The role of good nutrition for breeding lambs

We sell a number of lambs each year to new shepherds looking to begin their own flocks. Most of these people are eager to begin right away, and they’re looking to produce lambs the following spring when their foundation animals are only about a year old. The common advice in the past would have been to wait, to have their sheep deliver their first babes as two-year-olds, when their bodies are closer to adult size. Not so in our flock, however. We have several reasons why we breed our ewes as lambs — but, as I’ll explain, adequate nutrition is key.

First of all, breeding your ewes as lambs brings a return on your investment a whole year earlier. Since a ewe lamb could be sold as a breeder, keeping the lamb in the flock means a loss of that income. If she’s bred, however, she will provide lambs in the spring — to expand your flock, work toward your genetics goals, or sell as breeding stock.

It isn’t all financial, though. Breeding a lamb in her first year also helps you know which lambs are more fertile. Those girls who deliver their first young as new yearlings have been shown in studies both elsewhere and here on the farm to be more fertile, delivering more lambs across their lives than their open-in-the-first-year flockmates. In addition, studies have shown that their mammary glands will develop differently because of their exposure to pregnancy hormones. This causes the bag to produce more and richer milk for the ewe’s entire life, meaning that all of her lambs will grow bigger and better than they might have otherwise.

Yet despite these benefits, there is a caveat. Ewe lambs cannot breed successfully and deliver a healthy lamb if they don’t get the correct nutrition — and this doesn’t just mean during gestation! Over the past couple of years, we’ve told buyers that if they want the lambs to breed their first fall, the owners needed to provide a high level of nutrition. Our lambs get only grass, forbs, and brush from our pastures throughout the summer of their first year. Although this is adequate nutrition for growing lambs, this level of intake may limit their size and maturity for fall breeding.

This year, of our ten retained ewe lambs on pasture, only seven (70%) were marked, and I can pretty much guarantee that not all of those seven will actually have settled with lambs. Yet, buyers who provided a higher level of nutrition during their first summer by supplementing with grain have found that all of their lambs from our bloodlines were marked as bred in the fall. And of those who participated in my (admittedly small) study last year, all of the marked lambs settled with lambs. This tells me that a high level of nutrition in the first year produces both larger lambs and earlier sexual maturity with heat cycles and pregnancy.

All of the ewe lambs who don’t breed in the first year on our farm go on to breed the next year. Over the intervening months, they gain the size and maturity they need to successfully breed the next fall as yearlings. Yet I’m finding that these other farms are getting the same result a year earlier, simply by providing their lambs grain through the summer.

Once ewe lambs are bred, they need a much higher level of nutrition. Not only are they building the lambs they carry, but they’re also still building themselves — and that requires a higher protein diet than that of the pregnant adult ewes. It is for this reason that after grazing is over for the year, we put our ewe lambs on alfalfa hay while most of the adult ewes get grass. Eventually, as those ewe lambs near parturition, we add a grain ration for energy. Considering the space their lambs occupy, those near-yearlings don’t have big enough bellies to take in adequate amounts of hay to provide the nutrition they need. Grain provides this in a concentrated form, keeping them nourished when they have little space for bulky feed.

There are many good reasons to breed ewe lambs to deliver as young yearlings, and it’s possible to do so successfully — but their nutrition from birth through their first lambing (and beyond) is critically important for success. In the breeds we run, we’ve found that if they are cycling and if they get marked by the ram, they are big enough to deliver the lamb(s) that they carry, as long as we feed them well enough throughout their pregnancies. We are looking forward to ultrasounding in mid December to see what we can expect from our youngest bred ewes!

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