Maintenance requirements for does and ewes are roughly 2% of their body weight. These requirements are relatively easy to meet on most pastures or with low to moderate quality hay. In good body condition, there is no need to supplement with grain until nutritional demands increase at critical periods. Essentially, feeding can be broken down into 4 production phases:
- Maintenance-Adult sheep and goats spend most of their time in this phase. It begins right after lactation and ends about 30 days prior to the breeding season. Early gestation falls into this category as well. When assessing how maintenance requirements can be achieved, it is important to understand pasture quality and quantity. In general, grasses produce higher quantity than legumes, but are considered lower quality when it comes to protein and energy. Maturity also has an impact on quality and quantity. Fiber increases with plant maturity, but digestible energy decreases. Body condition scoring and forage analysis can be utilized to ensure that maintenance requirements are being met.
- Flushing-This period begins about 30 days before introducing a ram or buck and lasts about 2 weeks into the breeding season. The goal is to get more females cycling early in the season and to increase the number of fetuses per conception. Therefore, they should be gaining weight on a higher plane of nutrition at this time. This can be accomplished either by moving them to a higher quality pasture or by gradually introducing grain. Supplementing with trace minerals is extremely important at this time (Note: Beware of Copper in sheep!). Pregnancy ultrasound scanning at 12 weeks after the start of breeding season is beneficial to late pregnancy nutritional management. Dams with multiple fetuses can be grouped and fed accordingly.
- Late Gestation-This period begins about 45 days before parturition. The majority of fetal growth and mammary tissue development occurs during this period. At the same time, space in the abdomen is growing scarce, particularly with multiple fetuses. Therefore, pregnant females tend to eat less at this time. Obese and thin females are at risk of developing pregnancy toxemia for different reasons.
In over-nutrition, the massive fat stores and full uterus take up so much space that dry matter intake is hindered. In the case of starvation, energy demands are not met by lack of access to adequate nutrients. Symptoms in both situations result from lack of glucose (sugar) getting to the brain. Signs of pregnancy toxemia may include lethargy, generalized weakness, dull mentation, inappetance, subcutaneous edema of the lower limbs, and teeth grinding. These symptoms may progress to neurologic abnormalities such as star gazing, blindness, ataxia, tremors, loss of menace response, nystagmus, recumbency, and then to coma. Call immediately if you notice any of these symptoms.
In order to avoid complications, ewes and does should be fed medium quality hay and may require supplementation with grain during late gestation. Since they can’t eat as much, their intake must be higher in nutrients to meet their needs. Remember that the stress of cold weather also requires increased energy intake to stay warm. A diet lacking in energy at this time will result in smaller and weaker lambs that may have difficulty starting off. If a doe or ewe is already obese when the third trimester is reached, then it is too late to implement a weight-reducing diet. The focus should remain on feeding high quality roughage and concentrates.
- Lactation-Does and Ewes will go into negative energy balance after birthing. Milk production increases with the number of offspring. Therefore, this is a very demanding period. Turnout on lush spring pastures or good quality hay is necessary. A general rule of thumb is to feed about a pound of grain for each lamb or kid that is being nursed. Therefore, grouping may be necessary in order to meet the demands of individuals. Gradual cessation of grain feeding at weaning will help dam’s dry-off. Pay close attention to body condition at this time to ensure that they will put appropriate weight back on during the maintenance period.
Remember to gradually introduce or reduce grain intake. Sudden shifts in diet can have serious consequences. Use a common sense approach and constantly monitor body condition to ensure proper intake. Remember that weather conditions and other factors can lead to changes in pasture quality or quantity. Don’t assume that what you did last year will work again this year under changing conditions.