Lambs may need to be weaned earlier this year to relieve pressures on grass shortages, experts are warning.
Independent sheep consultant Catherine Nakienly says sheep producers need to start thinking about optimum weaning times sooner rather than later to bolster ewe performance later on in the season.
In the meantime supplementary feeding might be necessary to protect ewe condition and to ensure lambs meet weaning targets.
Many farmers have already reported substantial losses since turnout, as a result of feed pressures, stress and a high parasite burden caused by recent weather.
Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC) senior sheep consultant John Vipond predicts there will be a minimum 10% reduction in lamb production this year.
Traditionally farmers wean at about 14-16 weeks of age, but this year Ms Nakienly recommends putting a weaning plan in place based on grass availability.
“Weaning is a good tool for controlling grass supply. If you’re short of grass or ewes are in poor condition wean early; put the ewes to one side and dry them off. This way it frees up limited supplies for the lambs,” she says.
Failing to select the optimum weaning data for individual circumstances could exacerbate forage shortages, she warns.
“When lambs get to about 8-10 weeks of age they start competing with ewes for grass. Where supplies are limited lambs will fail to access enough grass for maximising growth rate.”
However, she says farmers need to take into account how close lambs are to finishing and the proportion of lambs they have which are fit for market.
“If they will be ready within 10-14 days you may want to leave them on the ewes. But this does need to balanced with the feed situation – if lambs do not have access to good quality forage during this period they will go backwards,” she warns.
Supplementing ewes and lambs at grass
Although producers may be reluctant to feed sheep high-priced supplements, experts warn it is important ewes receive adequate feed to maintain milk yield and protect early lamb growth.
“Lactation peaks for a ewes with twins at three to four weeks. The ewe needs to meet full lactation yield otherwise lambs will be below desired weaning weight,” explains Dr Vipond.
Maximising lamb growth early on is key as it sets a precedent for performance later on, and post-weaning FCR (feed conversion rate) drops from 4-1 to 8-1.
However, Dr Vipond says at six weeks of age it is more efficient to consider creep-feeding lambs directly, if there’s little grass.
“When you creep feed lambs ewes eat less grass and it gives the grass time to grow.”
He says creep feeding can also reduce parasite burden by reducing lambs’ reliance on forage.
But he says key to this is feeding small amounts of feed from a young age to help develop the rumen. He suggests starting lambs on proprietary pellets from one week onwards to encourage feeding, before moving on to a 50/50 mix of whole grain to reduce costs once lambs start eating considerable amounts.
Guide to feeding and weaning
- If sward height is below 4cm consider supplementary feeding ewes with forage or 1kg of compound
- Creep feeding lambs early on with 0.5kg of concentrates can relive pressure on ewes, reduce mastitis and allow grass time to grow
- Wean no later than 14-16 weeks of age, but no earlier than 10 weeks
- If you have large swathes of grass, aim to wean later to get it under control