Countdown to lambing: Management of the ewe

Managing your ewes correctly in the last eight weeks prior to lambing is one of the most critical stages in the sheep calendar, says independent sheep consultant Kate Phillips. If things go wrong at this stage then lamb birth-weight could be low, lamb losses high, colostrum supplies and quality poor and subsequent lamb growth below target. Maintaining ewes in good health is equally important.

Countdown to lambing: Management of the ewe

Good preparation will help you to maximise the number of healthy newborn lambs to finish the season. Here are our top tips needed to preparing for lambing:

Tip #1. Disease prevention

Vaccinating ewes against clostridial diseases will give lambs a better chance of survival. Don’t forget the booster 4-6 weeks pre-lambing.

Tip #2. Lameness

Take a comprehensive approach to reducing lameness by using injectable antibiotics to treat foot rot and consider using a vaccine pre-housing. Reducing foot-rot to a very low level before housing is important to avoid the spread of the foot rot bacteria in your buildings. It is also advisable to avoid routine trimming. Remember, lame ewes cannot graze or eat adequately to maintain body condition and this has a significant knock on effect on lamb birth weight and milk production.

Tip #3. Body condition

Take every opportunity to place your hand on each ewe’s back and condition score. These scores will allow sufficient body reserves to draw on in early lactation. It’s preferable for ewes to reach these condition scores 8 weeks before lambing and to maintain them right through to lambing, rather than try to gain or lose ewe condition in the last few weeks. Over-fatness is a high risk for prolapse and if ewes are too thin then they are unlikely to have good sized lambs and enough milk.

General allowance per ewe over a typical winter:

  • Hay - 100kg to 150kg
  • Silage - 300kg to 500kg depending on DM

Tip #4. Nutrition

Achieve the correct body condition for your ewes by feeding specific formulated rations to match requirements. Assess forage stocks and quality: Ideally take representative samples of hay or silage from 4 or 5 bales in each stack or 3 cores from a clamp, and send them to a reputable lab for analysis.

Ideal condition score for lambing: 

  • Lowland ewe - 2.5 to 3 
  • Hill ewe - 2.0 to 2.5

Good quality forage analysing 11.5-12MJ/kg DM or more is capable of supplying the majority of nutrients needed by a ewe until the last 2 weeks prior to lambing. Poor quality forage, less than 10.5MJ/kg DM, will need supplementing with concentrates much earlier. If you have several types of forage available, then always save the best quality for close to lambing to help cut down on bought in concentrates.

Check trace elements: Make sure the ewes’ diet is adequate in trace elements, particularly selenium and iodine, the two trace elements which are important in mobilising brown fat in the newborn. Lambs born to well fed ewes are generally born with a good supply of brown adipose tissue, their instant energy source for the first few hours of life. If brown fat reserves are low then hypothermia is a very high risk.

Formulate the diet: High quality forage and balanced supplements such as cereals and soya bean meal, or a good quality compound feed will lay the foundation for successful lambing. Optimum ewe body condition and a diet that meets the ewes’ needs for energy and protein will lead to good sized lambs, plentiful supplies of high quality colostrum and a good milk yield. All these factors have a huge influence on lamb viability and health. A ration that meets, but does not exceed, the ewes requirements is important since overfeeding and over fatness can lead to large lambs, difficult births and higher mortality. This is particularly critical for single bearing ewes.

Top Tip: Ask a professional sheep nutritionist to help formulate the diet. They will help you to make best use of home grown feeds and keep concentrate purchases at the correct level.

Body condition scoring