Important ewe feeding and management tips pre-lambing


February 10, 2022

With many March lambing ewes now housed, farmers are looking at the most effective way to feed their ewes this winter. Pre-lambing feeding will have an influence on ewe condition, lamb birth weight, colostrum produced by the ewe, and lamb survival. All these factors have a massive part to play in profitability of the sheep enterprise.

Beef and Sheep Adviser, Brian Hanthorn, from College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) stated “70 -75% of foetal growth takes place in the last 6-7 weeks of pregnancy and the energy demand on the ewe rises dramatically”. The growing lambs reduce the size of the ewe’s rumen subsequently reducing appetite by up to 30%. This is why concentrated energy is required at this stage – in the form of concentrates or meal.  Lack of adequate feeding in late pregnancy can result in high levels of twin lamb disease, thin ewes at lambing, poor lamb viability, low lamb birth weights and survival as well as very poor colostrum quality and quantity. Mr Hanthorn added “If a lot of powdered colostrum has to be used to supplement lambs at birth this could be an indication that there are deficits in the feeding plan”. Studies indicate that well fed ewes produce the best colostrum quality and that there is a huge variation in the quality of powered products. Research has also shown that well fed ewes have almost twice as much colostrum within 18 hour after lambing compared to underfed ewes.

Diseases such as watery mouth and scours are more common when ewes are dirty, which can be due to overstocking or lack of adequate bedding, and where there is a lack of quality colostrum available to the lamb at birth. Some intensive farmers have routinely administered oral Spectinomycin at birth to prevent watery mouth and scours caused by E.coli. This antibiotic is no longer available and attention to detail with bedding and overall hygiene and cleanliness practices will be ever more important.

Silage Quality

Maximising use of top quality silage is where any feeding plan should begin. This starts with silage analysis to get an indication of its feeding value. Only the best silage should be fed to sheep, preferably 1st cut with an M.E. of over 11 MJ/kg DM. It should be well fermented and have no mould or soil contamination. Hanthorn stated “precision chop silage is preferred over round bales as the short chop length results in higher intakes therefore reducing the amount of concentrate feeding needed”. Many sheep farmers however still feed round bales to sheep and chop length is getting shorter due to more blades in the chopping mechanism of round balers. Significant savings on concentrates can be made by feeding excellent quality silage compared to poor quality silage (see Table 1). Silage should be offered on an ab-lib basis and 15 cm of feed space per ewe is needed in this case.

Weeks before lambingPrecision chopBig bale
Excellent quality Silage (11.7 MJ)  Poor quality Silage (9.6 MJ)  Excellent quality Silage (11.7 MJ)  
4-600.40.25
2-40.350.70.55
0-20.501.00.70
Total concentrate fed from 6 weeks pre lambing (kg)  12  29  21
Table 1: Concentrate feeding rates (kg per ewe) for twin bearing ewes of body score 3

Concentrates

Mr Hanthorn commented “concentrate feeds are expensive this year but farmers should not buy on price alone. They must take a logical approach and study the feed label carefully”. The ingredients on the feed label are listed in descending order of inclusion rate. Hanthorn added “ewe concentrates can vary from 16-21 % protein and the type of protein is really important, especially in prolific flocks”. Soya bean meal is a good bypass protein source and should really be the top protein source on the feed label. Energy sources in a good ewe concentrate should be made up of cereals, mainly maize, barley or wheat. These should be positioned well up on the feed label.  Avoid ingredients such as sunflower and an over-supply of highly fibrous feeds which will generally lower the quality of the ration.

Feeding concentrates twice daily is recommended over once daily as there is less chance of acidosis and puts less pressure on the rumen.

Lying area and Trough space.

Overcrowding and lack of trough space generally results in very dirty sheep with a number of them not receiving the correct allocation of feed. This can lead to metabolic disease in ewes and post lambing issues such as scour and watery mouth in young lambs as stated earlier. The correct space and feeding area requirements are listed in Tables 2&3 below.

  Weight of ewe  Area required on straw (m2/ewe)
Large ewe 60-90kg in lamb1.2-1.4
Large ewe 60-90 kg in early lactation1.4-1.8
Large ewe 60-90 kg with lambs to 6 wks of age2.0-2.20
Table 2: Lying area allowances
   Concentrates (mm/ewe )  Restricted forage (mm/ewe)      Ad- lib forage and TMR (mm/ewe)
Large ewe (70-90 kg)  500  250  150
Small ewe (50-70 kg)  450  200  150
Table 3: Trough space

Water

Water intake varies according to the stage of production and the dry matter of the diet. In late pregnancy the water intake per ewe is around 4.5 litres per day and this goes up to 10 litres per day in early lactation. Water drinkers must be kept clean and easily accessible to the sheep.

Attention to detail in all areas including housing, feed, water and overall hygiene practises will help give lambs the best start and maximise numbers to be sold this summer and autumn.

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