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Proper Ewe Nutrition Benefits Future Lamb Performance

Updated February 09, 2024
Professional headshot of Jaelyn Quintana

Jaelyn Whaley

SDSU Extension Sheep Field Specialist

Ewe sheep eating from a feeder.
(Canva photo)

Written with contributions by Kelly Froehlich, former Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Sheep and Goat Specialist.

It’s well known that meeting the nutritional needs of bred ewes is critical in preventing diseases like pregnancy toxemia and milk fever, but did you also know that gestational nutrition influences lamb survival, weaning weight, and wool quality? Supplying ewes with greater levels of energy during gestation ultimately leads to greater lamb performance throughout their lifetime.

Adequate energy in the diet based on ewe requirements and is even more important for ewes carrying multiple lambs. Nutrient requirements consider late gestation as the last 60 days of pregnancy. During this time, fetal growth increases exponentially, making it a critical period for nutrition. In late gestation, twin-bearing ewes require 0.5 pounds more energy per day than single-bearing ewes. Providing that extra half pound of corn to the ewe’s raising twins will boost her lambs’ enthusiasm to stand and nurse after birth.

Impacts on Lamb Performance

Starting at birth, additional energy in late gestation has been shown to improve lamb vigor and survival. A common misconception is that excessively feeding ewes in late gestation increases birthweights and instances of dystocia caused by big lambs, but this is not the case. Under-nutrition is more of a concern, as it reduces lamb birthweights and leads to weak, frail lambs that are more prone to hypothermia, decreasing their survivability.

In addition, undernutrition can lead to reduced performance, including decreased weaning weights of lambs. Sheep supplementation research summarized by Thomas and Kott (1995) determined that under most winter range conditions, sheep supplemented at 0.25 to 0.33 pounds of a high-energy feed (such as corn and barley) per head, per day, or 0.2% to 0.3% of ewe body weight, did not reduce forage consumption, and that, on average, supplemented ewes weaned 5 to 10 more pounds of lamb per ewe than un-supplemented ewes. As the lambs mature, the offspring raised by ewes fed higher energy diets during pregnancy also may produce heavier, finer fleeces. Under-nutrition during pregnancy alters the follicle formation of the fetal lambs, reducing their future fleece weights and increasing fiber diameter, while more nutrient-dense diets support follicle development. Therefore, proper nutrition for your ewes during gestation promotes greater wool quality in your replacement ewe lambs.

The Bottom Line

In a nutshell, meeting, or slightly exceeding, energy requirements in an ewe’s diet the last 60 days of pregnancy results in her lambs having a greater chance of survival, higher weaning weights, and better wool quality, providing greater opportunity for profitability and performance. The impending winter means ensuring that we have the resources to keep our bred ewes well fed!