Getting ewe nutrition right in the pre-lambing period

As we head towards the lambing season it is important to focus on ewe nutrition to ensure optimum flock performance.

The ewe’s rapidly growing foetus and hormonal changes reduce intakes and rumen capacity at a time of increased nutrient requirements.

If ewes aren’t provided with adequate nutrition at this time then they can suffer with poor body condition, poor milk yield and colostrum quality can be reduced.

This can result in lambs potentially suffering from poor immunity, with smaller, weaker lambs that are slower growing and more susceptible to disease.

Alternatively, ewes that are too fat have increased risk of prolapse and twin lamb disease, which can lead to lambing difficulties.

Ensure adequate energy and protein

The last six weeks prior to lambing are probably the most important of the year.

In this period the foetus is growing, taking space in the abdomen away from the rumen and reducing the ewe’s daily dry matter intake (DMI), while energy and protein demands are increasing to cover the growth of the lambs.

Indeed, 70% of a lamb’s birth-weight will be put on in the last six weeks before birth, and she also must develop udder tissue and produce colostrum during this time.

In fact, the ewe’s nutritional needs will often double during the last six weeks prior to lambing (depending on how many lambs she is carrying), yet intakes are usually depressed.

This is the key reason why scanning is recommended. Ewes should be grouped according to how many lambs they are carrying, with feed provision then being adjusted accordingly.

Weighing ewes on a regular basis, as well as routine body condition scoring, can be very helpful in determining the appropriate feeding level, as outlined in the table (below):

Maximising the use of high-quality forage can help to reduce the quantity and quality of purchased concentrate feed required, saving money.

Providing a high-quality forage source is very important, as feed costs make up a significant proportion of the total costs in a sheep flock.

It is important to get forage analysed, as this provides a starting point to base ration formulation upon.

Example

An example of the impact forage quality has on concentrate supplementation required is shown in the table (below):

Assume a 70kg ewe carrying twins in the last week of gestation. She requires 18MJ per day. Intakes will depend on palatability, quality and forage dry matter (DM).

When it comes to protein, the amount of microbial protein produced in the rumen of the ewe is crucial. Ensuring the rumen is functioning at an optimum level is, therefore, very important, as it will increase the amount of microbial protein.

In the last few weeks before lambing, when space is limited and the demands for colostrum and milk production are increasing, there is a greater need for a higher quality, higher digestible undegradable protein (DUP) source, such as soya.

A concentrate feed should be chosen based on the quality of forage available on the farm.

In most cases, using a higher specification concentrate will mean that less needs to be fed, reducing costs.

This means forage utilisation will be better, not only improving the health of the ewes, but also reducing feed costs overall for the farm. What’s more, lambs will be born with more vitality and will grow faster, earlier in life.

Typically, high-quality concentrates will include a high proportion of cereals, which will drive rumen digestion and stimulate glucose production, which is necessary for foetal growth, colostrum production and when in short supply leads to twin lab disease.

Concentrates should also have a good-quality protein – around 10% soya typically – and contain 150mg/kg of vitamin E and 0.5mg/kg selenium (Se).

Don’t forget water…

As with other ruminants, water is extremely important in sheep. Sheep prefer fresh, clean water.

Intakes of water increase dramatically as ewes lamb and it is essential that sufficient clean water is available at all times.

How you feed is as important as what you feed…

Ensure good access to feed. On an ad-lib forage system, there should be approximately 15cm of feed space per ewe. This may mean feeding between pens, as well as in front of pens.

If feeding concentrates, then at least 45cm of feed space per ewe is required.

One solution for feeding ewes is to scatter the concentrates on the floor (if the bedding is clean and dry). This encourages exercise, as well as slowing down intakes, but also increases access to feed for all ewes in a pen. This has been shown to reduce prolapses in ewes.

If significant quantities of concentrate feed are being fed, then it is best practice to split this over two or three feeds a day to minimise acidosis risk.

Feeding less of a better-quality concentrate will pay, not only with reduced feed costs overall but also reduced health issues, including fewer cases of twin lamb disease, prolapses, watery mouth and a lower worm burden post-lambing.

Acidosis risk

Remember, optimising rumen health is key. Feeding too much concentrate reduces the pH of the rumen, which impacts on digestive efficiency. Rapid transition between different rations can also lead to digestive upset.

The aim should be to maximise forage intake and supplement (not substitute) with concentrate as required.

Supplement with Actisaf and Safmannan to deliver better results

Feeding Actisaf live yeast to ewes stabilises rumen pH by reducing the build-up of lactic acid in the rumen, which causes acidosis. It also increases volatile fatty acid (VFA) production and microbial protein synthesis, both of which increase milk yield and quality.

Furthermore, Actisaf reduces rumen oxygen content, stimulating the growth of beneficial microbes that digest fibre and convert lactic acid to propionate which, when deficient in ewes, can lead to twin lamb disease.

Other benefits of feeding Actisaf include:
  • Increased feed intakes;
  • Reduced risk of rumen acidosis and poor digestion;
  • Up to 20% higher milk yield.

In addition, adding Safmannan premium yeast fraction to ewe rations delivers real benefits in supporting the immune system of the ewe around lambing time, when she is under the most stress.

Adding Safmannan and Actisaf to a good-quality concentrate will benefit ewes and ensure maximum performance and results on farm at this crucial time of the year.

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