Tips for feeding and managing ewes for lambing success

Nutrition plays a fundamental role in successful sheep breeding and can make the greatest difference when it comes to preventative health management and flock productivity – for both the ewe and her offspring.

Below, Poppy Frater, sheep and grassland specialist at SAC Consulting, talks through some of the key feeding and management principles and body condition score (BCS) targets – from weaning to early lactation – for lambing success.

See also: How to budget and allocate rotational grazing for ewes

Weaning to tupping

Goal: Prepare ewes for production

BCS target: 3-3.5

The focus at this stage should be getting as many ewes as possible in target condition.

For lowland and upland flocks the target BCS should be 3-3.5. This is the easiest time to build condition as the ewes have weaned their lambs, so we are not asking too much of them.

It is also the period when the farmer can exert most influence on ovulation rate and scanning percentage.

Both these factors are subsequently affected by short-term and long-term nutrition.

Short-term nutrition focuses on the lead-up to tupping, and flushing – where ewes are put on a high plane of nutrition – can be used in the six weeks up to tupping time.

However, the flushing response is very much dependent on the ewe condition score. If ewes start off lean and then get flushed, they are more likely to ovulate.

But this means farmers end up with lean ewes carrying multiple lambs, which they could struggle to hold until full term.

In fact, the management of ewes up to six months pre-mating has been shown to influence ovulation rate.

Practically, this means that ewes below BCS 2 at weaning tend to have a lower scanning percentage. So, a more sustainable practice is to conserve their longer-term nutrition.

Either side of tupping is known as the “golden 20 days” and maximising the quality of nutrition during this time will influence productivity.


0-50 days

Goal: Maintain condition for optimum embryo survival

BCS target: Maintain at 3-3.5

This is the time implantation occurs (about day 19). It is important to minimise stress and any management/nutrition changes until post-implantation (34 days).

Fortunately, the energy and protein demand during this time is relatively low, so often no change is needed. Ultimately, we just want ewes to maintain condition.

50-100 days

Goal: Optimise placenta growth and development

BCS target: Above-target ewes could reduce by 0.5

By this stage, the ewe is quite resilient, and the egg is nicely implanted.

During this time, the placenta should be developing well, and this is when ewes are usually scanned.

Ewes should be condition-scored at scanning. Any thinner stock should be separated and put with ewes carrying triplets, and any fit twin-bearing ewes put with those carrying single lambs.

This will ensure there are as many ewes at target BCS as possible in the lead-up to lambing time.

During mid-pregnancy the energy and protein demand is still relatively low, so again the aim should be to maintain condition.

100-150 days

Goal: Ensure ewes are fit and healthy ahead of lambing

BCS target: Maintaining BCS is most critical at this stage

This stage includes the “golden 35 days” when there is the greatest opportunity to influence lamb survival.

Energy requirement shoots up in the final few weeks of gestation. As such it is important to consider forage choice carefully to ensure these demands are being met.

For example, straw is unlikely to meet requirements and a lot of supplementary feeding would be needed to provide a balanced diet.

Ensuring you are providing best-quality forage will help reduce the length of time you need to supplement for.

Maintaining BCS at this stage is vital – underfeeding is likely to have a knock-on effect on colostrum production and subsequent lamb vigour.


Goal: Maximise milk production and lamb growth

BCS target: Minimise condition losses

Milk levels peak at about four weeks post-lambing before starting to decline.

Until this point, lamb intake can be met with ewe milk, but from here, growth will exceed what can be provided and offspring will start to eat more grass/creep.

It is important to remember that ewe milk is likely to be the highest energy feed lambs will ever receive, so maximising their performance during this time will really help to get them off to the best start.

During early lactation, poor feeding and low ewe BCS are risk factors for teat lesions for mastitis. While the cheapest and most rumen-friendly feed is grass, supplementing can be beneficial if grazing heights are below 4cm.

Advice on ewe condition scoring

Best practice for body condition scoring (BCS) of ewes involves feeling the fat cover along the vertebrae and the short ribs along the ewe’s back, says SAC’s Poppy Frater.

As a rule of thumb, if you can easily feel under the short ribs, that is an indication that the ewe is less than a BCS of 3.

She advises visiting the AHDB Knowledge Library for more information:

Supplementing forage

The table below gives an example of how to calculate supplementation requirements.


  • A 70kg ewe carrying twins, three weeks pre-lambing
  • Feeding good silage (10.5MJ/kg dry matter (DM))
  • Supplementing with concentrate (86% DM, 12.5MJ/kg DM)

Nutrition requirements


Metabolisable energy (ME) required =

15.3MJ/day (based on guidance from AHDB’s Feeding the Ewe guide)

Dry matter (DM) intake from silage =

70kg (ewe weight) x 1.4 ÷ 100 = 0.98kg

ME from silage =

0.98 x 10.5 (silage quality) = 10.29MJ

ME needed from concentrate =

15.3 – 10.29 = 5MJ (energy deficit)

Concentrate DM =

5 ÷ 12.5 (concentrate ME) = 0.4kg

Concentrate (freshweight) =

0.4 x 100 ÷ 86 = 0.47kg freshweight concentrate should be fed

Source: Poppy Frater

Poppy Frater was speaking at a webinar on minimising losses at lambing hosted by SAC Consulting – part of Scotland’s Rural College.