As the weather turns colder, the farm seems quieter and a whole lot emptier. All of the lambs born earlier this year have either been added to the mature flock, harvested, or been sold. However, there is still a lot to consider before lambing season begins. Now is the time to give attention to caring for our pregnant ewes.
Managing pregnant ewes is dependent on their age, their size, and just as importantly, how thin or fat they are. So let’s start by discussing body condition.
Now is a good time to really look through and analyze your ewe flock. Take a look at each individual. Most will have some wool cover, so it is important that you get your hands on them. Feel across their backs. Can you feel their backbone? Is it sharp? Does she have a moderate amount of fat cover? Or perhaps her back is cushioned with fat? Record each ewe and give her a body score from 1 to 5, 1 being the thinnest. (Here is a great explanation of Ewe Body Condition Scoring.)
Early in pregnancy (or gestation) we will separate any ewe that has inadequate body conditioning. Given that it has been months since weaning and they have been on pasture all summer, we expect our ewes to be carrying a healthy and adequate amount of weight. First, we will want to evaluate why they may be thin (see Deworming Pregnant Ewes below). Next, we will want to get weight on them quickly and early in gestation when the growth of the lambs in uterus is impacted the least.
Feeding Pregnant Ewes
The nutritional needs of pregnant ewes are always changing. A lot depends on the quality of your pasture, the condition of your ewe flock, the size of the ewe, the number of lambs they are carrying, and even the climate where you live. Sheep exposed to more cold stress will naturally expend more energy just to stay warm. Ewes carrying twins or triplets will also require more energy. And don’t forget, pregnant ewe lambs and yearlings have higher nutritional needs to account for both their growth and the growth of the lambs they are carrying.
Access to mineral (specifically formulated for sheep) and fresh water is critical to pregnant ewes and should be available free choice.
Mineral deficiencies are thought to be one cause of ring womb in lambing ewes, a condition where ewes do not fully dilate.
Early to Mid Gestation
After breeding, we separate thin ewes and begin feeding them shelled corn at a rate of .5-.75 lbs per head per day. Our goal is to increase the energy they are receiving to improve their body condition early. Again, it is important not to wait too long. At this stage, most of the nutrients being consumed are going to increase the ewe’s body weight not that of her lambs.
Any ewes that are too fat (which is seldom a problem with pasture sheep) will need to be separated and fed only hay and/or pasture through mid-gestation. Fat ewes can be very challenging to lamb. Higher levels of fat in their pelvis can block the birth canal and make lambing difficult.
Ewes that are carrying appropriate body weight should continue to stay on pasture as long as possible. They should have no need for additional feed, if the pasture is of good quality. And sunshine and exercise will do them good.
Mid to Late Gestation
We find that most ewes coming off of pasture are in great shape, not overly fat and not too thin.
One month before lambing, we begin supplementing all of our ewes with a moderate protein grain-based feed at a rate of .5 lbs per head per day. In addition, we give them 5 lbs of hay per head per day. Between grain and hay they will receive roughly 2.5% of their body weight in feed.
As the ewes enter late gestation, you will want to make sure you are offering higher quality nutrition. Where we may have feed first cutting hay in early gestation, we now feed only second cutting hay or higher quality hays. This is because as the lambs begin to get larger, pregnant ewes will begin to consume less, making each mouthful that much more important.
Worming Pregnant Ewes
Many homesteaders promote diatomaceous earth, pumpkin seeds, or other herbal mixes for deworming ewes. The truth is that there are no research-based studies that confirm that these practices work. There are actually few natural dewormers that work with sheep, who are exceptionally susceptible to parasites. Because of this, on our farm we use commercial deworming products, although sparingly.
We believe in raising our sheep as naturally as possible. We rotate pastures, use multi-species grazing techniques, cull chronically thin sheep, and regularly perform Famacha Test on individual animals. It is widely known that sheep are becoming more and more resistant to many of the commercial treatments available. For the health of our ewes and the effectiveness of dewormers, over the long haul and when the needed, we deworm our sheep only a few times a year.
When evaluating the body condition of each pregnant ewe, take a look at the inside of their eyelids. This will tell you if a ewe is anemic and struggling with high parasite loads. (We see this most often in thinner ewes, which is another sign of high levels of parasites.) Understanding who is struggling with worms allows us to only deworm ewes as necessary.
When deworming pregnant ewes only use dewormers that are safe during pregnancy and under the supervision of a vet or according to the on-label instructions.
One time a year as always deworm all ewes is immediately after lambing when a periparturient rise is known to increase parasite egg counts.
Vaccinating Pregnant Ewes
If you have purchased a new ram or introduced new ewes to your flock in the past year and do not vaccinate for Leptospirosis, Enterotoxemia (type C & D), and/or Chlamydia Psittaci, you will want to consult your veterinarian about potential preventative treatments. In extreme cases they may recommend adding aureomycin to your feed.
If you choose not to vaccinate, it is important to watch for abortion storms. This is when a cluster of abortions occurs around the same time or in rapid sequence within a group of pregnant females. Immediate action and treatment is necessary.
If you have any questions about pregnant ewes or suggestions for future blog posts, let me know in the comments below.
New to our blog? Be sure to leave a comment below. I’d love to hear more about your flock and what you do to care for your pregnant ewes.
Other Sheep Posts You Might Enjoy:
- Making Newborn Lamb & Goat Blankets for Winter
- Purebred Animals on the Homestead
- Keeping a Family Milk Cow: 7 Crucial Things to Know Before You Buy
- Buying Sheep: When is the Best Time?