This year has been far from normal, we have been challenged by a global pandemic, ongoing Brexit negotiations, an extremely dry spring and now, so far, a wet summer.

Grass growth has gone from being particularly limited to an extreme surge in growth across the country. We can’t control events that affect our industry, such as weather or indeed pandemics, but we can react and plan for such changes.

With Brexit negotiations and trade deals currently being discussed, it is looking more and more likely that we will be leaving Europe on a no deal.

Meaning that in the turn of the year, our lamb exports to the continent could carry a hefty tariff. For this reason it is more important than ever to ensure lambs are continuing to grow to minimise those kept into 2021 when the market may be disrupted.

The next major management task on all sheep farmers’ minds will be weaning. Have a plan in place prior to weaning the lambs, such as which fields to allocate to them, thin ewes and fitter ewes, how to minimise stress and to ensure they continue to perform.

The timing of this task should be driven by three main elements:

The ewe’s condition

Supply of forage

How the lambs are performing

If any of the three elements are limiting then, lambs should be weaned.

How young can they be weaned?

Ewe milk production peaks at 3-4 weeks after lambing, with roughly 75% being produced in the first eight weeks of lactation.

After eight weeks of age, lambs obtain most of their energy from grazing and are actually in competition with their mothers for the best grass.

Lambs can be weaned from this early stage (56 days), but will require excellent nutrition to replace the supply of milk from their mothers, which may require supplementation from creep feed.

By 12 weeks, the volume of milk intake from suckled lambs is very small, with the majority of the diet comprising of forage and/or hard feed, if provided.

However, if you have ewes in good condition, a good supply of high quality forage and the lambs are performing, then there is no benefit in weaning lambs early and instead lambs could be drafted straight from their mothers when they reach fat, preventing any weaning check from weaning.

Grass allocation

While there may be a surplus of grass at the moment, the competition between ewe and lamb must be monitored.

Watch for grass swards going below 4cm, lambs growing less than 150 grams/day or ewes being lean. These indicators all signal a warning of performance being impacted and to wean the lambs.

Prior to weaning plan where lambs will graze post weaning, and build up a grazing platform for the lambs, while also keeping low stress at the forefront.

Weaning generally has a larger impact on the lambs than the ewes. For this reason the ewes should ideally be removed from the lambs, leaving the lambs in the same field which causes less stress and gives them the advantage of knowing where the water supply is, shelter, etc.

Newly weaned lambs should have a good supply of clean fresh water at all times and be closely monitored for any health problems.

The highest quality grazing should be offered to the lambs. The next best grazing available should be offered to any lean ewes, to build up condition prior to tupping and that fitter ewes should be offered the poorest ground available.

This could be a bit of upland or hill grazing, or after the initial weaning week, they could follow the lambs on a leader follower system on a rotational system.

Minimise stress

In addition to removing ewes from the lambs, they should ideally be kept from sight and sound of lambs to ease the weaning transition.

All routine health and management procedures such as vaccinations, worming, tagging etc. should be carried out in advance of weaning to minimise stress and reduce any effect to the immune response of the lambs.

Drying off ewes

Ewes should be monitored closely after weaning, especially udders for any signs of mastitis.

The ewes should be offered low quality forage until the udders shrink and dry off, along with a supply of water. This may be rough or hill land, a well grazed field or the ewes could be housed for 2-3 days and offered low quality forage.

If the ewe bags up, milk should be stripped to ease the pressure and reduce mastitis, but be careful not to totally strip the teat as this will stimulate milk production.

Condition score

Weaning offers an excellent handling to condition score the ewes, giving you the tool to decide if any nutritional management needs altered.

If there is a large proportion of ewes under condition, contact your vet, to investigate this further, examinations can be carried out to why they are lean e.g. faecal egg count for worm burdens, fluke, Johnes, MV, etc.

The results of these investigations should be discussed with the vet and the appropriate action undertaken.