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Get ewe feeding right for better milk and better lambs

As ewes move from pregnancy to lactation, nutrient requirements increase dramatically in order to meet the needs of lactation. And with lamb growth rate in the first six weeks dependent primarily on ewe milk quantity and quality, supplementary feeding becomes critical.

“It’s a challenging time for the ewe,” highlights Trident technical manager Dr Michael Marsden. “Feed intake is depressed during the final weeks of pregnancy as the expanding foetus restricts rumen capacity, yet energy and protein needs are climbing dramatically.

“In addition to the majority of the lamb’s pre-birth growth, udder tissue is also being developed, followed immediately by the need to produce large quantities of high quality milk.”

Peak milk yield occurs at around four weeks post-lambing, and is affected heavily by nutrient supply in both late pregnancy and early lactation. And until grass sward heights reach 4cm, many of those nutrients must come from supplementary concentrates.

“The level of extra feed needed will vary depending upon the quality and quantity of grass available, as well as the size and breed of the ewe, and whether supporting a single, twins or triplets,” Dr Marsden continues. “But in most cases, early spring grazing alone just isn’t going to provide the 2030MJ ME/head/day needed at peak lactation.

“The simplest and easiest solution is to continue feeding the same supplement used in late pregnancy, at least for the first four weeks of lactation. The lamb is entirely dependent on milk for all its nutrients during this time, so aim for 12.5MJ ME/kg DM, with at least 16-18% crude protein.”

A typical 75kg LW lowland ewe will require up to 1.1-1.6kg/head/day of concentrate during this period, explains Dr Marsden, split into meals that are no more than 0.5kg/head at any one time to avoid overloading the rumen. Adjust the level fed to match grazing availability, or if having to rely on hay, silage or straw until grass growth takes off.

Feed choice should also be considered carefully, with feeds that are traceable and meet farm assurance scheme standards increasingly important. Compounds are convenient, but rarely the most cost-effective option, with blends – either ready-made or home-mixed – now the preferred option for many lamb producers.

“There’s also a trend to move away from feeds like soyabean meal – it’s a great source of the high quality protein needed to drive milk yield, but there are other options,” states Dr Marsden. “Scottish barley distillers’ feed*, rapemeal and wheat distillers’ feeds from bio-ethanol production are all good alternatives.”

“It’s also important not to rely too heavily on cereals, which can overload the rumen with starch and cause acidosis, leading to a drop in both milk yield and milk quality. So make sure to include plenty of digestible fibre in the ration – sugar beet feed is a popular choice – to both buffer the rumen and boost milk fat production.”

Studies carried out by ADAS using twin bearing Suffolk-cross-mule ewes showed that when 30% of the barley in an 85%-barley-plus-15%-protein-pellet ration was replaced with sugar beet feed, milk fat content increased by 50%. The result was a significant increase in the energy supplied to the suckling lambs, with a subsequent reduction in lamb mortality (Table 1).

Table 1 - Blends for ewes and lambs if grass growth is insufficient to maintain production

Barley +

protein pellet

Sugar beet feed + barley +protein pellet

Ewe weight loss 4 weeks post-lambing (kg)

Milk fat content (%)

Milk protein content (%)

Lamb mortality (%)

6.3

5.9

5.6

10.8

4.4

9.1

5.7

2.9

And if grass height is still below 4cm by the time lambs reach eight weeks of age, Dr Marsden warns that there will be strong competition between lambs and ewes for grazing. Fast lamb growth rates will only be maintained if a high quality creep feed is made available, with table 2 outlining suggested blends for both lactating ewes and creep feeding lambs.

Table 2 – Blends for ewes and lambs if grass growth is insufficient to maintain production

% inclusion (as fed)

Ewes

Lambs

Diet A

Diet B

Diet A

Diet B

Sugar beet feed

30.0

41.5

20.5

15.5

Scottish barley distillers’ feed*

37.5

40.0

-

20.0

Maize gluten

30.0

-

-

-

Rapemeal

-

8.0

-

-

Hi-pro soyabean meal

-

8.0

12.5

17.5

Flaked maize

-

-

20.0

20.0

Barley

-

-

15.0

22.5

Molasses

-

-

2.0

2.0

Micronised barley

-

-

17.5

-

Rumen-protected soyabean meal (SoyPass)

-

-

10.0

-

Vitamins and minerals

2.5

2.5

2.5

2.5

Energy (ME MJ/kg DM)

Protein (% as fed)

Starch and sugars (% as fed)

12.4

18

12.0

12.4

20

13.0

13.0

18

37.5

13.0

18

32.5

“Once grass height can be maintained between 4-6cm, the need to supplement ewes does drop off, but how quickly will be influenced by number of lambs and ewe body condition,” he concludes. “The feed value of spring grazing can also be highly variable, so if weather conditions are poor, or grass regrowth slow, don’t risk a check in lamb growth by failing to up the level of supplementation again if needed.”

* Because of the copper content in Scottish distillers’ barley feed, professional advice should be sought before feeding to sheep.

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