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Weaning lambs is an ongoing process that can continue into September, and there are several things to consider. Not only do you have to think about the health and growth of lambs, but also enabling ewes to regain good health/condition in time for the next breeding season.

Factors that can affect the decision when to wean your lambs can include the amount and type of feed available, when you need them to be ready, environmental issues such as parasite/disease risk, and weather conditions. The breed type can also have an effect, with some nursing for longer than others. Devising a weaning schedule should take all of these into

Before weaning

When lambs are born, they have a vulnerable immune system, which can be affected by malnutrition and disease, as well as parasites. Many diseases occur in the first few weeks of life – vaccination of your flock is significant here, particularly pre-weaning (e.g. for clostridial diseases and Pasteurella). Stress can affect the immune system/response to vaccinations, so vaccination weeks before/after weaning is likely to be more beneficial.

The first milk that is produced by ewes is known as colostrum. This contains antibodies, which help the lambs at the beginning of their life, when they are at their most vulnerable. Lambs have very small stomachs, which means that they need to eat very regularly during the daytime. If hand-feeding, this can be up to two-hourly.

Providing lambs with good nutrition from birth onwards helps to establish healthy eating habits. Lambs also benefit from having access to clean water, fresh air, and adequate space to move around.

Before a lamb is completely weaned off its mother’s milk, it is important to build up its digestive system in order for it to be able to digest a fully solid diet. It is worth considering providing a creep feed, which is palatable, and can be taken in small amounts (pellets are often used). Regular changing of this supply is likely, depending on the rate of consumption, as it can get stale. Also, hay can be offered, although large amounts may lead to bloating and diarrhoea.

As lambs grow, they will be able to nibble on grass – this can help their digestion systems deal with roughage. Lambs can fare better post-weaning if they have a familiar food source, i.e. the food they have experienced whilst with their mothers.

After weaning

If you are looking to sell your lambs, it is a good plan to move them onto a finishing diet at around six months of age. This enables them to increase their muscle mass, and build strong bones; increased protein in their diet is particularly important. By ten months, your lambs should be reaching their market/selling weight. An average weight gain of 300g per day is needed for lambs to reach this.

If your lambs have been fed concentrates, it is a good idea to move them off this diet at around six months, so that they can not only increase their muscle mass, but also start building up immunity against common parasites. They will also develop an appetite for roughage. Starting early with a healthy diet is important not only for lambs that are going to market, but also for those that will grow into adult sheep. They are given a head start in developing a strong healthy body, and will likely have improved performance in later life.

When to wean

This is not as straightforward as you may think, and there are different ideas regarding the best plan. 12-14 weeks of age is often used as guidance, however, some lambs are weaned earlier. It is important to ensure that early-weaned lambs have high-quality feed available and that acidosis does not develop. Early weaning can be easier in bottle-fed lambs, as it is possible to regulate/reduce the amount of milk they have compared to solid food. Ideally, weaning should wait until at least 8 weeks of age – by this time, the digestive system has had a chance to fully develop. Early weaning may be needed if there are issues with food supply, caused by poor weather conditions, for example. Birth weight can have an effect on timing decisions – smaller lambs may need to be weaned later, and indeed, if your lambs range in size, you may consider doing this rather than weaning all sizes in one go. Monitoring your lambs’ weight is a good way to determine the best time. Ideally, a lamb should be at least 2.5 times their weight at birth (this can average out at 9-10kg, although breed type is to be taken into account here). Being weaned at a good weight improves the lamb’s chances of better performance later.

Weaning considerations

When the time comes for lambs to be moved away from their mothers, there will be stress experienced on both sides. If possible, lambs should be moved onto good quality, familiar pasture, and ideally, far enough away out of sight and sound of their mothers. If you are unable to move them far, good fencing can be beneficial in at least reducing visual contact. Pasture that has rested/has a low parasite load is ideal for moving your lambs onto. Abrupt weaning is a widely-used method on many farms. This involves separating all the ewes and lambs at the same time. However, some lambs will wean themselves – as time progresses, they will eat more solid foods, and take their mother’s milk less often. This can be less stressful for both parties, however, it can affect weight gain, and hence be less economical.

Feeding your ewes on lower-protein food, such as hay, will reduce milk production and consequently discomfort and potential infection. ‘Drying-off’ needs to start pre-weaning, so consider your ewes’ diet in your weaning plan/schedule. There is a risk of mastitis, so be watchful of the signs (swelling and redness). Although you could remove some of the milk in order to reduce discomfort, it is important not to drain it all, as this only encourages further milk production. A pre-weaned lamb that is consuming grass/pasture as a large part of its diet is competing with the adult sheep for the same food supply. However, it is more efficient to feed a lamb and ewe separately, than it is to feed a lactating ewe, so weaning becomes a significant issue in economic terms.
When lambs have been weaned, moved onto different pasture, and hence not in competition for the same food source, the ewes are given a chance to get into condition for the next breeding season. The time needed for this can affect when you decide to wean, i.e. earlier weaning may be needed to give your ewes enough opportunity. Bear in mind that you will have your ewes on low-quality grazing for about two weeks, to aid drying-up of milk. Body condition score should then be taken into consideration, and appropriate quality of pasture allocated.

Jen Randles

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