Heightened biosecurity measures have closed lamb banks and special auction sales and few farms now have the labour required to bottle rear or cross foster surplus lambs.
This has created a dilemma for farms director Selwyn Williams when scanning in 2005 indicated that 97 of the 1300 Welsh Mules run at one of Aberystwyth University’s units were carrying triplets.
Other farmers who had readily taken spare lambs in the past were not interested and there was no way shepherd Gwyn Jones and his student lambing team could cope with hand rearing or fostering so many.
“We believe every lamb has the right to live, so putting some of them down was not an option,” says Dr Williams.
“We heard that automatic feeders could be hired from Volac International.
The system seemed to suit us because its minimal labour requirement would enable our shepherd and students to concentrate on more important jobs in the lambing shed.”
The four-teat machine was located in a well-ventilated building between two pens, each capable of holding 20 lambs bedded down on barley straw.
Lambing took place between February and April.
Triplet lambs were left on their dams for up to 24 hours, during which time students tried to ensure they suckled.
When there was any doubt they hadn’t taken sufficient amounts, they were given a colostrum substitute.
The weakest triplet was then removed from the ewe and introduced to a milk substitute over 48 hours using a teated bottle, before being given access to the automatic feeder.
Cleaning the feeder and teats, replenishing the system and checking that lambs were sucking took about 30 minutes a day.
And lambing shed hygiene regime has to be rigorous, says Mr Jones.
“Student helpers were supplied with clean overalls, wellington boots and surgical gloves.
There were strategically placed notices urging them to wash their hands before and after treating lamb navels to prevent joint ill, castrating, tail docking and ear tagging.”
Pens had fresh straw every day and lime was used to disinfect individual pens.
At less than 5%, scanning to sale lamb mortality for the spare lambs was the same as for the whole flock, he adds.
Fresh water and an 18% protein creep feed were also made available.
“The machine gave lambs the opportunity to feed in a fairly natural way, which reduced incidence of digestive upsets.”
Though there was an occasional queue to use it, Dr Williams observed normal group behaviour and saw no sign of bullying.
“They started out as the poorer triplet lambs, but they grew really well.
There was no scouring and they did not develop the pot-bellies associated with bottle rearing.
“Weaning was abrupt at between five and six weeks old, at which time lambs were turned out to clean pasture and fed creep until their rumens adjusted to grass.”
Artificially reared lambs joined the rest of the crop at Morfa Mawr, Llanon, Ceredigion, at 12 weeks of age, when there was no visual difference in size between them and naturally reared twins.
The plan was to finish all the lambs at 16kg to 18kg deadweight by September using grass and fodder crops.
“But lower than average rainfall reduced the amount of grass available and a proportion had to be finished on a mixture based on homegrown crimped wheat.”
The biggest production input was milk replacer, which contained 24% protein and 24% oil and cost £1100/t.
An average of £30 a lamb was spent on the powder, machine hire, creep feed and sundries, which left a gross margin of about £10 a lamb.
“The system is not cheap, but it enabled us to rear a quality lamb and achieve an acceptable return on our investment,” says Dr Williams.
The latest scan indicates that 10% of Morfa Mawr ewes are carrying triplets, so the artificial feeder will be used again.
Dr Williams also intends to test the claim that finishing the surplus lambs intensively indoors can generate a gross margin of £20 a lamb.