Short- and mid-term effects on performance, health and qualitative behavioural assessment of Romane lambs in different milk feeding conditions

Animal. 2021 Mar;15(3):100157. doi: 10.1016/j.animal.2020.100157. Epub 2021 Jan 14.


The common practice of artificially rearing lambs from prolific meat breeds of sheep constitutes a welfare issue due to increased mortality rates and negative health issues. In this multidisciplinary study, we investigated the possible short- and mid-term advantages of artificially feeding fresh ewe's milk instead of commercial milk replacer on lambs' growth, health and welfare. Romane lambs were either separated from their mothers on D3 and fed with Lacaune ewes' milk (LAC, n = 13) or milk replacer (REP, n = 15), or they were reared by their mothers (MOT, n = 15). On D45, they were weaned, gathered in single-sex groups until the end of the study on D150. Lamb performance and biomarkers of overall health were assessed by measuring: growth, dirtiness of the perianal area, enteric pathogens in the faeces, total antioxidant status and redox status assessed by plasma reduced glutathione/oxidised glutathione ratio, and immune response after vaccination against chlamydiosis. As an exploratory approach, blood cell transcriptomic profiles were also investigated. Last, qualitative behaviour assessment (QBA) was performed as an integrated welfare criterion. Lacaune ewes' milk and REP never differed in their average daily gain but grew less than MOT lambs in the early suckling period and just after weaning. No effect was detected afterwards. On D30, LAC and REP lambs had lower total antioxidant and higher redox status than MOT lambs but did not differ among themselves. Lacaune ewes' milk and MOT had a cleaner perianal area than REP lambs on D21, while faecal pathogen infection did not vary between the treatment groups. After vaccination, LAC also had a stronger immune response on D90 compared to REP lambs. Transcriptome analysis performed on D150 showed differential gene expression, mainly in relation to inflammatory, immune and cell cycle response, between male lambs of the LAC group and those of the MOT and REP groups. Based on QBA, LAC lambs never differed from MOT lambs in their general activity and varied from REP only on D21; REP lambs were always more agitated than MOT lambs. In conclusion, artificial milk feeding impaired early growth rate, health and emotional state mainly during the milk feeding period and at weaning. Feeding artificially reared lambs with fresh ewe's milk partly mitigated some of the negative effects induced by milk replacer but without achieving the full benefit of being reared by the mother.

Keywords: Artificial rearing; Ewes' milk; Health; Qualitative behaviour assessment; Sheep.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Male
  • Milk*
  • Sheep
  • Sheep, Domestic*
  • Weaning