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Feed, feed, feed: the main key to weaner survival

Weaner ill thrift and poor growth rate continue to be ongoing issue for many producers. Weaners exposed to poor conditions in their first year of life, tend to be affected for life. This has severe impacts on wool and meat production as well as reproduction success particularly at first joining. A 95% survival rate or above can be achieved from weaning to one year of age but particular attention needs to be given to nutritional requirements and health issues. This is particularly important through the summer months when feed quality may not be adequate to meet a weaner’s requirements.

Weaner weight at the time the pasture dries off is critical in maximising survival over summer. A weaner should average 45-50% of their mature body weight, or around 23 kg when the pasture dries off. Weaners below this target have inadequate body reserves to help carry them through this period.

Weaners should gain 1-2 kg per month. Condition scoring a random sample of 25 to 50 animals in the flock provides an accurate way of assessing how stock are going and whether current feed is adequate.

Weaners that have not reached target weights at the start of summer need to be preferentially fed using high quality pasture or supplements. Most hay and silages alone will not have adequate protein and energy and supplementing with grain will most likely be required. Weaners require a minimum of 12 to 14 percent crude protein and 9 MJ of energy to ensure growth and survival.

Protein and energy supplementation is required if only dry pasture is available over summer. A fodder crop may be an alternative option to grain feeding if available. Lucerne pastures generally have excellent protein and adequate energy. Be aware though, lucerne pre flowering can often have too much protein and not enough fibre, potentially causing health issues such as redgut.

When grazing stubbles over summer it is important to remember that the value of stubble feed is in the spilt grain, leaf matter and some weeds. Legume stubbles are potentially better for weaners than cereal stubbles. The feed value of stubbles can deteriorate quickly, therefore young sheep should be given preference over older sheep; feeding legume pasture or stubbles first as these deteriorate the fastest.

Mineral and vitamin supplementation is important if known deficiencies occur in your district. More often than not, inadequate protein and or energy are the most limiting factors. Testing for mineral status through blood or liver samples is an option to determine what mineral supplementation is actually required. It is important to remember that plants can manufacture vitamins but they cannot manufacture minerals and can only uptake what is available in the soil.

Lambs vaccinated at marking for pulpy kidney NEED a booster shot at weaning. Pulpy kidney is the most common disease of young sheep, which are at particular risk when they are to be fed grain, or grazing unharvested crops, fodder crops or lucerne.

A basic 3 in 1 vaccination which covers pulpy kidney, tetanus and cheesy gland is cheap insurance at around 20 cents per head per vaccination. Remember a vaccination at marking, MUST be followed up with a second vaccination given four to six weeks later. The first dose primes the immune system ready for antibody production but very little antibodies are actually produced. The second vaccination actually triggers the antibody production providing a high level of immunity. A yearly ‘booster’ given every 12 months is then needed to give ongoing protection.

Weaners are highly susceptible to worms as their immune systems are not fully developed. Nutrition determines how well their immune systems develop and how well they cope with worms. All weaners should be drenched with an effective drench as the pasture hays off. A second summer drench should also be given. Ideally do a worm egg count to determine the need for a drench. Weaners should only be placed on low worm risk paddocks.

When weaner sheep have a high worm burden the protein the weaner sheep consumes is diverted away from wool and muscle growth and directed to repairing the damaged intestines and fighting off the worm infestation. Supplementing bypass protein or having access to high quality pastures can increase resistance to worm infestations in weaners. Weaners with inadequate levels of protein in their diet and carrying a high worm burden are unlikely to reach target live weights.

Other issues to be aware of that may impact on weaner growth include grass seeds, scabby mouth, blowflies, and poor water quality. Maintain a hand on the back and a close eye on the feed to ensure your weaners are given the best opportunity.

DETAILS: Tiffany Bennett, Livestock Consultant, Rural Solutions SA, 08 87629 126

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