White lamb and sheep on green pasture

Feeding and Managing the Spring Lamb

Lambing can happen in different seasons, but spring lambing falls around Easter and can add some additional excitement to the official ending of winter. When born in the spring, lambs thrive due to the mild temperatures and the fast-growing quality pastures. Similarly, the lambs are also growing fast, so their nutrition needs to focus on their growth and also their health. That fast growth means they have a high requirement for energy and protein in their diet, and a well-managed pasture with other diet considerations for these lambs is important for them to finish successfully.

Spring Lambing Pros And Cons

Spring lambing or late lambing will occur around March to May. This lambing season is advantageous in the sense that the forage growing season is starting as well. With a lower cost input, this allows for a nice fresh pasture to raise the flock and lambs on. Spring lambing provides a faster return on investment due to the low input for feed and labor. An additional positive to spring lambing is growing these lambs on pasture that delivers a market benefit for grass-fed lamb. However, this does require good pasture management, which also introduces greater parasite and predator exposure, but a good dog, llama, or donkey can help with those predators. 

The Lamb’s First Meal

After the ewe has the lamb(s), she takes great care to get it nursing. The ewe will provide colostrum to the lamb as its first meal within 24 hours. The colostrum is the most important meal that lamb will consume, as it provides them a high density of nutrients as well as antibodies from the ewe to help keep the lamb healthy. The lamb will nurse for about the first 4-5 weeks of life with the frequency being 1-2 times every hour, which gradually decreases over time while consuming pasture.

Creep Feeding The Spring Lamb

Lambs will start consuming small amounts of solid feed shortly after birth. However, nursing lambs benefit greatly from the addition of creep feed into their diet. Creep feeding will increase weaning weight and reduce the time to send those lambs to market. Creep feeding supplies the lambs with ample nutrients in addition to the ewe’s milk and pasture. Additionally, this will benefit and spare ewe milk production on ewes that have multiple births. Creep feed provided through Kalmbach Feeds’, Start Right® Lamb Creep, kalmbach start right lamb feed for lambs medicatedhelps these lambs get an early start on consuming solid feed and increasing rumen development, which makes them more efficient when on pasture. Kalmbach Feed’s creep feed for lambs also has LifeGuard®, which is designed to improve gut health and support the immune system as a prevention of disease, parasites, and stress when on pasture.

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Mini Pellet – 18% Protein – Coccidiostat – Ammonium Chloride – Proprietary Health Additives

Creep feeding is beneficial when the ewes and lambs are on pasture together as it limits competition over the pasture quality. Creep feed for lambs is typically provided in a separate penned area that cannot be accessed by the ewes. The picture shows creep feed provided in a small fenced enclosure that only the lambs can access. This enclosure on pasture should be located in an area that is frequented the most by the flock.

The Weaning Period

Lambs in a gated area

By the time the lamb reaches 5 weeks of age, they are consuming about half of their diet on solid feed and/or pasture. The lamb will slowly transition to consuming mostly pasture.With good pasture management and minimal parasite occurrences, lambs fed creep feed could be weaned at 90 days of age (12 weeks) or later up to 16 weeks. Weaning these calves later, instead of the more typical 60 days under more grain-fed programs, provides lower stress to the lamb and the ewe. At the time of weaning, it is ideal to retrieve body weights on the ewe lambs to evaluate ewes’ breeding and lamb performance for future lambing. After, removing the ewes from the weaned lambs on pasture also allows less stress to the lambs. Removal of the mature sheep allows for a more targeted nutritional program and better pasture management. This would directly depend on the quality of the pasture being used and how often those lambs can consume that high-quality pasture. 

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Table 1. Nutrient requirements of a growing lamb finishing 4 to 7 months of age (NRC, 2007)

Body Weight, lbs

Average Daily Gain, lbs

Dry Matter, lbs/head

% Body Weight

Crude Protein, lbs

Total Digestible Nutrient (TDN)*

Calcium, lbs

Phosphorus, lbs

Vitamin A, IU

Vitamin E, IU

66

0.65

2.9

4.3

0.42

2.1

0.014

0.007

1,410

20

88

0.60

3.5

4.0

0.41

2.7

0.014

0.007

1,880

24

110

0.45

3.5

3.2

0.35

2.7

0.012

0.007

2,350

24

*One-pound TDN equals 0.91 Mcal DE (digestible energy).

Pasture Finishing Spring Lambs With Supplementation

Once weaned, lambs can consume up to 4% of body weight on pasture. Lambs solely consuming pasture might not receive enough nutrient density to meet their growth requirements (Table 1). For non-growing, mature sheep, pasture is sufficient typically to meet nutrients, such as protein, if there is good grass and legume pasture mix. However, growing lambs require a more nutrient-dense diet. A product such as Kalmbach Feeds’ Generations 18% Lamb Pellets would help provide a more nutrient-dense diet for those lambs. Along with grazing, those pellets will support their growth and a successful finish for marketing.

Pellet – 18% Protein – Coccidiostat – Ammonium Chloride – Vitamin and Mineral Fortification

An important aspect of finishing spring lambs is grazing management. The style of pasture management majorly depends on your time management, land availability, and investment in fencing. For sheep, they mainly focus about 60% of their pasture consumption on forages with 30% on consuming weeds or forbs and 10% on woody plant browse. Therefore, pasture quality is important to keep a good amount of forage on the pasture. Rotational grazing is the management system I would focus on for growing lambs, and there are two versions with different fencing investments and time management (Figure 1). The size of the paddock within the rotational grazing system depends on the number of lambs you have. This would determine if you are providing enough acreage per lamb. The more intensive your rotational grazing system is the more lambs per acreage you can have because of the shortened grazing time per paddock. One important note, parasite load can be drastically reduced by having lambs in paddocks no longer than 2 days (i.e. move on day 3) and not returning them to that paddock until it has rested for at least 10 days.

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Figure 1. Comparison of simple or intensive rotational grazing for spring lambs on same sized pasture

Simple Rotational Grazing

 

Intensive Rotational Grazing

 intensive rotational grazing

More

Less

 

More

Less

  • Forage yield

  • Forage quality

  • Management

  • Lambs per acre 

  • Fencing

  • Shelter

  • Supplemental feeders/waterers

  • Movement of sheep

  • Parasite/Worm Problems

  • Weed growth

 
  • Management

  • Forage per acre

  • Lambs per acre

  • Fencing

  • Shelter

  • Supplemental feeders/waterers

  • Movement of sheep (2-7 days)

  • Overgrazing if rotated in a timely manner

  • Parasite/Worm Problems if frequent rotation is 2-3 days with a >10-day paddock rest period

Weaned lambs will be on pasture and pellets until finishing around 4-7 months of age, which will depend on weaning time, finished body weight averages for the breed, and the targeted market. Lambs are productive animals with a versatile market, and their nutrition is important for successfully finishing them on pasture.

Jeff Kaufman, Ph.D., PAS

Jeff Kaufman, Ph.D., PAS