More than half the sheep producers in Great Britain are still bottle-feeding surplus lambs, despite the fact that the practice is extremely labour-intensive and fails to capitalise on early life growth potential.

That’s according to research carried out by Volac at the end of 2016 to examine surplus lamb rearing practices. More than 580 farms participated in the on-line survey and while more than 99% of respondents said that it was important to rear the maximum number of lambs possible each year, only around 45% are taking advantage of modern feeding technology to boost animal performance and make their life easier.

“Some of the feedback did surprise me,” said independent sheep consultant Kate Phillips after reviewing the survey findings, “particularly the fact so many farms still bottle rear when you can undoubtedly save on labour and get better lamb growth rates with ad lib milk feeding systems. And why spend hours a day bottle feeding when you could be prioritising your time on important tasks elsewhere during a hectic lambing period?”

The Volac research gives an interesting insight into current surplus lamb rearing practices on UK sheep units. Not surprisingly, the lambs being reared artificially are those from triplet-bearing ewes in the main, together with any orphans. More than 80% of farmers say that if a ewe has had triplets one lamb would be removed and reared artificially.

“Interestingly, though, only a third of producers choose the odd one out in a group of three, which is what we would recommend,” commented Volac technical specialist Ian Watson. “It’s always best to leave a balanced pair of lambs on the mother. Everyone else is employing a mix of criteria to make the choice.”

Surplus lambs can now be reared very efficiently artificially and without the problems associated with fostering onto an unwilling ewe. “With good husbandry, organisation and the right milk replacer there’s no doubt you can produce good quality lambs, as well as save hours of effort and hassle,” Ms Phillips pointed out.

Mr Watson added that machine-feeders also report faster growth rates because there is no limit to how much or when the lambs can drink. Producers also say they see fewer digestive upsets.

“Most significantly, though, users also report a decent margin over lifetime feed of anywhere between £15 and £25 per lamb. This margin could be even healthier in 2017 if lamb price and demand remains buoyant,” he says.

However, Mr Watson stressed that automatic feeding systems are not a substitute for good husbandry. “Sound hygiene is crucial and lamb pens must be draught-free, well drained and bedded to keep lambs as warm and dry as possible. Clean, fresh water also needs to be available along with creep feed (18% crude protein) and long forage offered ad lib to encourage early intake. Lambs should be weaned abruptly at no less than five weeks of age when they are two and half times birthweight and eating an average of 0.25kg of creep a day over three days,” he said.