Weaning Lambs: One Step at a Time

Animal : Lamb

Wellness : Health

Wellness : Nutrition

Tom Earleywine, Ph.D.

Director of Nutritional Services

Tom Earleywine, Ph.D.

Director of Nutritional Services

While there may not be a ceremony with caps and gowns, weaning lambs is essentially a graduation. Lambs are growing up and transitioning to the next stage of their lives. This may be an exciting time, but it can also be stressful for both you and your lambs. It’s essential to have a weaning plan in place to make the transition as smooth as possible and avoid putting additional stress on your lambs.
Here are six steps for a low-stress weaning transition.

1. Make sure lambs are readySix lamb weaning steps

The biggest indicator that lambs are ready for weaning is dry feed consumption. At weaning, lambs should consume at least 0.75 pounds of starter per day and have consumed a total of at least 25 pounds of lamb milk replacer powder or milk from the ewe. Lambs typically reach this benchmark around 35 pounds of body weight.
When lambs are ready for weaning, you should be too. Make sure to have a weaning plan in place 2-3 weeks before starting the weaning process. Know when and how the weaning process will take place and prepare for any challenges that may arise during the transition period.  

2. Offer creep feed for lambs

To prepare for weaning lambs, offer free-choice creep feed (starter grain) starting at one week of age and plenty of fresh, clean, free-choice water. A high-quality lamb starter grain of at least 18% protein is ideal for rumen development. Start by feeding small amounts at a time to keep lamb starter fresh and to reduce waste. As lambs begin eating starter feed, provide more at each feeding.
At the start of weaning, lambs should consume at least 2% of their body weight daily in high-quality creep feed. Lambs should also have access to free-choice, clean, room temperature water to help them become accustomed to drinking water and prevent dehydration during weaning. Providing a multi-species electrolyte can also help support lambs during times of stress and support proper hydration. 

3. Decrease amount of lamb milk replacer or milk offered

Abrupt removal of milk replacer for lambs or access to milk from the ewe can be stressful on lambs and can cause digestive issues. For a smooth weaning transition, gradually reduce the amount of milk replacer or milk fed over 4-7 days. Step down the total volume of milk replacer for lambs offered by reducing the number of feedings or dilute milk replacer with additional water to lower the level of milk solids.
If you are weaning lambs off the ewe, it can be challenging to limit the amount of milk consumed. Reduce access to the ewe and ensure lambs are consuming the proper amount of starter and water before completing the weaning process.

4. Provide consistent lamb groups

Lambs group-housed during the pre-weaning phase form hierarchies and close bonds. It’s important to keep consistency in lamb groups during weaning by avoiding transitioning lambs to larger groups. Introducing new animals into the group dynamic can put added stress on young lambs. Avoid any major group changes two weeks before and two weeks following weaning.
When grouping lambs, consider smaller groups with lambs of similar size and age. The more consistent the animals are within a group, the better. Larger, dominant animals can limit lamb feed and water access to other lambs when competing for bunk space. If there are dominant lambs in several of your groups, consider placing them together. 
Lamb group size can also play a role in reducing disease challenges. Small group sizes with adequate space of 15-20 square feet per lamb may help reduce respiratory problems in young lambs.

5. Keep environments clean

Providing a clean and sanitary environment is important during any stage of lamb development and is especially critical during weaning. A clean, dry environment with good ventilation and drainage can help reduce the potential for disease challenges during the weaning process. This can not only help keep animals dry but can also help save on bedding costs.
Pay close attention to areas surrounding waterers and feed bunks. Proper drainage in these spaces is essential as they are high traffic areas. It’s also important to keep these areas as clean as possible to minimize the possibility of disease transfer from animals eating and drinking from the same feeders.

6. Perform pre-weaning procedures

Change can be stressful for young lambs. For that reason, work to make one change at a time. Health practices, like deworming, castration, vaccination and tagging, should occur pre-weaning when young lambs are consuming more nutrients from milk replacer or milk from the ewe.
For each of these practices, it’s important to steer clear of other stressors occurring at the same time. Avoid moving pens, altering lamb feed, performing multiple procedures simultaneously, and any other major changes during weaning.
Help lambs graduate from milk replacer and transition to the next stage of life with these six steps. Preparation and a low-stress weaning plan can help lambs seamlessly transition through weaning and become successful members of the flock.
Get more tips on creep feeding lambs.