Doing it better in dry times

30 August 2018

Lambing and maintaining ewe reproduction during dry times is challenging, but the job can be made easier with simple planning around nutrition and weaning.

Agricultural consultant and animal nutrition specialist Hamish Dickson said sustained strong meat and wool market returns have meant producers have more options than in most previous dry years. Here are Hamish's tips for increasing lamb survival, maintaining ewe condition and establishing a platform for weaner performance.

Lambing ewes

Hamish said lambing down ewes during a tough season is about maximising lamb survival and keeping ewes in sufficient condition for rejoining.

“For spring lambing flocks, now is a critical time for getting nutrition right,” Hamish said.

“Pregnant and lambing ewes are priority stock and need to be looked after. Ideally, a pregnant ewe expecting twins should be in body condition score 3.2 (range one to five) while singles can be a bit lighter at 2.8.”

Hamish’s advice is to separate twin-bearing ewes into smaller mob sizes and prioritise their care.

“If pastures are limited and stock are fed in containment they (twin carriers) will need a supplementary ration of about 1.9kg/head/day offering 12.5ME/kg DM (metabolizable energy), consisting of grain or pellets with a small amount of roughage,” he said.

“Ewes pregnant with singles will need an average of 1.5kg/day.”

Early weaning

Hamish said producers, whose flocks have already lambed, should consider early weaning as an effective strategy for maintaining ewe condition for rejoining and for prioritizing available feed.

“Generally, we advise weaning 14 weeks after the start of lambing in a normal season, if early weaning is needed start at 11-12 weeks and if the season is really tight, weaning at 9-10 weeks after the start of lambing can assist in better managing feed resources for ewes and lambs,” he said.

“Generally, age, weight and growth rate of weaned lambs are the drivers of this decision.”

Hamish said early weaned lambs (say 16kg) that are totally hand-fed need a high-quality diet to keep growing, “even just 50g/head/day is an acceptable growth rate to maximise survival."

“The lambs will require a high quality grain/pellet ration that offers 16-17% protein, with 10-20% of their ration consisting of hay or straw to maintain rumen function,” he said.

To increase chances of weaning success, Hamish has a few tips:

  • start imprint-feeding lambs while on their mums so lambs are familiar with feed stuffs
  • yard weaning can be helpful but ensure good quality feeds are available
  • ensure lambs get their standard clostridial vaccines and then boosters at weaning
  • if lambs are born to ewes that have been totally hand-fed, a vitamin A, D and E injection can be beneficial
  • whether trail feeding or using self-feeders, make sure animals have access to feed at all times, otherwise social interactions within the mob can create large variations in weight gain
  • when supplementary feeding, consider splitting animals into light and heavies or even three weight categories to reduce negative dominant behaviour within the mob

Back to the paddock

Hamish warned that while some parts of southern Australia have received rain and short green pick is emerging, producers should be cautious reintroducing stock to paddocks.

“If you can, even box stock classes that can be run harder together and hand feed them while giving other pastures time to get away,” he said.

“There needs to be at least 1000kg/DM/ha available in a paddock so stock aren’t constantly walking in search of feed.”

Those lucky enough to get a spring start may face the challenge of re-introducing hand-fed animals onto lush pastures.

“Do this as part of a two-to-three-week strategy, giving animals’ rumens time to adjust,” Hamish said.

“When doing the initial transition, move animals late in the day after they have been filled up on hay so they are not tempted to gorge themselves.

“Once there, provide hay in the paddock and/or whatever food stuffs they’ve been accustomed to. They won’t need a lot but a pick of it will help them adjust without setback.”

Tools and advice

Hamish recommends using MLA tools and others including:

Stocking rate calculator

Feed budget planner

Feed cost calculator

Condition scoring sheep

Email Hamish Dickson, AgriPartner Consulting

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