Automatic lamb feeders have seen an increase in popularity as producers are breeding ewes that are more prolific and sheep farms have become larger. The use of automatic feeders may help to improve lamb welfare, as noted by producers who have switched from hand feeding. This may be related to the consistency in mixing and powder concentration. Auto-feeders also help to decrease the nursing load on ewes, helping them maintain their condition and rebreed quicker. However, before making the decision to purchase an automatic feeder, there are a few things to consider.
1. Do you have enough lambs to run an automatic feeder efficiently?
Each machine will have a different minimum requirement to run it. The Grober ECO Feeder can handle up to 240 lambs at a time, with a recommended minimum of 10-15. However, this number depends on your barn and management of the machine. With a low number of lambs, the milk can sit in the mixing jar for extended periods of time, increasing the risk of bacteria growth, and the risk of lines freezing in the winter.
2. How much labour is currently being spent on feeding?
How long does it take you to measure, mix, feed, and clean your current system? Could this labour be better used elsewhere in the barn? Automatic lamb feeders allow you to allocate some of your labour from mixing and feeding, to managing and observing your lambs, but time will still need to be spent on cleaning.
3. Automatic lamb feeder cleaning requirements
An automatic feeding system requires approximately 20 minutes per day to clean and check animals, compared to 1-2 hours for a manual feeding system. With automatic feeders, hygiene is very important as all the lambs are nursing off the same nipples. Similar to bottles and mob feeders, a dirty machine can lead to health issues due to bacteria build up. Many producers have noted that the machines and lines are quicker and easier to clean than bottles or mob feeders. The Grober ECO Feeder even comes with a semi-automatic cleaning function, allowing for an easy consistent clean.
When lambs are on an automatic feeder, they will consume more. With an increase in consumption, there will be an increase in urination and manure. Therefore, pens will require more bedding and ventilation management to ensure lambs have a healthy environment for growth.
4. Cost of labour vs. cost of automatic lamb feeder, parts and electricity
A 2017 study found that the main reasons Canadian dairy producers used a manual milk feeding system versus an automatic feeder, was the farm size, and the investment in the automatic feeding system and group housing facilities. These hesitations are common and relevant with lambs as well. There is also the added cost of maintenance, replacement parts, and electricity that need to be included in your economic calculations. You must also think about where the machine will be housed and if your barn will need renovations to house multiple groups of lambs.
Benefits of an automatic feeder for lambs
Now that we’ve looked at what to consider, let’s take a look at some of the benefits of an automatic feeder. One is that they allow lambs to exhibit natural behaviors, consuming small meals frequently throughout the day. Studies have found that lambs fed on an automatic feeder had 9.5±3 meals a day consuming 176ml ±132ml per feeding for a duration of 247 seconds ±158 seconds per meal. When bottle feeding, lambs consume less frequent and larger meals, increasing the chances of digestive upset.
The main benefit of using an automatic feeding system, however, is the increase in growth without increasing labour. In 2010 at the Grober Young Animal Development Centre, a trial was done comparing automatic feeder’s vs mob feeders. The trial found that lambs fed with an automatic feeder gained 6.73kg compared to lambs fed with a mob feeder who gained 4.78kg over the same 34.8-day milk fed period. They also found that lambs on automatic feeders had a better feed to gain ratio. This is because in the first weeks of their lives lambs are most effective at digesting milk compared to digesting creep.
Automatic lamb feeders offer many benefits, depending on your farm size and available labour. The initial investment, which is the main reason for sticking with manual feeding methods, is quickly offset by a decrease in labour costs and an increase in lamb growth. However, the success of your automatic feeding system is entirely dependent on how well you manage your automatic feeder, housing environment, and lambs. You have to be prepared to pay more attention to each group, always looking out for hungry or weak lambs. It’s important to remember that cleaning and flock management are still required to produce healthy, productive lambs.