The incessant rainfall is making life hard for flocks in the midst of lambing, while challenging ground conditions and poor grass utilisation are witnessing grass reserves deplete pretty quickly for earlier-lambing flocks. The only upside to current weather is milder temperatures, which is providing opportunities to get ewes and lambs outdoors. Some weather forecasters are pointing to the possibility of cooler temperatures coming in to play towards the end of the month.

We have seen from recent weeks that longer-term forecasts have been hard to predict and unfortunately have veered on the side of inclement weather replacing a more positive outlook. With no immediate upturn in sight, it is advisable to try and plan ahead, and put a programme in place that best utilises and rations grass supplies where reserves look tight.

Table 1 details supplementation rates for a number of feeding scenarios. Ewes in good body condition (BCS 3+) can utilise some body reserves in early lactation to help meet any nutritional deficit, but this is not a scenario that you want to overly rely on with the overarching aim being to ensure that a ewe’s increase in milk yield is not compromised.

Indoor feeding

Where ewes and their lambs are being retained indoors post-lambing, then feeding levels should be gradually increased over the space of a couple of days. It is important not to overfeed ewes in the first 24 hours post-lambing, as this can put ewes off their feed.

Pressure on space is an obvious challenge of retaining ewes indoors, but an added pressure reported this spring is low reserves of straw. The increase in intake in early lactation will increase straw requirements anywhere from 40% to 50%, depending on the type of forage being offered.

It is also important to satisfy a higher water intake demand, with lactating ewes requiring upwards of 10l of fresh water per day. Teagasc advice where feeding a high-concentrate diet is a recommended crude fibre content of at least 7%.

The high demand for protein in the final two weeks of gestation continues to build in early lactation. Where ewes are supplemented indoors, it is important to continue to feed an 18% to 20% nut or ration. Where high levels of concentrates are fed this can be reduced, but the overall saving is small and therefore it is best not to alter the diet significantly when ewes are settled on high levels of meal.

Supplementing outdoors

Where grass supplies are tight, then a low level of supplementation now may pay better dividends than switching ewes on to grass alone and ending up running tight in the coming weeks. Walking the farm and seeing what grass supplies are present is important. It is worth factoring in that the dry matter content of grass is lower than normal and accounting on marginal lands in particular for lower levels of grass utilisation.

While not straightforward to employ it is advisable to position troughs in the driest areas of the field and to keep troughs moved regularly. It is not easy to supplement big numbers and where this is the case there may be more merit in grouping ewes that will benefit most from supplementation. This includes aged ewes and two-tooth hoggets or ewes in poor body condition.

Mature ewes suckling triplet lambs or yearling hoggets with twin lambs at foot should be run in a separate group. The standard advice is concentrate supplementation at a rate of 0.5kg per head daily for the first five weeks of lactation. This should be increased during inclement weather and only sheep that are capable of rearing triplet / twin lambs should be left with this number of lambs.

  • Grass supplies should be closely monitored and a feeding programme put in place early where there is any doubt that supplies are running tight.
  • Take account of a lower dry matter content in grass and possibly lower grass utilisation when deciding on the need to supplement ewes.
  • Where supplementing ewes with high levels of concentrates, then feeding management is critical, including trough management and ensuring ewes have access to adequate forage and water.
  • If supplementing, then retaining smaller batch sizes will help.
  • Prioritise ewes depending on age and condition for supplementation.