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Ewe Nutrition: Tackling the 'Known Unknowns'

20 August 2014

ANALYSIS - Electronic identification now enables rapid accurate data capture which can assist the industry in addressing many of the ‘known unknowns’ of ewe nutrition.

Shorter term outcomes have been utilised for factors like lamb birth weights, colostrum quality or scanning results but now technology could assist the sheep industry in calculating nutrition and its effects over a ewe’s lifespan.

Addressing the British Society of Animal Science Conference in Nottingham earlier this year, independent Sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings underlined many of the grey areas in ewe nutrition and its effect on flock performance.

Her vision is to harness data collection over long periods of time to evaluate improved nutrition on a ewe’s production cycle or life.

Short Term Nutrition

Firstly, she revealed that much more is to be learned about protein requirements, with some papers showing industry standards are too low, sacrificing udder development and colostrum production.

"This remains an area shrouded in mystery and farmers spend millions of pounds per annum"

Faecal egg output around lambing and a peri-parturient reduction in immunity can also be reduced through higher dietary protein, Mrs Stubbings added, citing research showing ewe protein requirements increase 15 per cent in late pregnancy.

Much more understanding can be gained around trace elements, added Mrs Stubbing.

“This remains an area shrouded in mystery and farmers spend millions of pounds per annum with questionable benefits,” she said.

Many questions also surround undegradable protein, which are expensive – like soya bean meal – meaning forage options will need to be effectively harnessed in the future.

Medium Term Considerations

Body Condition Score (BCS) and its effect during ovulation is an example of where improvements in understanding can be made.

“We know that follicle maturation is a process that takes six months and while improved nutrition at mating can reduce follicle attrition it cannot fully negate earlier effects,” said Mrs Stubbings.

She added that BCS implications on earlier weaning, preference over lambs for grass dry matter after being weaned or the effects over multiple production cycles are not fully understood.

There is also a lack of clear thinking around how suitable sheep genetics are for a move towards more forage based systems.

Recently, an influx of New Zealand genetics into the UK and a trend towards forage has left many genetics questions unanswered, she stated.

Long Term

Nutrition from conception has major impacts on ewe output and this is widely known, said Mrs Stubbings.

However, the impact this has on profitability in our flock systems has not been fully quantified.

Describing the value of profit calculations on early nutrition, she added: “This is vital if we are to convince sheep farmers that rearing phase targets are essential for female replacements.”

She added that more data in BCS could also correct a misunderstanding in livestock production. 

Describing the stunting of ewe growth to produce smaller ewes as ‘not acceptable’ she explained that smaller animals having lower maintenance requirements is a message that has been misconstrued.

She added that Rams siring breeding females also require investigation in terms of genotype and environment restrictions and the implication for productivity.

Michael Priestley

Michael Priestley
News Team - Editor

Mainly production and market stories on ruminants sector. Works closely with sustainability consultants at FAI Farms.

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