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Sheep farmers with surplus lambs to rear over the 2024 lambing season are being encouraged to make the most of these newborns’ early life... 5 steps to better surplus lamb growth

Sheep farmers with surplus lambs to rear over the 2024 lambing season are being encouraged to make the most of these newborns’ early life growth potential to boost flock returns.

Maximising lamb numbers sold per ewe is a key benchmark for a successful sheep farming enterprise. This mean rearing some third lambs and orphans off the ewe.

But with lamb prices currently trending 15% ahead of last year, rearing these surplus newborns quickly and efficiently yourself to potentially target an earlier premium market makes sound economic sense.

Feeding a good quality, proven ewe milk replacer alongside good husbandry practices will help you capitalise on the lamb’s inherent early life, pre-weaning growth potential and be able to wean plenty of excellent extra lambs as soon as possible.

When it comes to rearing surplus lambs successfully, it’s important to follow five crucial steps for best results:

Don’t compromise with colostrum feeding

As with all newborn lambs, the first priority is to ensure every surplus lamb receives sufficient colostrum (50ml/kg liveweight per feed and a minimum of 210ml/kg liveweight within the first 24 hours). This feed provides essential nutrition, as well as the important antibodies to help newborns fight off infections.

Choose the optimum rearing system

Surplus lambs can be reared on milk replacer via bottle, through ad lib bucket feeding or with automatic machine feeding. The method you choose will typically depend on the number of surplus lambs you have and the facilities that you have available.

Using a bucket or machine means training lambs to suckle. Be patient. If removing a surplus lamb from the ewe, take it away at 24 hours old, then leave it for a few hours to become hungry before gently introducing it to the teat.

Replace ewe milk for higher growth rates

Feeding trials with ewe milk replacer at Harper Adams University College and Reaseheath College (2021) have demonstrated surplus lamb growth rates of over 300g per day. All lambs weighed at least 10kg at weaning at 35 days of age.

Lambs reared on ewe milk replacer mixed and fed cold from about a week of age to weaning drink as much and perform as well as lambs reared on warm milk, according to additional work at Reeseheath College in 2023.

This highlights the opportunity to rear extra lambs off ewes on ad lib cold milk where boiler heating capability may be non-existent or compromised.

Feed enough milk powder

A single lamb reared artificially to weaning (at an average of 35 days of age) will require a minimum of 9.5kg of Lamlac (equating to 47.5 litres of reconstituted ewe milk replacer).

Get your lamb husbandry right

Lambs reared artificially will need constant access to fresh, clean water at all times. Top quality creep feed should be readily available to lambs and be offered fresh at least once a day, with refusals being fed to older livestock.

Introduce clean, dry straw – preferably barley into racks. Don’t feed ad lib high quality roughage, for example hay, during milk feeding as this can depress concentrate intake and delay weaning.

For optimum rearing results, don’t keep more than 25 lambs in a pen and keep similar ages and sizes together. Lambs must also have access to a clean, dry, straw-bedded lying area which is well ventilated but draught-free. Check your lambs at least twice a day.

Finally, maintain scrupulous hygiene protocols. For example, all feeding equipment should be thoroughly cleaned each day and disinfected twice weekly.

Jessica Cooke is research and development manager Volac, which manufactures Lamlac ewe milk replacer

Take care with in-lamb ewe diets

Farmers are reminded to take extra care when formulating in-lamb ewe diets following reports of variable forage quality.

Results from more than 200 big bale samples provided by sheep farmers show average energy levels of 10.2 ME/kg DM, protein levels of 13% and a dry matter of 50%, says Bryn Hughes, national sheep and beef specialist at Wynnstay.

“There is a big range within the samples, with some low energy and low quality, while some are high quality. There was a lot of silage made in September which is variable, but some surprisingly good forage was made in the autumn.”

Forage analysis

Mr Hughes says ideally farmers should undertake forage analysis to understand the quality of their forage, so they can formulate a ration specific to their situation. If this is not possible, he advises that farmers should assume forage is 10 ME or lower.

“When formulating rations for in-lamb ewes, it’s important to consider the ewe’s energy requirements depending on her size and the number of lambs she’s carrying. Once you know the value of the forage, you can make up the nutritional deficit with concentrates.

“When balancing the diet, there are several nutritional elements to consider. It is also important to look at the mineral profile of the diet, as it needs to contain calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and at least 125mg vitamin E as well as cobalt and selenium.

“The energy level of the cake should be at least 12.5 MJ to provide the starch and sugar required by ewes and contain a protein content of 18-19%, with at least 5% digestible undegraded protein (DUP),” he says.