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Piecing together the nutritional puzzle

15th August 2016

As daylight hours reduce and tupping season approaches, producers are being reminded how important nutrition is to help maximise overall performance and productivity of rams, ewes, and subsequently lambs.

Bethany May, ruminant nutritionist at Trident Feeds, looks at managing nutrition throughout the production cycle and likens it to piecing together a puzzle.

“Planning and implementing nutrition throughout the production cycle can seem like a daunting task because there’s so much to consider. For this reason, my advice to all producers is to break the process down into ‘puzzle-like’ pieces to make it more manageable,” says Bethany.

“For example, consider ram and ewe nutrition separately. Then break it down into pre-tupping, tupping, and pregnancy. It’s then a case of putting it all together throughout the season and monitoring progress to make necessary adjustments.”   

Rams pre-tupping

When preparing for the tupping season, the first piece of the puzzle is getting rams in the best condition possible because this will influence their performance and condition of the next crop of lambs.

“It’s all too easy to focus on the ewes and neglect the rams,” says Bethany. “However, producers need to remember that ewes are only half the picture and if rams are unfit for the job scanning percentages will be negatively affected.

“For this reason, it’s important to M.O.T your rams and body condition score (BSC) a good few weeks before tupping starts. They need to be in good condition to produce enough viable semen and semen production begins up to six weeks prior to tupping.”

Producers should be aiming for a BCS of around 3.5 at mating, enough fat to keep them going through tupping but not too much, as over-fat rams will be lazy and not work at the required rate.

“For this reason, I’d advise feeding any rams lower than BCS 3.5, 0.25 - 0.5kg of supplementary feed per day, six weeks prior to tupping, to get them to the right condition,” explains Bethany.

“When fed as part of a blend, sugar beet feed is one of the most palatable feeds available and can be used to tempt rams into consuming the required feed intake.”

The table below gives suggested blends for conditioning rams.

 Table 1

Rams during tupping

It is important to maintain the focus on ram nutrition during tupping as a ram may lose 15% or more of its body weight.

“During tupping, access to a supplementary concentrate diet may be necessary to avoid too much BCS loss, particularly if grass quality and quantity is lacking, to maintain service rates,” explains Bethany.

“However, if feeding cereals, it’s important to balance out the rapidly available starch to minimise the risk of rumen upset at this critical time. Feeds high in digestible fibre, such as sugar beet feed are recommended because they ferment to provide energy at a much slower rate, buffering against acidosis, making them the ideal partner to high-starch feeds.”

Flushing ewes ready for tupping

Nutritional management of ewes before and during tupping is also crucial to get them in lamb successfully and to encourage higher ovulation rates. 

“Flushing ewes, allowing them access to a high quality ration for a period of time before mating, is common practise because it encourages stronger heat expression, an increased number of eggs to be ovulated and higher conception rates,” says Bethany.

“Responsiveness of the ewe to flushing is greatly affected by BCS. Those with a BCS greater than 3.5 will show little benefit, while lower BCS ewes on a rising plane of nutrition will show the greatest response. However, it’s important to consider that the lower the BCS the greater the amount of time needed for a successful effect,” she adds.

 “For example, ewes with a BCS of less than two will need flushing for 6-8 weeks with 0.5kg/head/day of sugar beet feed (2 x 25kg bags per day for every 100 ewes) compared to a ewe with a BCS of 3-3.5 who will need flushing for 2-4 weeks with 0.25-0.5kg/head/day of sugar beet feed.”

 Early pregnancy

After tupping, and when the ewe’s eggs are successfully fertilised, they will start to implant at around day 14 and become fully attached to the uterus wall by around day 25.

“It’s particularly important that the ewe is not stressed at this stage because this can lead to embryo loss. Stress can be caused by a number of factors, including changes to diet and therefore the feeding regime used during the flushing period should be maintained,” says Bethany.  

Mid-pregnancy

Moving in to mid-pregnancy, Bethany explains that during the period of placental development ewes tupped in good condition can benefit from slight under-nourishment.

 “This has been shown to stimulate placental growth and encourage strong lamb development during late pregnancy. For this reason, allowing a drop in body condition of ½ a unit, of ewes tupped in good condition, is acceptable during this period and, therefore, nutrient demand can usually be met by good forage alone,” she says.

“However, this is different for ewe lambs because during pregnancy they may only be around 75% of their mature weight and therefore need to continue to grow.

“If forage is in short supply, of poor quality, or if weather is not ideal for maximum grazing, it may be necessary to provide a supplementary feed as blend to help maintain growth rates of both the ewe and foetus’.”

Suitable blends for different forage qualities are detailed below. Typical feeding levels of such blends range between 0.1 – 0.5kg per ewe lamb per day.

Table 2 

 * Molassed Sugar Beet

** Seek professional advice before feeding due to the potential high copper content

All blends require suitable vitamin and mineral supplementation

Late pregnancy

Lamb survival and mothering ability of the ewe is greatly affected by nutrition during the last third of pregnancy as about 70% of the foetal growth will take place during the final 50 days.

“It’s key to remember that as lambs continue to grow in the uterus, they take up a greater proportion of body space reducing the capacity of the ewe’s rumen. And as a result, their appetite can decrease by up to 30%,” says Bethany.

Therefore, she notes the importance of increasing the nutrient density of the ration as the gestation period progresses to keep nutrient supply at equal pace with foetal growth.

“Producers should be aiming for an energy content of at least 12.5MJ ME per kg DM in the supplementary concentrates, plus at least 16% to 18% crude protein if feeding hay or silage; or 20% for straw-based rations.

“It’s important to be aware that a diet high in starch can very quickly upset the rumen, causing acidosis. This can lead to lower birth weights and poor milk quality, ultimately affecting early lamb growth rates.

“For this reason, if producers are tempted to feed cereals to bolster the energy content of rations they should ensure they’re fed as part of a mixed ration and balanced adequately.

“This can be managed by including a good amount of digestible fibre, which is available from feed sources such as sugar beet feed.”

Bethany adds that nutrition during the production cycle doesn’t have to be daunting. Just break it down into manageable chunks and decide what works for you. Then put it all back together and remember to keep monitoring BCS. 

Ewe

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