Sheep: Feeding concentrates cost-effectively to pregnant ewes

WITH feed prices having risen substantially since the start of the year, and many of the more popular feeds already in short supply, finding a cost-effective strategy for feeding ewes needs to be a top priority this winter.

As Trident nutrition manager Dr Michael Marsden points out, the ewe’s nutrient requirements still need to be met, regardless of the feed cost and availability challenges.

“In fact, the many poor quality forages made this year due to the adverse weather conditions mean the need for additional feed supplementation is likely to be even greater than usual,” he says. “It might be tempting to cut back on inputs to save some costs, but it’s not worth taking any chances and putting ewe and lamb performance at risk.”

The traditional approach is to offer incremental increases in the amount of concentrates as lambing approaches, known as step-rate feeding. An alternative is to offer the same amount of concentrates as a flat rate throughout late pregnancy, reducing the need to feed large quantities in the run-up to lambing, as well as to simplify feeding overall (see table 1).

“Aim for an energy content of at least 12.5MJ ME/kg DM, plus 16‑18 per cent crude protein if feeding hay or silage, or 20 per cent for straw-based rations,” says Dr Marsden. “The level of feeding can then be varied around those figures in table 1 to match forage quality and the different needs of each group in the flock – slightly less for ewes which are over-fit, slightly more for thin ewes, ewe lambs still growing or if forage quality is poor.”

According to Dr Marsden, simple pelleted blends may offer the best combination of low cost and simplicity this year, though caution is needed with dry blends which do not contain even-sized ingredients. Ewes are notoriously fickle feeders, and will happily select the more appealing pellets from a blend and leave a proportion of the minerals and any ground feeds behind.

“If this is a potential problem, look to liquid feeds based on molasses or bioethanol distillery syrup, which are proving to be great value this year as an energy source, even compared to cereals.

“These liquid feeds will help reduce sorting in simple on-farm blends by binding feed ingredients together, and are an integral part of many commercially-produced blends for the same reason.

“For those with access to the necessary equipment, preparing a simple total mixed ration could be the approach which gives most flexibility,” Dr Marsden says.

“There’s also the opportunity to take advantage of any discounted low bushel weight grain, though make sure you still balance it effectively with sufficient digestible fibre to avoid problems with acidosis. With the terrible summer weather resulting in lots of poor quality acidic silage, the risk of acidosis will already be higher than normal on many units.

“As always, assess forage quality well ahead of when it’s needed, and plan purchased feeds now to make sure you have access to the feeds required to see out the winter,” adds Dr Marsden. “Most straights, blends and compounds can be bought on forward contract if you’re concerned about supplies running out.

“Just be careful not to pin your hopes on an early spring with great grass growth to save the day if feed stocks run low. It might happen, but is it really worth the risk?”

Example concentrate feeding regimes for a twin bearing ewe fed ad libitum straw*

 Example concentrate feeding regimes for a twin bearing 70 to 80kg ewe offered ad libitum straw
Weeks pre-lambing7654321
Incremental feeding (kg/head/day)
Flat rate feeding (kg/head/day)

* Quantities recommended should be split into meals to avoid feeding more than 0.5kg/head at any one time.

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