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Tips for lambing in drought

21 January 2019

By Scott Ison
District Veterinarian
Murray Local Land Services

The extended drought is continuing to produce challenges for producers in our region. Lambing has proven to be a significant hurdle in dry years, and it may be particularly challenging in the west of the region where producers traditionally lamb in autumn onto irrigated pasture.

For many farmers, the hot, dry summer and lack of water availability will mean they will not be able to lamb onto pasture as they had planned. This means full hand feeding the lambing ewes, which. is not a practice that should be taken lightly. They need good quality feed and plenty of it to avoid serious problems.

Feed budget: Work out what you need well before lambing. If you can’t afford to feed through to weaning, or it isn’t profitable, selling sheep is likely to be your best option. Don’t put yourself into a situation where you have heavily pregnant ewes and no feed. Heavily pregnant ewes should not be transported and are likely to have issues such as pregnancy toxaemia (twin lamb disease) if feed is restricted. There are many feed budgeting tools available and you should also consider seeking expert advice as you work through it.

There are also many strategies, tactics, tools and techniques that can make lambing more successful, but this outcome is underpinned by ewe body condition and access to good quality feed.

Condition score: Put a hand on your ewes regularly and feed them to ensure they are always at least score 2.5. Best lambing results occur when twin-bearing ewes are score 3 or slightly above. Draft off lighter ewes as they will need extra feed.

Scanning: As a rule of thumb, you need to scan six weeks after the rams came out, or 14 weeks after they went in. Speak to the scanner to make sure you get the dates right and follow their advice on preparing the ewes on the day. This is an important procedure because it allows you to cull empty ewes, which can help save feed for pregnant ewes. Telling the difference between single and twin-bearing ewes is also crucial, as it allows you to run separate groups to adequately match their feeding requirements.

Feeding: work out your ration and make sure you have enough feed to get you through. Avoid changing feeds just prior to or during lambing. Get feed tests and weigh feed to make sure you are feeding the right amount. Use feed tables to calculate requirements and monitor regularly to make sure the paper matches what is happening in the paddock.

Feeding systems are critical to ewe health and condition and lamb survival. The aim is to supply large amounts of high-quality feed in a way that won’t upset the gut or disrupt the lambing and bonding process. Proven techniques include:

- trail feeding every second day (twice daily requirement) at lunch time

- supplying a large number of feeders (think twice as many as normal) spread around the paddock

- large bales of very high quality hay (vetch or lucerne) spread around for easy access feed and shelter.

Water: High quality and quantity water is critical. Feed away from the water source and clean troughs regularly. Avoid lambing in a feedlot. None of these systems are ‘set and forget’ - theyrequire regular monitoring, maintenance and review. Speak to an expert if you aren’t sure.

Vitamins and minerals: Calcium and salt are nearly always low in drought feeding systems, and ewes have a particularly high requirement in late pregnancy and through lactation. You can add these to feed, but also consider putting out a lick consisting of equal parts limestone and salt in tubs around feed. Keep it fresh and give them as much as they’ll eat. Vitamins A and E can be low when sheep have been without green feed for months. ADE injections are simple and popular, with one injection lasting for months.

Watch out for milk fever, pregnancy toxaemia, grain poisoning and perinatal mortalities. Some losses are inevitable, but it is important to know when to intervene.

Most of this information and much more is available in the drought handbook, Managing and Preparing for Drought 2018 by NSW DPI. Talk to neighbours, talk to experts and keep an eye out for more information from Murray Local Land Services,  or contact us at our Deniliquin or Albury offices.