Essentials of Ewe Nutrition

by Wiehan Visagie

Careful ewe feeding: The key to successful lamb production

Any sheep farmer will agree that when production is effective, profitability on the farm will improve. The best way to maintain income is to focus on the development and growth of the offspring. In sheep production, farmers have to invest a lot of effort to secure the nutrition of the ewe, as it is one of the most important factors influencing foetal growth, milk production and subsequent lamb performance. Proper nutrition also develops the ewe’s udder, which, in return, provides the lamb with plenty of high-quality milk during the first six weeks of its life. During this phase, the lamb is solely dependent on the ewe and needs energy to grow efficiently while it develops to the best of its genetic potential.

Energy input

Research has shown a positive correlation between nutrition during gestation and the performance of the ewe, as nutrition affects the ewe and its offspring. McGovern et al. (2015) published work in the Journal of Animal Science that indicates that when ewes are fed to receive only 80 percent of their energy requirement during the last few weeks of gestation, they achieve lower body condition scores than those receiving all the energy input required. When ewes were presented with feed providing 100 percent or more of their energy requirements, they produced additional milk and higher levels of good quality colostrum.

Lambs that receive an adequate milk supply during the lactation period until weaning gain more weight. The effect of milk supply was demonstrated by McGovern et al., as lambs of ewes in the group fed a 100 percent energy diet had a significantly higher lamb slaughter weight compared with those of the ewes that were fed only 80 percent of their energy requirement.

Feed management

An article published in the Journal of Animal Science by Kenyon et al. (2018) indicates that when farmers anticipate a potential feed shortage, they must feed less during mid pregnancy and more during late pregnancy, when adequate nutrition is more important. Management practices should focus on ensuring adequate nutrition in late pregnancy, as it may be possible to increase the birth weight of lambs by feeding ewes above their pregnancy maintenance requirement.

Twin lambs

An ewe carrying twin lambs will require a 70 percent increase in energy from late pregnancy to early lactation. As soon as twin lambs are born, the energy requirements of ewes increase as they use nutrients to also produce milk for the lambs. Naturally, ewes produce more milk for two lambs than for one (an average of 40 percent more), even if they are fed the same diet as ewes with a single lamb. Ewes raising twin lambs therefore require more energy; the farm needs to provide a higher density feed to prevent ewes losing weight and performing less well.

Technical advice

Energy makes up the largest portion of the diet and is usually the most limiting nutrient in the ewe’s diet. Carbohydrates, fat and excess protein (not recommended) in the diet all contribute towards fulfilling the energy requirements of ewes. Meeting energy requirements without over- or underfeeding the ewe is one of the biggest challenges. Farmers, therefore, must always consult an animal nutritionist to formulate a well-balanced diet.

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