On sheep farms where lambing gets under way in early- to mid-February, thoughts should now be on pre-lambing nutrition and introducing supplementary concentrates.
Making sure ewes are properly supplemented with energy and protein during late gestation will reduce health issues and increase the number of live lambs born this spring.
Colostrum quality will also be improved. This will help to increase lamb survivability, which ultimately means more lambs to wean and sell annually.
On the sheep farms using the CAFRE benchmarking service, analysis shows that feed accounts for approximately 60% of production costs every year.
Within this 60%, around half is down to purchased concentrate. Given that rations are currently £40 to £50/t higher than last year at £280 to £290/t (€311 to €322/t), feed costs will increase this winter.
Therefore, to control feed costs, it is important to make good use of purchased concentrate. Outlined are five tips to getting the best return when feeding purchased concentrates this spring.
1 Fodder quality
Ideally, silage should be tested to determine its feed value and the level of supplementary concentrate required to meet the nutritional demand of ewes in late gestation.
Ewes should be given silage which is above average to good in quality, around 68% to 70% DMD. Increasing energy content by 1Mj ME can save around 10kg/ewe of concentrate over a six-week period, or 1t per 100 ewes.
Higher-quality fodder can be offered to save on concentrates, but will need restricting to prevent ewes from gaining too much condition.
However, Covid-19 restrictions have hindered this service and many farmers will not have been able to get silage tested this winter.
In such cases where fodder could not be tested, assumptions regarding feed value can be made provided the cutting date, stage of maturity and weather conditions when the crop was harvested were similar to previous years.
2 Body condition
If silage is not tested, then it will be important to pay attention to body condition scores (BCS) in late gestation.
On the majority of farms that lamb down in February, ewes will be housed in the final weeks prior to lambing.
This makes it much easier to monitor BCS in late gestation. By handling a selection of ewes every week, flock owners can gauge whether supplementary concentrate feed levels are adequate or need to be altered.
Ewes should be lambing down between BCS 2.5 and BCS 3. This means ewes should have a good covering of flesh over the ribs and hindquarters, with bones only being felt when strong pressure is applied.
3 Weighing meal buckets
How many farmers know much concentrate a bucket will hold when filled? Where an empty lick bucket is used to feed sheep, it will hold between 11kg and 12kg of ration when filled.
Occasionally weighing buckets will help ensure ewes are properly supplemented with concentrates, rather than over, or under feeding each pen of ewes.
4 Split feeding
For ewes eating more than 0.5kg/day of concentrate, supplementary feeding should be split evenly over a morning and evening allocation. As far as possible, try to keep each daily feed time consistent.
5 Supplementary levels
The level of supplementary concentrate required will vary depending on factors such as mature ewe size, the number of lambs being carried, stage of gestation and fodder quality.
Table 1 provides a guideline to typical rates of supplementary concentrates for a moderate sized (70kg to 75kg) ewe carrying twins. For ewes carrying triplets, feeding should start two weeks earlier than for twin-bearing animals and increase supplementary rates by 0.2kg/head. For ewes carrying single lambs, feed rates can be reduced by 0.2kg/head.
Providing adequate feed space pre-lambing
On many farms that operate indoor lambing systems, providing heavily pregnant ewes with enough feed space is often overlooked.
Where ewes are currently housed and on an ad-lib silage diet, feed space should be at least 15cm to 20cm per head for a 70kg mature animal.
Feeding precision-chopped silage will reduce waste and increase forage intakes. Where ewes are housed in temporary accommodation (ie roofed silos) and using ring feeders, feeding chopped silage can reduce waste by 25% compared to unchopped forage.
Once concentrates are introduced in late gestation, feed space allocation should increase to at least 45cm to 50cm/head for lowland breeds.
Increasing the space allocation will allow all ewes to access concentrates at the same time and reduce the risk of shy feeders, or lighter animals being underfed.
If all animals cannot access concentrates at once, then providing additional troughs will be required.