Improve lifetime performance with quality colostrum

by Jill Hunter, Harbro Sheep Nutritionist


There is nothing more important than colostrum, since getting it right can be the difference between strong, powerful lambs you never have to touch again or weak lambs, which continually present issues such as pneumonia, lameness and other diseases throughout their entire lifetime.

Colostrum management advice is nothing new. We still want to get a big bellyful, as quickly as possible before the gut wall starts to close and the goodness can no longer be absorbed. However, there are advances in ewe nutrition knowledge, which allow us to increase the quality and quantity of this essential first milk.


Antibodies are crucial to provide newborn lambs with passive immunity, to help them fight infections until their own immune system is up and running. Antibodies cannot pass through the placenta of ruminants, meaning colostrum is the only way to provide early life cover. They are relatively big molecules, so the lamb’s gut has to open to allow them to be absorbed. As soon as the lamb is born, it is a race against time to get colostrum into them, before the gut starts to close and the antibodies can no longer be absorbed. Concentrate on getting a big bellyful, as quickly as possible and if in doubt, tube the lamb with colostrum from its own ewe or another ewe.

Energy and protein

Typically, colostrum contains twice the fat and four times the protein of milk. This is one of the reasons for the ewe’s high energy and protein requirements around lambing. To support colostrum production, it is essential to have a diet which balances rumen degradable protein with rumen by-pass protein and also provides slow and fast release energy sources. This helps promote rumen function, boost colostrum quality and allows the ewe to manage energy status, therefore reducing the risk of twin lamb disease.

Always try to build ewes up to the target feed rate of concentrate gradually. It is equally as important to feed the ewes twice or three times a day when feeding more than 0.5kg/head/day. By splitting the feed, you ensure the pH of the rumen is more stable throughout the day and reduce the risk of acidosis and prolapses caused by excessive gas production.

Vitamins and minerals

Some vitamins and minerals do not cross the placenta either, like vitamin E. This means adequate vitamin E must be in the ewe at lambing, to ensure colostrum is rich in vitamin E to prevent issues like white muscle disease in newborn lambs.

Selenium is another mineral which is essential to the newborn. Shivering accounts for 50% of heat production in newborn lambs and brown fat, which is the layer of fat a lamb is born with, accounts for a further 30%. Alongside other supplements, selenium is essential for muscle function, which allows the newborn to shiver and is needed to release energy stored in brown fat. This means it is essential to supplement ewes with selenium. Traditional sources of selenium can be poor quality and not well utilised by the animal. This is why Sel-plex is used in Harbro products. Sel-plex is an organic, selenium enriched yeast, which is readily absorbed and utilised, with trials showing more lambs weaned which were heavier and grew quicker than those from ewes not fed Sel-plex.

Of course, the quicker a lamb stands and suckles, the quicker it reaps the benefit of the quality colostrum waiting for it. Omega 3 has been shown in trial work to increase gestation length and birth weight and decrease time to stand and suckle, making it essential in top quality ewe feeds.


Finally, it is important to consider water supply as it is often the forgotten nutrient. Demand for water more than doubles after lambing to allow for colostrum and milk production. Consider putting ewes in a shed; do they know where the water is, can they reach it and is it perfectly clean every time a ewe goes for a drink? Also, consider that drinking cold water requires energy to bring up to body temperature.

Colostrum is nutrient rich, essential to get lambs off to the best start and the number one thing we can do to influence lamb lifetime performance and profitability. Management and feeding of the ewe pre-lambing has a huge impact on colostrum quality and quantity. We should ask ourselves if we have done everything we can to ensure our colostrum is as good as it can be and investing in quality ewe feed should not be overlooked as a key factor in lamb lifetime performance. After all, you only get once chance to get it right for each and every lamb have tried others but always come back to them.”

Need some advice?
Contact one of our trusted experts.

Get in touch