Focus on feeding your flock

by Courtney Llewellyn

What you should be feeding your sheep or goats depends on their age, weight, stage of production, sex and species. It also depends on whether they’re on pasture, in a dry lot or in a hybrid system. To explain all the differences, Jeff Semler, Extension educator with University of Maryland Extension, presented “Feeding the Flock” as part of UMD Extension’s Introduction to Small Ruminants series.

There are, of course, primary nutrients needed when feeding all animals: protein, energy, vitamins and minerals, fiber and water. Fiber is especially important for ruminants, due to their four-compartment stomachs. A flock should always have access to a loose trace mineral salt formulated for sheep and goats, and they should always have access to plenty of clean, fresh water.

“Because an individual’s feed requirements change as their reproductive status changes, there are several distinct feeding periods,” Semler said. You need to choose the most efficient and economical system for your operation. Just remember when feeding livestock, flexibility is key – and when you make adjustments, make them gradually. As for the different life stages:

Maintenance is during a doe or ewe’s dry period, a non-production phase. The goal here is to maintain body weight and condition. Dry matter intake should total 1.5% to 2% of an animal’s body weight, either via grazing or 2.5 to four pounds of grass hay daily. You don’t need grain for maintenance.

Next comes flushing (two weeks before and two to four weeks into breeding season). Semler noted the body condition score (BCS) of a female affects the number of eggs she will ovulate. Greater ovulation means more lambs or kids. The goal of feeding during flushing is to improve the body condition of females by getting them to gain weight. “During this time, you want to give them free access to pasture plus a half-pound to a pound of corn or barley per day, and move to high quality (but non-legume) pasture,” Semler said.

Remember that the amount of hay in each ration is the amount the ewe or doe must eat, not necessarily the amount you put in the feeder. Take into account that animals are going to waste feed and adjust accordingly.

During early to mid-gestation (the first 15 weeks), the goal is to maintain the body condition of mature females and increase the condition of young females – but not allow them to grow fat. Nutrient requirements are only slightly above maintenance. These animals should have free access to pasture or 2.5 to four pounds of grass hay a day. Grain feeding is not necessary unless their forage is exceptionally poor or the females are underconditioned.

Where you need to be really careful is late gestation (the last six weeks). Ewes and does will gain weight during this phase, as 70% of fetal growth occurs during this period and mammary tissue is also developing. Proper nutrition is necessary to prevent pregnancy toxemia (ketosis) and milk fever (low blood calcium). Semler said to aim for BCS or 3.0 to 3.5, keeping in minding that young females are still growing, still building their frames and building muscle. You’ll want to feed these expecting mothers four to five pounds of grass or mixed hay plus a half-pound to one pound of grain per day per fetus (if you know the number) and one pound of a 16% crude protein (CP) ration if forage quality is low (especially for meat goat does).

“Keep in mind you’re searching for energy here and you’re searching for a cheap ration,” Semler stated. He added that you’ll always want to include Bovatec, Rumensin or Deccox in this production stage’s feed or minerals to reduce coccidia in the environment and to aid in the prevention of abortion caused by toxoplasmosis.

Once they’ve given birth, there is no reason to push feed at ewes or does. Those that have been properly fed in late gestation usually produce more than enough colostrum for offspring. Too much feed early may increase milk flow beyond what the babies can consume. Feed forage only for the first few days after parturition. Take a week to get the mother back onto full feed.

Early lactation (the first six to eight weeks) is when ewes and does have their highest nutritional requirements, especially if they’re nursing multiple offspring. Ideally, you should separate lactating females into production groups (single, twins, triplets) and feed them according to the number they’re nursing. Feed four to seven pounds of hay plus one pound of grain per lamb or kid being nursed and one pound of a 16% CP ration if forage quality is low. High quality pasture should meet the nutritional needs of mothers nursing singles and twins. Those nursing triplets usually require grain supplementation; otherwise, the third offspring should be removed for artificial rearing.

At weaning, a BCS of 2.0 to 2.5 is not uncommon. If early weaning is practiced, proper feeding management is necessary to prevent mastitis. Provide low protein and energy feed five to 10 days before weaning and three to five days after weaning.

Focus on feeding your flock

What goats and sheep are fed depends on their stage of life – and how many there are. If there are triplets, artificial feeding may be necessary to ensure they receive the nutrients they need. Photo by Courtney Llewellyn

Growing lambs and kids have the highest protein requirements, percentage-wise, of any sheep or goat. Energy needs depend largely upon desired growth rates and the animals’ genetic potential for growth. As with milk production, maximum growth is not always the most profitable goal.

When feeding lambs, free access to high quality pasture and free choice minerals may be all you need, depending on your goals. Provide a half-pound to two pounds of hay plus one to four pounds of grain daily, and restrict hay intake as lambs grow heavier. Feeding kids is a little different because goats fatten differently than sheep (and more like cattle). Provide free access to high quality pasture plus free choice goat minerals. Make sure to provide protein supplements when pasture quality is poor (and to improve resistance to barber pole worm).

There are also bucks and rams to consider. Semler said there’s a tendency to overlook the nutrition of these males. Aim for a BCS of 3.0 to 3.5 at the start of the breeding season – don’t allow males to get fat and lazy. Give them free access to pasture or hay plus one pound of grain per day. You can increase feed four to six weeks prior to breeding season if necessary. Males may require up to two pounds of grain during the breeding season.

“With a good pasture system, sheep should be able to eat all the fresh herbage they want every day,” Semler said. “My feeling is always rotate pasture to some degree; your land base will dictate what that looks like.” A good pasture should be limed periodically and fertilized every year, based on your soil type. If you don’t have great pasture, focus on supplementation. And Semler said you don’t necessarily need forage analysis; just look at your pastures – are they vegetative? Are they grazed too short? Do they have legumes? Forbs? They can all have some good forage quality.

And as for how many head per acre you can graze? That depends on the kind of pasture you have as well as the age and stage of your animals.

“The goal is proper nutrition at the lowest cost,” Semler said. He noted the following online resources for further information: extension.psu.edu/feeding-the-flock and sheepandgoat.com/genguidefeed.

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