Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 February 2018

Aim for 80pc lamb draft by May

Michael Gottstein

Early lamb production is a high-input system, and to make it worthwhile it also needs to be a high output system.

Achieving high levels of output hinges on having a good litter size (1.7 lambs per ewe lambed down) and high growth rates, while at the same time keeping a close eye on costs. On top of all that it is also essential that the lambs do not miss the market.

Over the past few years the prices for early spring lamb have been good for a month or so after Easter, after which they start to tail off. A good target would be to have 80pc of the lambs drafted by, say, the first week of May.

Early January-born lambs for the Easter market are at this stage coming to an important milestone in their lives. For the first few weeks of life lambs depend almost solely on their mother's milk to provide them with sustenance.


In the lactating ewe, peak milk yield is reached at around three weeks after lambing and from there on it starts to decline. By the time the lambs are six weeks old they will be looking for other sources of sustenance to keep them going. This is where creep feeding comes into play.

The last two months of cold weather have put an end to many a great grass field, and ewes that should have been feasting on lush grass are busy sorting through heaps of dead and decaying vegetation. The feed value of this type of grass is very low and it needs to be grazed off in order to allow light to the base of the sward so that new growth can be encouraged.

As I have already said, up to about six weeks after lambing ewes are milking well, and where the roughage is not good enough to sustain good milk yields, concentrate supplementation is advised.

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From about six weeks on, however, it makes more sense to switch the meal from the ewes to the lambs. At this age the lambs are very efficient converters of meal into meat. The ewes are no longer efficiently converting meal into milk at this stage.

It is a good idea to start training lambs in early production systems to eat meals from about 10 days old. Where this has not already happened it should be started immediately. You can not afford to miss the boat when it comes to drafting lambs when the price is high.

In most situations where ewes are being supplemented with concentrates, the lambs will be already eating some with the ewes. It is, however, still a good idea to allow them a continuous source of concentrate feed -- offered in a creep feeder.

Training lambs to eat meal is easier where a palatable lamb creep is used. Pedigree creeps/ lamb starters are made from highly palatable ingredients, such as flaked cereals/peas/ beans, and contain a significant amount of molasses, which encourages intake.


The downside of these products is that they can be quite expensive (up to €400/t) and are therefore not a long-term option for commercial lamb producers.

Once lambs are eating significant quantities of pedigree creep/lamb starter, start to introduce a cheaper nut/coarse ration. Start with a 50-50 mix of the old and new ration and over a period of a week or so reduce the more expensive creep down to nothing.

Again, go for a quality feed: look at the ingredients and not the price tag or protein content. Cereals/pulps and a good quality protein source, such as soybean meal or rapeseed (limit inclusion level due to palatability issues), and should make up the bulk of a good quality nut/ration.

In situations where grass/ winter forage stocks are under pressure there is the option of weaning early born lambs. This allows the ewes to be dried off and restricted so that feed can be saved.

A word of caution, however. Talk to the processor who will be buying the lambs off you, before embarking on this road, just to make sure they don't have a problem with intensively indoor-reared lambs.

Early weaning can be carried out once the lambs are at least five weeks old and consuming at least 250g (1/2lb) of concentrates/lamb/day on three consecutive days. This system can be carried out either indoors or outdoors in a paddock where the lambs can be stocked at 60-70 lambs/ha.

Once the lambs are weaned, the bulk of their diet will consist of concentrates. Problems with the ration formulation can quickly lead to dead lambs. It is essential to ensure the rations are properly balanced for minerals, vitamins, crude fibre and protein. Also, remember access to clean water is vital.

Irish Independent