In-lamb ewe diets need planning now and careful attention should be paid to feed ingredients, avoiding filler products such as oat feed, to ensure maximum performance from flocks.

John Vipond, SAC sheep specialist, says automatically falling into a routine of starting supplementary feeding six weeks before lambing – particularly when the ingredients of the bought-in concentrate are not being carefully checked – could have a big impact on ewe condition, lamb birth weights and colostrum production.

“The needs of the ewe, of all animals, are hugely underestimated.

No other animal produces offspring with such a high birth weight compared with the weight of its dam.

“A woman weighing 70kg is reckoned to have had a big baby at 8lbs, but a 70kg ewe can produce twins weighing twice that. We’ve long failed to recognise this when feeding ewes during late pregnancy,” says Mr Vipond.

Although he advises sheep producers to take an urgent overview of the way they feed ewes this spring, one of his strongest messages concerns feed quality.

And he’s concerned that fillers are being widely used to bulk up rations.

“Products like shea nuts, oat feed and cocoa by-products have no dietary value in a concentrate ration.

Shea nuts have a metabolisable energy value of 6.5MJ/kg – that’s less than sheep muck.”

“Don’t buy on price this spring, buy on quality,” he urges.

He reckons many ewes aren’t fed correctly until the last three weeks of pregnancy – and then it’s too late for the feed to do any good.

“There’s severe underfeeding in many flocks in mid to late pregnancy which means the placenta fails to grow – you can’t get a placenta to suddenly grow in the last three weeks.

A lift in protein intake will help the placenta develop and boost colostrum quality.

“Offering high quality feed in small amounts over a longer period is far more effective than packing it all in over six weeks.

“And while it’s not going to save you money in terms of feed costs, it will be financially worthwhile in terms of the number of viable lambs born, colostrum production and ewe health.

Not to mention the man hours saved by not having to mother-on lambs and deal with other problems associated with poor nutrition during pregnancy.

“In terms of man hours at lambing there can be huge savings when ewes are fed correctly in mid to late pregnancy,” says Mr Vipond.

Hill sheep producers in particular should avoid leaving supplementary feeding until the later stages of pregnancy.

“Hill flockmasters should think about a longer feeding period to avoid suddenly finding a lot of thin ewes when flocks are gathered for lambing.

They should consider introducing a small feed of soya in mid-pregnancy or offering feed blocks to give 150g a head of intake a day ahead of the traditional six-week pre-lambing feeding regime.

“Fluke has been more prevalent in recent years and can take a lot of body condition off pregnant ewes.

Where ewes have been scanned and found to be in poor condition it’s worth feeding an extra 125g a lamb carried of soya to boost protein intake when it’s needed.

And this can be maintained as an extra feed combined with the traditional ration as lambing time approaches.”

Mr Vipond says scanning ewes – which will already be under way – provides an opportunity to handle ewes and check body condition.

Any thin ewes, irrespective of scan result, should be run separately from the rest to avoid further loss in condition.

“Don’t play catch up this lambing time.

Be ahead of the game and you’ll save money in the long run.

Don’t be afraid to feed some hay and even dark distillers grains when ewes need it.”

jh@jeremyhuntassociates.com