As another year passes and we head into the new year, sheep farms will be looking at scanning in the coming weeks. The autumn weather this year does not seem to have been as kind to the ewes as previous, however sheep seem to be in relatively good condition which would suggest that ewes came into the rams quick and settled well.

The countdown to lambing is once again under way. Currently the lamb and cast ewe trade is at virtually record levels so it is vital to ensure sheep are well cared for to achieve optimal output at lambing time.

Forage stocks seem plentiful but of variable quality. With such variability, forage analysis is essential to ensure the correct ration is fed to compliment on farm forage. We have found many are low in energy due to the initial dry spell followed by a lot of wet weather causing grass to shoot and head quickly. Protein levels are inconsistent partly due to age of grass, variety of the grass type and when it was cut. The optimal dry matter (DM) being around 30%, the forages we have seen again have a wide range with some very wet and others on the dry side which will inhibit intakes either way.

To maximise your sheep outputs and profit, it is vitally important to select a complimentary compound feed that will enhance your forages and system.

So what should we be looking out for?

Energy is the most important nutrient an animal needs to function and is often the limiting factor in sheep diets. A formulation with good levels of barley and wheat is desirable, however maize would be the preferred choice. Maize provides the highest energy from a starch source and also bypass starch for optimum rumen absorption.

Protein is derived from two sources that is required by the in-lamb ewe, rumen degradable (RDP) and digestible undegradable protein (DUP). Ewes have a daily requirement for RDP which is readily found in forages, it is used by the rumen microflora to reproduce and then some of them are swept out into the small intestine for digestion. This is called microbial protein and is vital for ruminants. It is imperative that the microflora has sufficient degradable protein in the diet, forages low in protein require supplementary quality RDP which can come from the compound to meet the animals requirements.

It is also essential, especially as we get closer to lambing that the ewes diet contains high levels of DUP which passes through the rumen unaltered and is absorbed in the intestine.

Soya bean meal and a protected soya, like Scotsoy provides the highest levels of DUP on the market and are essential that they have a high inclusion in the ration to ensure quality colostrum and milk quantity is produced by the ewe.

With rising costs being seen across all raw materials but in particularly proteins, Soya well over £400p/t, many formulations may reduce or remove the inclusion of Soya to reduce cost. Particular attention should be paid to where soya is placed on the list of raw materials on a feed spec label.

The high price of protein sources may lead to some feed companies using urea as a protein source. Urea is around 300% crude protein, but importantly compared to soya and other protein sources, contains no DUP, energy, starch, sugars, fibre, minerals or vitamins.

A tiny inclusion can result in a huge % of the crude protein in the diet coming from this unpalatable, man made protein source. The Feeds Directory states that only 0.01% of protein in a ewes diet from the feed should come from this source, so urea and starches that have been treated with a urea substance should be used with great caution. (Wesley N. Ewing, The Feeds Directory, 1997)

A ewes ration should contain a quality fibre source to aid in slow digestion which is vital for rumen function. Sugar beet pulp would be the finest fibre which also brings high levels of sugar in the diet, sugar beet has also has been found to reduce prolapse incidence in the in-lamb ewe as the slow rumen digestion keeps her content and less need to gorge on forage.

When we find ourselves in a period of high feed prices as currently, low nutritional value raw materials may start to find their way into ewe diets. For example oat feed/husks, while they do have a feeding value although be it very low (NB: Can be used as bedding for cattle), do your ewes really get the nutrients from a compound feed containing these type of ingredients? The nutrient value of raw materials does not increase just because the alternatives are more expensive than normal.

Finally, a good quality vitamin and mineral package should be included in the compound. High levels of Vitamin E and Selenium are important for health and immunity. Protected Selenium in the form of highly bioavailable seleno yeast Alkosel, is included in all Davidsons Ewe feeds along with high levels of Vitamin E. Alkosel improves Selenium transfer into milk and colostrum, leading to higher Selenium intake by lambs. B vitamins B1 and B12 are important especially in the pre-lambing ewe when rumen function is often not optimal. They are involved in energy metabolism and are therefore vital to the ewe and lamb for survivability and growth.

In summary, for the health and performance of your flock, great attention and detail should be taken. Study the diet being offered to you for your in-lamb ewe, no one should purchase the product without looking at its makeup, lambing is a once a year event, condition of ewes and their performance at this crucial time will be the difference between a profitable sheep enterprise or a loss making operation.