Immediately after breeding, we put a number of ewes into a high-nutrition group, without having any idea of how many lambs they carried — or whether they were even bred. I based my decision on what I saw and on the history of each ewe. Those ewes who looked and felt thin were put into the high-nutrition group, along with any ewes who have given us triplets or quads. I also included all of this year’s ewe lambs. We’ve learned over time that many lambs remain smaller than necessary because they’re often pushed around by the bigger yearlings and adults, and they’re not particularly aggressive about getting into the hay feeders. We had a total of about twenty ewes in the high-nutrition group right after breeding, getting a combination of alfalfa hay and about 3/4 pound of grain per ewe.
After we ultrasounded, we reorganized the high- and low-nutrition groups based on age and size, whether they were bred, and the number of lambs they carried. I still kept the thin older ewes in the high-nutrition group but moved January and Ivy into the low-nutrition group since they carry only singles this year. Both of them have a history of triplets and quads, so I had put them into the high-nutrition group just in case, but this year it was obviously unnecessary. I also continued the smallest Romney lambs in the high-nutrition group; although they were not bred, they still need enhanced nutrition to catch up with their peers.
Overall, we moved several ewes out of the high-nutrition group and only one ewe in: Hope. After the new groups were formed, the high group continued to get bales of alfalfa and the low group continued to get grass hay. The major difference in feeding came with the grain. Although we had been feeding 0.75 (3/4) pound of grain per ewe to the high-nutrition group, because of the addition to Hope to this group, we treated the entire group as if they had had no grain prior to ultrasounding. We needed to make sure that grain was added incrementally, allowing the fermentation microbes in Hope’s rumen to adjust to the digestion of the newly added carbs. As a result, that evening we fed this group 0.2 lbs of grain per ewe and repeated the same ration at the next day’s feeding. On the third and fourth days, we increased their grain to 0.4 lbs per ewe, and on the fifth and sixth days, to 0.6 pounds per day. They are now back to getting the 0.75 pounds per ewe each day, as most of them were before the ultrasounds. They will hold at this point until sometime in January, when we will increase their carb intake yet again to accommodate the higher energy requirements of the third trimester of gestation.
Grain feeding can be a tricky business; it must be introduced slowly, and any increases in quantity should be made by no more than 0.2 pounds every two days to limit gastric upset. It can be an inexpensive way to meet a ewe’s needs during reproduction when energy requirements are high (for both gestation and lactation). Corn is relatively inexpensive here in Iowa, and our blend of corn, soy meal, black oil sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast, and other good stuff works well for this. Although sheep will eat seed heads on grasses (corn is the seed of a plant that falls within the grass family), their natural diet is primarily leafy greens — and we strive to keep their diet as natural as possible all year long. For this reason, we are careful how much grain we add and for how long, keeping the bulk of their diet primarily as green leafy hay (alfalfa or grass) or fresh grass from our fields.
When raising sheep, it is important to balance feed during gestation. In the first trimester, it is all about providing sufficient nutrition for good placental growth. In the second trimester, good nutrition provides the nutrients necessary for the formation of basic fetal structures, from the skeletal system to the neurological system, from the formation of primary wool follicles to the digestive system and more. Finally, third trimester nutrition is critical for fetal growth, since the majority of a lamb’s gestational size comes in the final few weeks before delivery. Small lambs are high risk and much more work for the shepherd — which is why we work toward healthy pregnancies with easy deliveries, creating a new generation in our happy and healthy flock!