How to Feed Ewes Through Pregnancy

Nutrition is such an important part of keeping livestock and is often not given the attention that it needs.  Feeding ewes through pregnancy is especially important and can literally mean life or death of both the ewe and lamb(s) if it is not handled properly towards the end of pregnancy.

The first part of pregnancy we feed our ewes the same as we always feed them.  Each sheep gets approximately 3 lbs of good quality grass hay per day and no grain.  All sheep are different and this may or may not be a good amount for your particular sheep.  Keeping a close eye on their body condition is important to making sure you are feeding right.  It can be harder with sheep due to all the wool on them, so it is important for you to learn how to feel them through the wool to estimate body condition.

End of pregnancy ration changes should start 6-8 weeks before estimated lambing.  If the sheep seem to be underweight you would want to start at the 8 week mark, if they are heavier then closer to the 6 week mark.

Our ewes are now 6 weeks out from lambing time.  We have shorn them, and now we are starting to switch their diet to the end-of-pregnancy rations.  It is important to make changes gradually, and take into account your specific situation and ewes when making decisions.  I will give you an overall general idea of end-of-pregnancy diet needs and then you need to tweak it for your situation.  Our ewes are completely on cut hay, no pasture.  Managing ewes on pasture is a whole different situation and thus this won’t apply to those ewes.

At 6-8 weeks out from approximate lambing we shear the ewes.  Do not shear ewes closer than 6 weeks from lambing as it can put the pregnancy at risk for miscarriage or lamb issues.

Why is shearing before lambing the best time to shear a ewe?

  • First, it prevents a break in the fleece.  When a ewe gives birth and lactates it causes a weak spot in her fleece.  If she were to give birth mid way through the growth of her fleece that means the weak spot will be in the middle of each strand of wool.  That weak spot can cause the fiber to break during processing and potentially ruin the finished roving or yarn.  It also decreases the value of a raw fleece that is for sale.  So it is important to have that weak spot occur near the tip of the fiber.
  • Secondly, ewes in full wool are hot.  And anyone who has been pregnant knows that the end of pregnancy makes you very hot too, and labor/delivery is also hot.  Shearing before lambing will help the ewe not be so overheated and will decrease the stress on her body.  And in our area, where there can be snow on the ground during lambing, it helps keep the ewes from laying down in a snow drift to give birth, potentially killing the lamb.
  • Third, having all that extra wool on can make cleaning up a ewe after birthing challenging, and it can make it hard for the lamb to find the udder and nurse well.  They often can get confused and try to nurse on dangling wool.  Plus, especially with sheep that have wool on their faces, it helps the mother bond with her lamb better when her face is clear of wool.
  • The last benefit of shearing before lambing is that you can get a good look at the ewe’s body condition.  Even when you are feeling her body through the wool it can be hard to really determine what her body condition is.  Getting all that wool off gives you a chance to assess her better and feed accordingly.

You do not want a ewe to be underweight nor overweight at delivery.  Both can cause complications.  But we tend to err on the side of a little overweight is better than even a little underweight.  If a ewe is very overweight going into the end of pregnancy we would not increase her food as fast as the plan below.  And if a ewe is very underweight we would increase her feed sooner and faster than the schedule below.  Also, if a ewe is likely carrying twins or triplets she will need to be increased sooner or faster than the plan below.  Properly assessing her body condition and making plans accordingly is the key to preventing pregnancy and birth complications.

Our base-line feeding plan is:

  • 6 weeks out transition from 100% grass hay to 50% grass 50% alfalfa – make this transition over a 4-5 day period.  Also begin giving each ewe a small amount of grain once a day (we just do a handful).
  • 5 weeks out and 4 weeks out still 50% grass 50% alfalfa and 1 handful of grain per day
  • 3 weeks out transition to 25% grass 75% alfalfa and increase the grain to 1/4 lb per day – make this transition over a 3-4 day period.
  • 2 weeks out transition to 100% alfalfa (unless the ewe is overweight) and up to 1/2 lb grain per day – make this transition over a 3-4 day period.
  • 1 week out through 2 weeks post lambing keep them on 100% alfalfa and anywhere from 1/2 lb-1 lb grain per ewe per day depending on body condition and number of lambs nursing.

Ewes that are not fed properly at the end of pregnancy can get pregnancy toxemia.  Therefore, it is very important to feed well and keep a close eye on ewes as they close in on delivery.  If you suspect a ewe to be carrying twins or triplets and she is at all underweight then you should use ketosis strips to test her urine to be sure she is not slipping into ketosis and thus pregnancy toxemia.  Catching pregnancy toxemia early is essential to save the ewe and lambs lives.  But the best course of action is prevention through careful feeding and monitoring of your ewes during the last couple months of pregnancy.


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