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Not The Mama, But I’m Now The Mama

A rare shot of my goatlings standing still! Photo by Keba M Hitzeman

There are weeks in the early spring that can be utterly exhausting. Sometimes things go as planned, and life is very good. Life is still good when things don’t go according to plan, but I get a lot less sleep and need a lot more caffeine to keep the ball rolling. Or, in this case, keep the milk flowing.

Breeding animals can be fraught with peril. There are so many things that can go wrong, from the health of the male and female before “the deed,” to the mama’s needs during gestation to keep that baby growing, to the birthing process itself. And once the baby (or babies) is here, things can still go awry. Ideally, even a first-time mama will recognize the squalling creature behind her as her own progeny, clean it up, and help it find the milk bar. Less ideally, mama needs some persuasion to let baby nurse for the first few times, then realizes that this is how it should be. And then you have those who want nothing to do with the life they’ve just brought into the world. They may clean it, “talk” to it, and even let it snuggle up to them to sleep, but when baby heads to find milk, that’s just too much. This is when I bring out the bottles and milk replacer, and start losing sleep.

(As an aside, I’ve had this happen to experienced mamas – they will be fine for years, then one year, nope, that baby isn’t mine, and you can’t make me nurse it. I don’t know what causes this “no thank you” switch to flip, because the next year, the same animal will be the best mama ever. Any thoughts on this phenomenon?)


Photo by Unsplash/Roma Kaiuk

The first day, I tend to feed every 2-3 hours, getting colostrum into the lamb or kid. This “first milk” is so important to give the lamb antibodies and “wake up” its immune system. After 24-36 hours of multiple small feedings, I start mixing lamb milk replacer in and space the feedings to every 4 hours for a week or so. I’m keeping a close eye on how much each lamb or kid is eating to determine when I can increase the time between feedings.

As long as the mama isn’t trying to hurt the baby, I will keep them together, because after the first week to 10 days, the lamb will start nibbling at the hay it sees the adult eating. I’ve separated the lambs before, and in my experience, it takes the lamb longer to realize that hay is food when it doesn’t have an example to watch. Sometimes separation is necessary, but I avoid it when possible. It’s so satisfying to watch the lambs and kids as they start eating hay – another hurdle in the “baby to adult” marathon has been cleared!

For weeks two and three, feedings slowly switch from 4 times a day (8am, 2pm, 8pm, 2am) to 3 times a day, which works out to 8am, 3pm, 10pm feedings. I can sleep through the night again! I also add probiotic powder to their milk to keep them from getting scours. They still might (at least in my experience they do!), but the effects can be lessened by keeping that good gut bacteria working. By this point, they sometimes start drinking less milk from a bottle because they are eating more hay. Again, keeping a close eye on their development and growth is critical to make sure nothing bad is happening – are they pooing and peeing? Are they alert, playing? It’s not a chore to “have to” sit and watch them after they have their bottle to check their condition. Running and jumping babies are just so fun to watch!


That blur to the left of the top picture is what the goatlings usually look like, and the bottom picture is where he came to rest for a snack! Photo by Keba M Hitzeman

The question of weaning is one of those hot-button issues – when to wean and how to wean will depend on your situation. I tend to wean slowly because I worry about them getting enough to eat, even when I can see by their round bellies that they are getting more than enough. Mine will be weaned by the time the flock is put on their spring pasture, if not before. Beating the same drum– observe and adapt as the lambs and kids grow. Sometimes 9 of them are ready for weaning off the bottle, and that tenth one still needs some supplementation, even after they are on pasture.

Photo by Keba M Hitzeman

Bottle babies are a lot of work but give great rewards. My bottle-fed sheep and goats are the friendliest of the flock. Sometimes too friendly because they associate me with food!

What are your tips and tricks for raising bottle babies?

Published on Dec 18, 2020

Grit Magazine

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