Weaning can be a stressful time for both ewes and lambs. Since a lamb’s immune system is not fully developed, weaning stress can negatively affect both a lamb’s health and its growth rate. Weaning lambs while ewes are still producing a lot of milk increases the risk of mastitis. There are several ways you can help reduce weaning stress and other potential problems for both ewes and lambs. Determining when to wean should be based on age of the lambs, body condition of the ewes, available. resources, and management considerations. Most shepherds wean between 60-120 days of age depending on production system; extensive or forage-based systems usually wean later (90+ days) which allow for proper rumen development, where intensive systems (creep based) wean earlier at 60-90 days of age. If pastures are abundant and the risk of internal parasites is low, a later weaning date can be less stressful for both the ewes and their lambs. If you leave ram lambs intact, you need to consider the risk of an early maturing ram lamb breeding ewes if not weaned at a young enough age.
Ewe Management: The major concern for ewes at weaning is mastitis. The best way to avoid mastitis is to slow down milk production prior to weaning. Late weaning or self-weaning practices allow the ewe’s milk production to decrease naturally. If weaning earlier than 90 days of age, grain and high-quality hay should be discontinued 5-7 days before weaning to further reduce milk production. At weaning, ewes should be moved to a clean, dry lot with access to average quality grass hay. Closely watch your ewes for signs of mastitis: red, hot, strutted or hard udders. Ewes with mastitis may have lumpy, discolored or bloody milk and may walk with a limp, act lethargic and/or have a fever. Udders that are strutted or overextended can be hand milked to relieve pressure although complete emptying of the udder will stimulate more milk production and is not recommended. Consult your veterinarian early if mastitis is suspected. At weaning, ewes should be FAMACHA scored and dewormed if indicated by a FAMACHA score of 3-5 (pale inner eyelids). Body condition scoring (BCS) should also be done at or around weaning. Ewes showing signs of parasitism, bad udders or with poor condition at weaning should be considered for culling.
Lamb Management: Lambs are stressed at weaning because you are removing their mother as well as changing their diet. If you creep feed, continue with the same ration for at least two weeks after weaning before gradually stopping or changing the ration. If possible, keep the lambs in the same paddock and move the ewes away. That way, at least their environment does not change too. Fence line weaning is the least stressful but requires a secure fence between the ewes and their lambs at weaning. They can still see each other but lambs are not able to nurse. Keep the ewes adjacent to the lambs for a few days and then move them further away. If you are not able to do fence line weaning, then move ewes far enough away that the lambs cannot see or hear them. It is very tempting to vaccinate lambs at weaning since you are working with them anyway, however it is better to vaccinate lambs two weeks before weaning. It takes about two weeks for a vaccine to have its full effect, so lambs will not have protection from Clostridial disease if you wait and vaccinate them at weaning. They also will not mount as good of an immune response if they are further stressed at the time of vaccination. The stress of weaning increases a lamb’s susceptibility to parasites. Under warm conditions, weaned lambs are at greater risk of parasitism and should be kept off pastures contaminated by the ewes earlier in the year for at least a few weeks. Pastures used by ewes around lambing time are often heavily infected by worm eggs and can be especially risky for young lambs. If you haven’t already done so, weaning is a good time to start monitoring FAMACHA scores on grazing lambs. By establishing a baseline early, before parasites become a problem, you’ll be able to initiate parasite control protocols when FAMACHA scores begin to trend upward. Minimizing stress at weaning should lead to healthier, better growing lambs as well as better udder health for your ewes.
By: EAPK Communications Committee