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Why 14 weeks is the golden age for weaning and ewe management tips

In this article, That’s Farming, looks at ewe management post-weaning. We discuss the timing of weaning lambs, weaning targets, body condition scoring, ewe nutrition and parasite control.

Management of ewes following the weaning of lambs is a vital practice for sheep farmers to ensure a successful drying off. The process of drying off also allows for ewes to maintain or improve body condition prior to mating season.

The period in which ewes are dried off ranges from 7 to 10 days and involves reducing or restricting a high plane of nutrition over this period.

Following this timeframe, you can then assess ewes based on body condition scoring, and you can allocate nutrition to these animals accordingly.

Correct timing

The recommended age to wean lambs in most grass-based systems is at 14 weeks or 100 days to allow for transition to a forage-based diet.

Furthermore, 100 days after lambing, most ewes will be producing little to no milk for lambs. In turn, they will be foraging on grass that could be potentially saved for the lambs.

Following weaning, provide the grass available to lambs to allow for maximum growth and performance.

14 weeks is an important timeframe to consider for weaning. This will allow you a 13 to 15-week period to prepare for the next breeding season. In most cases, ewes are underconditioned because of rearing lambs for the last three to four months.

Your best ewes will likely reflect to be thin, which can indicate that they produced most milk for their lambs. It is advisable that these ewes receive optimum time to recover and improve their body condition scoring in advance of introducing rams.

The drying-off period then commences, which will have a duration of 10 to 14 days. This period of time is crucial to ensure that ewes are properly dried off, and therefore, the risk of mastitis is reduced.

You should make yourself aware of the timeframe to increase the body condition score of a ewe, which is 8 to 10 weeks. Ewes which are placed on poor quality grassland, comprised mainly of stem, will take longer to return to the optimum body condition.

In addition to this, hoggets should also receive a longer rest period than mature ewes, to allow udder and reproductive health to develop and repair.

In a previous article, CAFRE explored weaning lambs at approximately 10 weeks and creep feeding and creep grazing lambs.

Body condition scoring ewes

Body condition is scored on a scale from 1.0 to 5.0 and increases in increments of 0.5. Hereafter, 0.5 is deemed very thin, while on the other end of the scale, 5.0 is very fat.

Ewes in poor condition at either end of the scoring system will have a higher risk of unproductivity within the flock. Assessing condition at weaning will allow you the optimum time to improve the condition of your flock before ram season.

Moreover, it can take up to eight weeks to change one condition score. One change in condition score is equivalent to 12% of liveweight.

Ultimately, turn ewes which are too fat into a bare pasture with minimal grass cover. Comparatively, those ewes in poor condition will require a high plane of nutrition.

Nutrition

Ewes which have mothered several lambs may require additional nutrition, as well as hoggets. In some cases, hills ewes must be appropriately managed if returned to the hill, which is in poor condition.

For a ewe to improve by 1.0 body condition score, she would need to gain 8.4kg; this is the equivalent to 170g/day.

Additional feeding through supplementation may be required to prepare ewes for the upcoming breeding season.

Parasite control

Parasites are a major contributor of poor productivity on sheep farms and may influence pregnancy and scanning rates within your flock.

Moreover, where lean or under-conditioned ewes are prevalent on the farm, you should consider faecal egg counting for worm burdens or fluke.

Faecal egg counts (FECs) indicate the number of adult worms in the gut and is measured as eggs per gram of faeces. It is vital that you take samples randomly. Do not select individual ewes, as this will display a false result.

Mixed grazed with cattle reduces pasture contamination through the lower sheep stocking density. In comparison, rotation of cattle and sheep grazing is another mechanism to reduce the prevalence of worms in ewes.

Weaning targets

Should you decide to leave lambs to suckle ewes for longer than 14 weeks after birth, this will have a negative influence on both the ewe and lamb.

By extending the weaning period, ewes and lambs will be in competition for grass availability.

The table below gives an approximate guide to weaning dates:

Lambing commences Mean lambing 14 weeks/weaning
March 1st March 10th June 17th
March 15th March 25th July 2nd
March 30th April 10th July 17th
April 15th April 25th July 22nd

 [Source: Teagasc]

Aim for a target weaning weight of 34kg for those lambs by a terminal sire breed. You should consider weighing a proportion of your lambs.

Lambs which are significantly below this target weight will allow you to investigate potential causes, which may include poor management of ewes post-weaning in the previous year.

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