The pet lamb debate – what’s your options?
March 10, 2023
Pet lamb rearers have not escaped the rising costs of inputs with prices for meal and milk powder having increased significantly in recent years. This revives the annual debate for sheep farmers, of what to do with your pet lambs this year. A topic which was discussed at a recent CAFRE Business Development group meeting facilitated by Gareth Beacom, CAFRE Beef and Sheep Adviser, with costs estimated and pros and cons for each system debated.
Regardless of what approach to pet lamb rearing is used it is largely accepted that cross fostering spare lambs onto singles is essential to minimise the number of pet lambs on farm. Success rate often varies on a farm-to-farm basis however many farmers experience quite high success rates via techniques such as fully wetting the foster lamb and presenting it to the new mother at the same time her own lamb is delivered. Two of the main challenges with this are managing the single ewe to have enough milk for 2 lambs, whilst not creating lambing difficulties, and also having a foster lamb big enough to match a single lamb.
Selling pets and orphans
The simplest option is perhaps selling off any excess triplets and pets. This is a viable option for early lambing flocks with farmers reporting high prices for surplus lambs early in the year. However, as the spring progresses surplus lambs become more plentiful and for mid-March lambing flocks selling pets becomes much more difficult. Whilst selling them may still be an option, prices obtained will depend on the strength and quality of the lamb sold. This begs the question if these lambs should be sold or kept as all studies in the past tell us that lambs with a higher birthweight have a higher survival rate as well as a higher daily liveweight gain.
Keeping Triplets on the ewe
Instead of artificially rearing pet lambs another option is to keep lambs on the ewe, where possible. Studies have shown that ewes are capable of rearing 3 lambs if suitably fed. However, if this is to be successful ewes need to be in a good BCS, lambs ideally need to be evenly sized and ewes will need to be offered concentrate for 4 – 6 weeks post lambing. In addition to this good grass and creep feed must also be offered to lambs. This can be a successful system; however, it requires a high level of management and even with all of the above, problems can still develop – such as mastitis – often cited as one of the main reasons for farmers opting away from this system.
Artificially rearing pets on a feeder
Considering all the above, more farmers are now opting to rear surplus lambs artificially. Whilst pet lambs also require a high level of attention to detail, this system simplifies the management of the main sheep flock with all ewes at grass only rearing one or two lambs and pet lambs batch reared and managed separately. The two most popular options for this system are ab lib milk feeders where fresh milk is added daily or automated feeders which mix the milk and self-clean themselves.
With the cost of ab lib feeders typically ranging from £150 – £300 these are the more popular option. However, milk needs to be added daily and feeders also need to be cleaned out daily adding another chore at a busy time of year.
Fully automated feeders reduce the work load significantly, however, they are more expensive with reported prices from £3,000 – £3,500.
The economics of rearing pet lambs are widely debated; however, in well managed systems where infections and mortality are kept to a minimum there can be a profit to be made from rearing pet lambs as can be seen in Figure 1.
As shown, the total cost of feeding a lamb will be around £79. With a few miscellaneous costs also needing to be accounted for (straw, vaccines and doses – roughly £5/lamb) a total cost of production can be estimated at £84.
Whilst feed costs are high in this system, daily liveweight gains can also be high which in turn means some pet lambs should be ready in the first lamb draft of the year. This means that the total feeding period is quite short and lamb price seasonally high. An increasing number of pet lamb rearers are opting to keep their pet lambs indoors until finish in order to maintain a high daily liveweight gain and avoid set back of lambs adapting to a new diet and environment which will significantly increase the days to slaughter.
With this being a high-cost system, returns will depend largely on minimising losses in order to maximise returns. However, if an average lamb price of £110 was achieved that would leave a gross margin of £26 per finished lamb. The total net margin then would depend on the mortality rate.
Mortality rate can be minimised through good hygiene and stockmanship. Due to the intensive nature of the system these lambs will require an early coccidiosis dose (at approx. 1 month). Also, due to some lambs getting little or no natural colostrum their immune systems can be weak, hence a clostridial vaccine will be required (from 3 weeks of age). Digestive upsets are common in pet lambs and so any change in diet needs to be made gradually. Furthermore, fresh water should be readily available as well as a fibre source (either from roughage or via the meal).