and nutrients
- It provides maternally derived antibodies which will form the newborn lamb’s passive immune system until it has a chance to developed its own active immune system
- It acts as a laxative to clean out the digestive tract of the newborn lamb
Achieving adequate colostrum intake is critical to guarding against lamb mortality and ensures that lambs get a good start in life and hit the ground running. In the vast majority of cases newborn lambs will manage to suckle themselves and other than making sure that the lambs have sucked the shepherd will not need to intervene. On occasion however where ewes have poor colostrum yield, enlarge teats, mastitis, three or more lambs or where lambs are not sucking intervention will be necessary.
Early intervention is necessary as the efficacy of antibody absorption from colostrum through the gut wall reduces rapidly after the lambs are born. Therefore to provide newborn lambs with the best possible chance of survival colostrum should be given within the first six hours of life and at six hourly intervals thereafter.
The feeding rate is 50ml of colostrum for every kg liveweight at six hourly intervals. This means that on reaching 24hours of age a lamb should have consumed 20% of its bodyweight in colostrum (200ml / kg). The immunoglobulin’s in the colostrum are protein based and as such are extremely temperature sensitive. When heating colostrum or thawing frozen colostrum supplies it is important not to denature the protein with excess heat. Storing surplus colostrum supplies in small containers will greatly speed up the thawing process. Never thaw / heat colostrum in a microwave or in water that is too hot to immerse you hand into.
Ewes colostrum is the best option for lambs, however where ewes colostrum is in short supply commercially available colostrum substitutes or colostrum from cows that have been vaccinated with appropriate vaccines prior to calving are options. When feeding cow colostrum to lambs ensure that you mix colostrum from a number of cows (to guard against anaemia) and increase the quantity given by 30% as cow colostrum is not as concentrated as that from sheep.
In this video, Michael Gottstein, Head of Sheep Programme, Teagasc talks about the importance of lambs receiving colostrum within the first 6 hours of life.