Ngahere Agriculture - Lamb Survival

November 2014

Maximising survival rates for lamb triplets at Ngahere Agriculture

Andrew and Gretchen Freeman farm 600ha effective 20km east of Masterton. Ngahere has been farmed in the Freeman family for 40 years and has recently launched a commercial expansion phase via a new company-based joint venture as Ngahere Agriculture Ltd. including all land, stock and plant. The property runs 2,500 breeding ewes and this year targets finishing of 15,000 lambs and 600 bulls and steers. The property is balanced with approximately one-third sheep breeding, one-third lamb finishing and one-third cattle finishing.

In 2011, Andrew and Gretchen Freeman noticed the growing animosity towards triplet lambs among other top farmers. They also noticed the increasing trend in triplet lamb numbers around the country so they set out to find a way to embrace triplet lambs, improve their survival and better capture the potential of their breeding ewes.

The Freemans and their staff members have pioneered and trialed a triplet lamb transfer system that is workable and profitable. The system works by deliberately mis-mothering all single lambs and one lamb from triplet sets and reallocating them as twins. Mixing of the lambs is the key for scale and repeatability, as if a ewe with a single lamb retains that lamb she frequently rejects the mothered-on lamb. The system has resulted in an additional 50% at docking, lifting outcome from 180% among triplet lambs to 230%. It has also lifted total lamb weights at 75 days by more than 40%, compared with non-intervention control. On Ngahere Farm every single-bearing ewe offers a survival opportunity to a triplet lamb.

The key objectives for the project were to capture the potential being lost because of the poor survival of triplet lambs and a high death rate of triplet-bearing ewes. “Only 60% of scanned triplets were surviving until docking and it appeared that losses usually occurred within the first 10 days of their life,” Andrew said. So instead of a theoretical 300% lambing, the actual outcome without intervention was 180%.

Ewes carrying single lambs (ascertained at pregnancy scanning by ultrasound) are kept close by the mothering facility set up in the covered yards. Temporary pens set up in the yards are kept warm, dry, and disinfected. Ewes and lambs are recorded, separated, and mixed. Lambs are treated with iodine navel spray and given a half ml shot of antibiotic. The following morning each ewe is checked for udder function and health, allocated two new lambs and held with them in tight proximity to allow the lambs to feed and adjust. Ram harnesses are used for this part of the procedure to restrict the ewe’s movements. Lambs that have been kept overnight without their ewe are hungry and eager to suckle from the new mum. A successful transfer involves one and a half to two days in the shed, after which maternal bonds are tested in a yard paddock. Happy new “twin” families are then released to high quality pastures such as red clover.

The procedure has been reviewed and approved by a veterinarian. Ewes with single lambs that have been confined for a period, are then given two new lambs. The ewes are tired and keen to graze, which gives the new lambs the best chance of latching on. The ewes with previously single lambs, now twins, need a higher plane of nutrition.

For the triplet transfer system to run smoothly and successfully a considerable amount of intervention is required over a short period. The system is far more intensive than traditional lambing management on many New Zealand sheep farms.

“It is the people on the ground that make it happen. We wouldn’t have been successful if it weren’t for the team’s ability to adapt to change,” Andrew Freeman said. 

Triplet Transfer System benefits:

  • Lamb wastage can be saved.
  • Better animal welfare outcome.
  • Capture reproductive potential of highly fertile flocks or via enhancement from the vaccine Androvax
  • Integration of intensive and extensive country on farm.
  • Psychological benefits in a storm – farmers feel like something can be done.
  • Neighbours can utilize facilities – which can act as a morale booster.
  • Triplet lambs often small at weaning can now be raised as high productivity twins
  • Faster-growing lambs are more efficient in converting pasture to saleable meat,
  • Lifts feed conversion efficiency.
  • Utilises single mum’s full milking capacity.
  • Higher kilograms of lamb liveweight per ewe at weaning.
  • Reduced triplet-bearing ewe deaths (from twice a day intensive lambing beats)
  • More trade options for farm with high performing spring utilization offered by transferring triplet and single lambs
  • Ewe condition is also valuable on retained ewes due to increased fertility, lactation, and energy reserves or as saleable product at weaning.

Triplet Transfer System costs:

  • Six hours labour transferring 20 single ewes per day over lambing, $120/day, $6/lamb
  • Plus shed set up, feeding and animal health costs another $15/lamb.
  • Total $21/lamb.


  • In 2013 season the margin gained (benefits over the costs) was three times the costs, about $64/lamb. In 2012 it was $59/lamb.
  • Despite the profit advantage being achieved for two years, the project team is well aware of the sensitivities that could affect the viability of the triplet transfer system.
  • Factors such as low store lamb prices or higher labour costs would reduce the profit margin as would low lamb weaning weights, improved lamb survival under the status quo system, or low survival of mothered-on lambs.
  • Also it is not easy to match triplet-bearing ewes with single-bearing ewes in the shoulders of the lambing season so the Freemans run their system when real scale can be achieved.


Singles and triplet lambs transferred to ewes as twins have a 90 – 95% survival to weaning, which is a 180% lambing outcome (lambs weaned per ewes mated).

The margin of benefits over costs has been consistently around $60/lamb.