Inquiries about automatic milk feeding are at an all-time high in the sheep sector. Farmers Guardian takes a look at some research behind the machines, and provides a round-up of the kit available.
Farmers are undoubtedly attracted to automatic milk feeders because of their labour saving benefits, allowing time to focus on other important jobs, but faster growth rates are also being reported as lambs are not limited to how much, or when, they can drink.
According to a trial carried out at IBERS, Aberystwyth University, there is no difference in performance of surplus lambs reared on performance-formulated lamb milk replacer, based on whey protein from cow’s milk, compared with those left on the ewe.
The study reports successful lamb rearing using a colostrum alternative followed by good quality lamb milk replacer. Lambs reared on milk replacer reached similar weaning weights to their naturally-reared counterparts and resulted in comparable carcase weights and grades, despite a slightly lighter body weight at slaughter.
Volac Research Scientist Dr Jessica Cooke says: “The results show surplus lambs can be reared on performance-formulated lamb milk replacer, provided care is taken to maximise rumen development before weaning lambs reared on an ad-libitum system.”
Dr Cooke says: “Lambs reared on milk replacer were reported to have some very mild diarrhoea from two to five weeks of age, but this then disappeared. Despite this, there were no differences between lambs reared on milk replacer and those reared on the ewe with the overall growth rate during the milk feeding period averaging 325g per day, and average weaning weight at 18.6 kg.
“Essentially, it was very difficult to detect any performance differences between the three groups.”
The researchers also monitored lamb health status, with blood samples taken at 24 hours after birth, at weaning, and at the end of the finishing period.
She says: “At 24 hours of age, all but one lamb had an immunoglobulin level indicative of successful passive transfer, and all lambs remained in good health.”
When deciding which lamb to remove from a triplet or quadruplet-bearing ewe, Ms Erian advises removing either the smallest or the largest one to leave a balanced pair.
“Whichever lamb is chosen must be sucking well, been with its mother for 24 hours after birth and have received a good supply of colostrum, particularly in the first six hours of life.”
However, Volac stresses machine rearing, while saving substantial time and rearing hassle, is certainly no substitute for good husbandry.
Dr Cooke says: “The IBERS trial highlights the importance of maximising rumen development while rearing surplus lambs on ad-libitum milk replacer. But sound hygiene is also crucial and lamb pens must be draught-free, well drained and bedded to keep lambs as warm and dry as possible.
“In addition, clean, fresh water must be made available along with a 18 per cent crude protein creep feed offered ad-lib to encourage early intake. Follow these guidelines and you can be confident in rearing those extra lambs highly cost-effectively with a margin over lifetime feed cost of £15 to £25 per lamb being achievable, based on last years’ lamb prices.”