Important principles

  • If you get things wrong, you’ll end up with poor weaners that will be poor hoggets, and these in turn will make poor-performing ewes over their lifetime.
  • So weaning weight is critical in deciding the future potential of breeding sheep.
  • Weaning weight is strongly affected by birth weight, the milk supply of the dam, and the individual lamb’s genetic potential to grow.
  • Lambs won’t grow without an adequate supply of high-quality feed.
  • The lamb must be an efficient ruminant before weaning, to be able to eat enough pasture to avoid a growth check at weaning.
  • When lambs run with ewes, they are competing for the same pasture.
  • When lambs run with ewes, they stand a greater chance of being infected with worm larvae from the pasture - infected by the ewes.
  • Lambs are much more prone to internal parasites (worms) than ewes, which have greater natural immunity.

Wean on weight and not age

  • To avoid any growth check at weaning, don’t wean until the lambs are at least 20kg liveweight.
  • At this weight, they should be efficient ruminants and be able to grow at about 150-200g/day, which is desirable.
  • Think of this as a minimum weekly gain of 1kg - 1.4kg. If they are growing at less than this, then they won’t be good hoggets and will be too light to mate.
  • Mating your hoggets should be an objective for extra profit.

If you have to wean early

  • This may be because feed is in short supply, and priority is rightly given to the lambs at the expense of the ewes.
  • Here you’ll have to provide pasture or a crop of very high feed value to boost the lambs’ growth rates.
  • Lucerne is excellent to wean young lambs on to, but it needs a lot of skill to grow.
  • Lambs need to be taught to eat concentrate feed, but you don’t want to let their mothers eat it as it’s too expensive. Consider “creep feeding”.
  • You can creep feed for the lambs before weaning in a covered feeder where the lambs can get through between the bars to eat the meal, but the ewes cannot.

Key points in planning weaning

  • Plan well ahead.
  • Have good quality feed available to wean the lambs on to.
  • Ensure no adult sheep have grazed this weaning area for at least 5-6 weeks.
  • Avoid stressing the lambs at weaning, eg, handle them quietly if drenching and keep the dogs under tight control.
  • Put them in a well-fenced paddock well out of sight and earshot of the ewes for about a week.
  • Provide plenty of water and shade.

What about the orphan lamb?

  • If a lamb’s mother dies after say 5-6 weeks, it’s usually not practical to start and bottle feed the lamb or feed it a meal on its own.
  • It may be simplest to leave it in the flock and hope that it will become a burglar!
  • If it’s a robust lamb, hunger will drive it to steal milk from ewes when their lambs are sucking. It will soon learn to suck through the ewe’s back legs - and will be easily identified by the dung on its head!