For flocks currently lambing, the immediate challenge is ensuring the higher nutritional demands of early lactation are adequately supplied so that milk yield is not compromised.
Ewes in good body condition score (BCS) of 3+ can essentially milk off their backs to make up a temporary shortfall, but this is not a situation you should rely on, as any excessive shortfall can compromise ewes reaching their peak milk yield.
This generally occurs after three weeks in ewes suckling multiple lambs and five weeks in single-suckling ewes.
Table 1 deals with the main scenarios that could be facing farmers now or in the weeks ahead.
For farmers retaining ewes and lambs indoors, feeding levels will be influenced by the stage of lactation, forage quality and ewe condition, along with the projected length of the feeding period.
It is important not to overfeed ewes in the first 24 hours after lambing, as this can put ewes off their feed.
Lower levels of supplementation can be fed, as per Table 1, for the first week after lambing, but, after this, feeding levels should be increased in line with an increasing feed demand of ewes.
Supplementation rates for ewes and lambs released outdoors will be influenced by grass supplies and ground conditions.
Where utilisation levels are poor or the dry matter of the grass is low, supplementary feeding will deliver a response, despite ewes having sufficient grass supplies.
In a case like this, feeding levels can be targeted at similar levels to those listed in Table 1 for scarce grass supplies.
Feeding troughs should also be placed in the drier areas of the field
Scarce or depleted grass supplies may also occur at present where farmers have a supply of grass, but are retaining animals in the driest area of the farm until ground conditions improve.
This approach will deliver longer term benefits and is likely to reduce the volume of supplementary feeding required.
There will be merit in such situations in providing access to hay or silage and running animals in smaller groups to prevent excessive poaching and soiling of belly wool and udders of ewes.
Feeding troughs should also be placed in drier areas of the field, with ewes fed early in the day and before nightfall to minimise the risk of mis-mothering and give ewes and their lambs time to find shelter.
The high demand for protein in the final two weeks of pregnancy continues and actually increases in early lactation.
Access to adequate supplies of spring grass is sufficient in normal conditions to meet this demand.
However, where ewes are supplemented indoors, it is important to continue to feed an 18% to 20% nut or ration.
Where ewes are supplemented on average to limited grass supplies, it may be worth continuing to feed a similar feed as in late pregnancy, as the overall saving in feeding a lower protein-content feed will be small.
On better-quality grass supplies, the protein content can be reduced to 14% to 16%.
Teagasc recommends the crude fibre content of the concentrate being at least 7%
In all cases where feeding a high concentrate diet, Teagasc recommends the crude fibre content of the concentrate being at least 7%.
Ewes also have a high demand for water in early lactation, requiring in the region of 10 litres of fresh water per day.
Care should be taken in individual pens to ensure animals have access to water. Drinking troughs in group pens should be monitored for soiling.
Hygiene is critical
Disease levels will build up over the lambing period, but the risk is even greater where higher numbers are forced to be retained indoors.
Maintaining high standards of hygiene is critical to avoiding diseases such as watery mouth, e-coli scour and coccidiosis becoming established in lambs and mastitis or footrot in ewes.
Keeping sheds well bedded with fresh straw and spreading hydrated lime in high-risk areas will help achieve this goal.
Pre-lambing, a standard 4x4 round bale of straw weighing 140kg to 150kg will bed 18 to 20 lowland ewes or 30 to 32 hill ewes for one week.
The straw requirement will be doubled in early lactation as ewes consume higher intakes and defecate and urinate more frequently.
Feeding hay may help to keep bedding drier, but only if it is good quality.
Any signs or cases of disease should be acted upon quickly, with animals isolated for treatment.