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In The Paddock
Seasonal sheep flock management tips for June 2001

Ewe feeding in early- and mid-pregnancy

Key points

  • Start rationing feed by lengthening ewe grazing rotation. Feeding low quality supplements may help achieve this.
  • Feed well-conditioned ewes at maintenance - about 1.1-1.2 kg DM/day intake per head for a 60-65 kg ewe at condition score 3.
  • Preferentially feed light, poorly-conditioned ewes at about 1.3-1.5 kg DM/day intake per head.

With winter now well and truly here, finishing stock and replacements should have priority access to good quality feed. The ewe flock can be tightened up and its feed rationed.

By using a long winter rotation length, pasture can be saved for feeding in the last six weeks before lambing - one of the most critical parts of the pregnancy.

Rotation length will vary from around 60 to 120 days depending on pasture regrowth. Regrowth will be influenced by temperature, pasture species and grazing residual.

Residuals of 800-900 kg DM/ha will promote much faster pasture regrowth than residuals of less 500-600 kg DM/ha.

Where practical, supplements can be used to help slow down the rotation. The aim is to feed the ewes at maintenance and at this time of the year lower quality roughages such as meadow hay will do the job.

Higher quality supplements such as good lucerne hay, grains or high protein concentrates may be used for priority mobs (e.g. triplet bearing ewes) during the critical late pregnancy period when feed quality is more important.

Skinny ewes need more feed

Generally, when ewes are in good condition going into winter - at a condition score of 3 or more - a maintenance level of feeding is recommended.

Skinny ewes (below condition score 3) are an exception to this rule. Unless they recover condition, they may absorb foetuses - dropping the twinning rate - and surviving lambs may be lighter at birth.

Most placental development takes place in early- to mid-pregnancy, between days 30 to 90 of gestation.

Under-feeding ewes during the first third of pregnancy reduces the weight and number of cotyledons on the placenta. This in turn results in lowered lamb birth weights.

Light ewes carrying multiple foetuses, which lose 3 to 5 kg liveweight in early- to mid-pregnancy, are at greatest risk of having low birthweight lambs. Lambs that are light at birth are less likely to survive in rough weather and, if they do, are usually 2 to 3 kg lighter at weaning - a significant cost to the farm business.

Shearing around day 80 of pregnancy has been shown to improve the birthweight of lambs (particularly twin lambs) born to ewes that were in lighter condition in the early stages of pregnancy. Be sure to shear with winter combs, blades or winter combs plus lifters, and make shelter the priority after shearing.

On some farms which have been hit by the recent drought, ewes are very light and feed is limited. The worst of these ewes should be drafted off for preferential feeding, with the aim of improving their condition score - even a modest improvement will be beneficial.

Recommended feeding levels

For a 60-65 kg ewe at condition score 3, a maintenance ration is about 1.1-1.2 kg of good quality pasture dry matter a day. Good quality pasture is predominantly green and contains a reasonable amount of clover.

To ensure your ewes get this ration and encourage pasture regrowth, there should be around 800 kg DM/ha left in the paddock when they finish grazing.

Light ewes in poor condition should be fed at 1.2 to 1.3 times maintenance, or around 1.3-1.5 kg DM/day. This means leaving 900 - 1000 kg DM/ha in the paddock post-grazing.

More information

For more information, refer to these Sheep Council publications, available from Meat & Wool Innovation:

  • A Guide to feed planning, Chapter 4
  • A Guide to improved lambing percentage, Chapters 3 & 4
  • 400 Plus - A Guide to improved lamb growth, Chapters 3 & 6

Your local farm consultant or veterinarian will also be able to help. Alternatively, contact your local Meat & Wool Innovation extension specialist:

Northern North Island: Sally Hobson tel 07-823 3321 or 025-924 751
Hawkes Bay/East Coast: Lew Willougby tel 06-835 1888 or 025-434 417
Southern North Island: Richard Gavigan tel 06-376 0006 or 025-499 851
Nelson/Marlborough/Canterbury: Alan Marshall tel 03-343 7913 025 329 399
South Canterbury: Julia Mackenzie, tel 03-680 6782 or 025-782 353
Otago: Robert Pattison, tel 03-489 9021 or 025-323 094
Southland: Aaron Meikle, tel 03-203 9071 or 025-846 377

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