Bummer Lambs Are A Bargain

Grow your flock affordably with bummer lambs.

by Stephany Wilkes
PHOTO: GrahamPics1/Flickr

Lambing season has begun in some parts of the U.S., peaking between March and May. Spring is the perfect time of year to think about starting a new flock or growing an existing one because bummer lambs are an affordable, irresistibly cute way to do both. They are a perfect fit whether you want sheep that are livestock or pets.

What Are Bummer Lambs?

Bummer lambs are those that have either been rejected or couldn’t be fed by their ewe mothers. The ewe may have died, failed to produce enough milk or suffered from mastitis. Unable to be paired with new ewes willing to nurse them, bummer lambs are bottle-fed and raised by humans from birth. This creates a lot of work for time-pressed farmers with larger flocks and acreage to tend to, and many are glad to sell off bummer lambs as quickly as possible.

Before we get too far down the new lamb path, there’s a sad fact to get out of the way. Bummer lambs will steal your heart, and despite our best efforts, they don’t always make it. Bummer lambs are often weak and, sometimes, mother knows best: When a ewe ignores or rejects a lamb, she may do so because it has a problem that will prevent it from thriving. Lambs can have birth defects that are impossible to see until they get a bit older, and sheep are notoriously tough. Often, sheep do not show any symptoms of a problem until it is too late to deal with it. If this happens, do not blame either the flock owner who sold you the bummer lamb or yourself.

Keep in mind, sheep are not solitary animals and need to be part of a flock. You shouldn’t buy a single bummer lamb unless you already have other sheep with which it can bond and learn from.

Where To Find Bummers

Look for bummer lambs at your local county agriculture extension school, feed store, livestock auctions and farmers markets. (Ask the people selling lamb if they have any bummers.) Online, you can check Craigslist and NextDoor, the neighborhood social networking site.

Large farm flocks (of 3,000 to 5,000 ewes) typically produce between three and 12 bummer lambs per year, so if you know of any large flocks nearby, call the owner directly and ask.

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Before You Buy A Bummer Lamb

Be sure you know the age of the bummer lamb you’re getting.

When, exactly, was your lamb born? It is unlikely you’ll take on a bummer lamb within the first 48 hours of its life, but if you do, know that the lamb will need special care and colostrum. Colostrum contains antibodies that aid immunity, growth factors that help activate the sheep’s rumen and more. Ideally, a lamb should consume 1/10 its body weight in real colostrum within the first 24 hours of life.

Ask the farmer if they have any colostrum in the freezer or if they can get any from other ewes.

If you cannot get any real colostrum, you can buy or make a colostrum substitute or start the lamb on sheep’s milk replacement.

The lamb should be thriving by the time it is 1 week old, hopping, running around and eating well.

If a lamb is one or more weeks old and does not behave this way, the lamb may not be well.
Before you bring your bummer lamb home, be sure it sucks strongly on your finger. If the lamb is too weak to nurse, you will have to-tube feed it, and it is more likely to die.

Ask about the sheep’s breed.

Is it a hair sheep, a wool sheep or a cross?

Has the lamb had any vaccinations and/or dewormer?

If so, which and what kind? You don’t want to administer anything twice, but you also don’t want them to go without these things.

If the lamb was born a ram, was he wethered (castrated) or not?

If you want a pet or a sheep that’s easy to handle, you do not want a ram, so be sure to inquire.

Of course, the bummer isn’t the only thing you’ll buy: You’ll need a few key supplies, namely lamb bottles, teats (bottle nipples) and milk replacer. Feed stores and livestock-supply websites carry everything you need and can help you make good choices.

Care & Feeding

Once you find a bummer lamb to buy, you have two critical goals: keeping it warm and fed.
If your lamb is within its first week of life, it may need to have a sweater on, even during the day. The lamb needs a warm, non-drafty place to spend the day and sleep at night: Leave them in a cold barn alone and they’ll quite likely die. Some people keep bummer lambs in a mud room in the house, similar to a puppy, in a small, confined area with towels and blankets or in a large cardboard box, open at the top, with rags, towels and so on.

Heat lamps, hot water bottles and heating blankets help keep lambs warm, but do not put heating blankets or similar in direct contact with the lamb’s skin, which burns easily. Always place a towel between a heat element and the lamb’s skin. Make sure the lamb is confined enough that it cannot wander too far away from the heat lamp.

Clean and sterilize all lamb bottles as you would a baby’s bottle. Wash bottles and teats thoroughly, removing all milk residue after each use. Dirty bottles breed bacteria and make lambs sick or cause scours (diarrhea). Dispose of any formula that is more than 24 hours old. When you heat a bottle in the microwave, shake it thoroughly and test it on your wrist, as you would for a baby. Shake thoroughly: Microwave heating can create hot spots inside the bottle that will scald your lamb’s mouth.

Ask the farmer who sold it what the feeding schedule and type the lamb was on. Keep the lamb on the schedule to which it was accustomed.

Do not overfeed your lamb. It can quickly kill them: its digestive elements are still getting up to speed. Lambs are not meant to have large feedings two or three times per day. Do not feed your lamb in large amounts less frequently because it is easier for you. Feed your lamb the recommended amount of milk replacement for its age and at the regular intervals required.

Everyone has a different program for weaning bummer lambs, but a rough schedule goes a bit like this. By the time the lamb is 4 weeks old, you should be able to drop to three bottle feedings per day, reducing to two milk feedings per day by the time the lamb is 6 to 8 weeks old. Some people like to wean at 8 weeks, but most folks I know bottle feed for about 12 weeks before fully transitioning the lamb to solid feed and forage.

Lambs can have access to grass as soon as they are born, but their rumens do not start working until they are approximately 2 weeks old. From that time onwards, the lamb needs to have access to grass to encourage its rumen to activate. Early rumen activation is healthier for lambs, and a key factor to ensure your lamb grows into a healthy sheep. Starting at about 1 month old, your lamb should be allowed to graze for most of the day.

Pet Or Livestock?

Bottle-raised lambs intended to become livestock need to be around the adults of their kind as soon as possible, so they learn how to eat and act like a sheep. Bummers can integrate with sheep but may also identify with people as time goes on, making them handy “lead sheep” that will lead the rest of the flock toward people.

If your bummer lamb is intended to be a pet, of course, it will be part of your family in no time.

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