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When to wean?

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2 ½ weeks into lactation

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Weaning lambs

Weaning is a crucial time in the management of ewes and lambs. It is the practice of removing from lambs the milk diet provided by the ewe (or a milk replacement diet). From the milk diet, lambs are moved onto forage or grain-based diets. The separation can be stressful for both ewes and lambs. It should be the goal of all producers to minimize stress at weaning.

When to wean

Weaning age varies greatly in the sheep industry and depends upon many factors including availability of pasture and other feed supplies and target market. Lambs have been weaned successfully as early as 14 days, while some lambs are allowed to wean naturally, staying with the dams for six months or more. In fact, some lambs are marketed before they are weaned.

Early in life, the lamb cannot digest anything but milk. However, by 3 weeks of age, the developed rumen makes the lamb more efficient than the ewe. Typically, the ewe's milk production peaks 3 to 4 weeks after lambing and steadily declines to about half as much by 10 weeks. About 74 percent of all milk is produced in the first 8 weeks of lactation.


Early Weaning

Early weaning is a relative term, but implies weaning at any time after 14 days of age, but usually before 90 days. Sixty (60) days is a common weaning age in intensively managed sheep operations. It is common to wean lambs in a dairy sheep operation when they are 30 to 35 days of age.

Early weaning can be successful provided lambs are drinking water and consuming adequate amounts of dry feed. Creep feeding is part of most weaning programs. The size of the lamb at weaning is generally more important than its actual age. As a rule of thumb, most lambs can be weaned at 60 days of age or 45 pounds, whichever comes first (though this will vary by breed).

Early weaning offers many advantages. Weaned lambs are very efficient feed converters. It is more efficient to feed grain to lambs because they will convert the feed to gain more efficiently than the ewes can convert the feed to milk to lamb gain. Early weaning eases the lactation stress of high-producing ewes. It allows ewes to return to breeding condition earlier, which is essential for accelerated lambing programs.

Weaning lambs early and placing them in a feed lot for finishing saves pasture and enables the producer to maintain more ewes on a given amount of pasture. In drought years, it is common to wean lambs early (60-90 days).

With early weaning, cull ewes can be sold earlier, sometimes for higher prices. Lambs can are usually marketed early, when prices are typically higher. However, early weaning is more stressful to both the ewe and lambs. Ewes are more prone to mastitis because they are still producing milk when their lambs are separated.


Orphan Lambs

Early weaning should always be the goal with orphan lambs. Artificially-reared lambs can be successfully weaned from milk feeding at 25 to 30 pounds body weight or when they are 30 to 45 days old. Weaning abruptly is better than offering a diluted milk replacer the last week. However, orphan lambs should not be weaned unless they are drinking water and consuming solid food.



Late Weaning

In a natural situation, weaning occurs at approximately 6 months of age, usually in the fall when the ewes return to estrus. Spring-born lambs are often weaned later than winter-born and fall-born lambs. In fact, it is not uncommon to leave spring-born lambs with their dams on pasture until they are ready for market.

There are several advantages to late weaning. It is more natural and results in less stress for the ewe and lambs. There is less risk of the ewe developing mastitis since her milk production has declined significantly by the time the lambs are weaned. Late weaning allows the producer to take advantage of available forage for lambs.

Pasture gains are usually more economical than those achieved in a feed lot situation. On the other hand, lambs must compete with ewes for the available forage. They are more likely to become infected with infective worm larvae. Predator problems are usually greater in late weaning, pasture-rearing environments. If male lambs will be left with their dams past 3 to 4 months of age, they should be castrated. Castrated rams do not grow as fast as intact males.



A comparison of early vs. late weaning

Early (less than 90 days)
Late (more than 120 days)
It is not necessary to castrate ram lambs.
It is more efficient to feed grain to lambs than ewes.
It eases lactation stress of prolific ewes
It allows ewes to return to breeding condition earlier.
Cull ewes can be sold earlier.
Lambs can usually be marketed earlier.
Pasture is saved for ewes.
More ewes can be maintained on farm.

It is more natural.
Lambs and ewes are less stressed.
There is less risk of mastitis.
It requires less pens and/or pasture fields.
It takes advantage of available forage.
Pasture gains are usually more economical than feedlot gains.

However . . .

It is more stressful to lambs and ewes.
Ewes are more prone to mastitis.
Extra pens and/or pasture fields are needed.

However . . .

Lambs have to compete for the same pasture as ewes.
Lambs are more likely to become infected with worm larvae.
Predator losses could be higher.
Ram lambs need to be castrated.


Preventing Mastitis

The main concern at weaning time for ewes is to prevent mastitis problems. Ewes with mastitis have reduced or no production value in future years. The easiest way to prevent mastitis is to halt milk production. Approximately two weeks before weaning, grain should be removed from the ewe's diet. IF possible, you should feed a low quality forage prior to weaning. Feeding straw the last 2 to 3 days before weaning further shuts down lactation.

After weaning, ewes should be maintained on low quality feed for 3 to 7 days to assist ewes in drying up. Some producers withhold or restrict water intake before and after weaning. However, removing water from the ewe's diet during hot weather can be dangerous and is not recommended.

You should not turn ewes out to pasture immediately after weaning them. Spring grass is high in protein, water, and other nutrients which promote milk production.


Weaning Environment

Generally, weaning time is more stressful for lambs than ewes. At weaning, the lambs are challenged not only by being separated from their mother, but also by their need to fend for themselves nutritionally. Their immune systems are not fully developed, and they are more susceptible to disease.

You should not drastically change the lamb's ration for two weeks before to two weeks after weaning. When weaning, the ewes should be removed from the lambs, not vice versa. By leaving lambs in the same location, they will experience less stress and are less likely to go off feed because they will know where the feeders, minerals, and water are.

It has generally recommended that ewes and lambs are far enough apart that they can't hear each other. It's important to maintain the same groupings during weaning, e.g. keep siblings together. Newly weaned lambs should have plenty of clean, fresh water at all times. Keep the lambs on the same feed before and after weaning until the stress of weaning has pasted (7-10 days). Feeds containing urea should not be fed for at least 2 weeks past weaning.

Lambs weaned at 10 weeks of age will recognize and return to their dams after 2 months of separation. After weaning, twins will stay together for the first few days.

Newly weaned lambs should be closely monitored for health problems. Coccidiosis is most common in weanling lambs. Enterotoxemia (overeating disease type D) is more common in early weaned lambs. It can be prevented with vaccination. Lambs from vaccinated dams should receive their first vaccination for type D at approximately 10 weeks of age, followed by a booster 2 to 4 weeks later.


Low stress weaning

Creep feeding reduces the stress of weaning. With cattle, the stress of weaning has been reduced by allowing the cow and calf to have fence line contact. An Australian company (www.easywean.com.au) markets a "nose ring" or anti-sucking device that prevents lambs from nursing (the ewe rejects attempts to suckle), which dries up the ewe's lactation while maintaining the maternal bond and allowing ewes and lambs to be managed as a single mob.

The ring is a plastic device that clips into the partition between the lamb's nostrils. It should stay on for 2 weeks to allow the ewe's lactation to dry up. The rings are reusable and 90 percent effective. They reduce weaning stress and enhance animal performance. They do not prevent the lamb from grazing.

You should weigh lambs at weaning time so you can calculate adjusted weaning weights. Lambs with the highest adjusted weaning weights should be retained for breeding. Ewes that wean the heaviest litters will make the most money and should be favored in breeding and selection programs.

Weaning lambs


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Late updated 23-Feb-2011 by Susan Schoenian.
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