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Ewe are what Ewe eat – Better Nutrition Improves Lambing Percentages

Posted by Bestprac on Sep 05 2012

by Liz Guerin 

In Central Queensland, low lambing percentages have been the ‘norm’ in recent years. However, Longreach pastoralist, Pat Hegarty is bucking this trend, averaging 106% last season, and says his success is due largely to their sheep feeding and supplementation program. 

ADVANTAGE FEEDERS AT WORKWith a summer dominant rainfall, Pat says that most years they experience a ‘protein and energy drought’, during lambing or weaning, and so have experimented with a variety of feeding systems and supplements in an effort to improve lambing percentages.

“We have tried a lot of things including lick blocks, cottonseed, dry lick, molasses and urea and grass hay – all of which resulted in minor improvements”, Pat said. “But since 2005 we have been working with WA sheep nutritionist, Dr John Milton, to develop a feeding system that last year resulted in 106% lambing – the best lambing we have had in 57 years.”

However getting to that point has required a lot of experimentation, and the path to their 2011 lambing success has not always been smooth.

On recommendation from Dr Milton, Pat commenced his feeding program with corn, known for its high energy and starch content and ability to boost colostrum and milk production in ewes.

“Initially we were trail feeding it on the ground and the ewes that were there ate it all in about 10 minutes. Those that were slower missed out”, Pat said. “A lot of the time, those ewes missing out were better mothers, as they were taking their time coming in with their lambs and when they got there, there was nothing to get.”

In 2007, a particularly dry year, Pat said the system came unstuck, and despite 95% of ewes being scanned in lamb, they only marked 49% of lambs.

“The ewes were hungry and so accustomed to the system that they would chase me for up to three kilometres and too many lambs were left behind and lost”, he said.

Feeling disillusioned and experiencing a good season in 2008, the Hegarty’s did no supplementary feeding and marked 94% of lambs. However, in 2009, in the midst of another dry season and reluctant to grain feed due to the ‘chasing issue’, they fed a cocktail of dry licks in troughs containing up to 48% cottonseed meal along with urea, phosphorus, lime, salt and numerous minerals.

“We knew we had to supplement with something and whilst the ewes ate it as fast as I could deliver it, it wasn’t any good to them - we just couldn’t get enough energy into them. Consequently, we only marked 54% of lambs”, Pat said.

Having pregnancy scanned for 8 years and scanning around 95% in lamb, Pat said he was ‘totally frustrated’ knowing that the ewes were pregnant and had lambs on board but he just couldn’t rear them.

Confident that nutrition was the problem, the Hegarty’s purchased 12 Advantage Feeders – an adjustable self feeder. These feeders were available in ‘flat-packs’, requiring assembly – an option which made them affordable and freight costs minimal.

“That year there was a big improvement in lambing and following discussions with Dr Milton, together with the corn in the feeders, we reintroduced a mineral supplement as a dry lick to balance their diet and it worked brilliantly”.

“The improved nutrition and the availability of feed in the feeders 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, has been beneficial and made a massive difference” Pat says.

“The corn boosts the ewes’ colostrum production, prior to lambing, so as soon as the lambs hit the ground they are getting a good feed, getting strong quickly and able to follow their mums”, Pat said. “With the feeders, the ewes come in and out calmly; there is no panic and they are a lot more content and quiet.”

FED WELL: 133% Lambing was achieved in this mob.On the heels of last year’s incredible results (including 92% lambing in maiden ewes and up to 130% in some of the stud mobs and a total average lambing of 106% over 3000 ewes), Pat says they now have a system that they are happy with.

“We have now got all our breeding ewes on the Advantage Feeders, including our young weaner ewes, in order to get their body weight up for joining next year and to educate them onto the system”, he said.

Of the 94% of ewes scanned in lamb this year, 41% of those have twins. This year the Hegarty’s have taken 824 of those ewes with twins off and will run them as a separate mobs from the ‘singles’. This is in order to feed the ‘twinners’ a lot more. Pat doesn’t see this as a problem as long as they rear two lambs.

“We need to do more with what we have already got. Putting the rams out and hoping for the best is not a good way to run an enterprise”, he said. “If we are going to lift production we need to do more about it, and we have proved that it can be done with a bit of effort.”

The Hegarty’s supplementation program and its impact on their lambing percentages has made Pat ‘hungrier’ to achieve consistent production potential, regardless of seasonal conditions.

“We have had good scannings all the time but we never reared the lambs in a lot of the years – so we were wasting a lot of lambs. When you scan and you get 135% potential, it makes you hungry to want to achieve that”, Pat said. “That’s not to say that if we get 106% this year I won’t be happy – I will - but it makes you realise what is potentially on offer. Those lambs are there – so there is a problem if you are not getting them on the ground, on the books and in your bank account.”

The Hegarty’s estimate that over the last 3 years they have spent over $100,000 on infrastructure, including feeders and silos, and feed - considering the results they are getting and the potential to get better, they feel that it is not a big cost.

“If you consider that lambs are potentially worth $70-80 the minute they hit the ground: if they are a ewe and rear a lamb every year, their potential to earn you money for the next 5 or 6 years is mind blowing. Add into the equation the 5 or 6 kilos of wool they cut every year and I think it has been a very small investment to get those sheep up and going”, Pat said.

“We are now confident that with the use of ASBVs and extensive selection of bigger, plainer and more fertile ewes, that we have a line of ewes that are well worth spending money on to give them every chance of rearing their lambs.”

With word of the Hegarty’s feeding program getting out and heightened local interest in the potential results of feeding programs, Leading Sheep hosted a series of Bred Well, Fed Well workshops. Over 120 producers from the Central West and Southern Queensland learnt about nutritional management, use of ASBVs and condition scoring.

Kate Nicholas, Leading Sheep Extension Officer with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) in Longreach, said that the workshop opened a lot of producer’s eyes to what can be done and has motivated and enthused them to learn more.

“We are hoping to get some Lifetime Ewe Management groups happening in the area, in the near future, which will focus on ewe nutrition and health issues, sheep assessment and feed budgeting”, Ms Nicholas said. “And with producers like Pat already utilising many of the concepts that surround Lifetime Ewe Management and getting positive results, it shows that it can work in pastoral areas.”

If you are interested in joining a Lifetime Ewe Management group in Central Queensland, contact Kate Nicholas, DAFF, Longreach on (07) 4650 1225

For more information about the Lifetime Ewe Management program go to: 

Last changed: Sep 06 2012



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