Benefits of Yard Weaning

by Tiffany Bennett, Livestock Consultant

Many producers yard wean calves and know the benefits but very few yard wean their lambs. Yard weaning lambs can help to combat some of the issues that arise from more traditional methods of weaning lambs that allows them to tear off across a paddock.

The weaning phase is a stressful period for the lamb. Yard weaning helps to reduce the impacts and therefore the issues that arise such as weight loss, deaths and tender wool.

Lambs that are yard weaned lose less weight and continue to grow, settle quickly, learn to be handled better and respect fences. Lambs will do better in a yard weaning situation if they are closer to 12 weeks of age and it is best to wean based on liveweight rather than age. Aim to wean merinos at about 18kg and crossbreds at about 20kg. The heavier the lamb is, the greater is their ability to cope with stress.

Yard weaning may also provide an opportunity to wean early in dry years and manage the high nutritional requirements when early weaning lambs. A lamb can be early weaned at about 8 weeks of age or 15 kg. It is more efficient to feed a dry ewe and weaner separately than as a unit, resulting in feed efficiencies which are critical in a year with low feed reserves. In addition an 8 week old lamb relies on milk as only 10% of its nutrient intake.

Yard weaning requires careful planning and management as the decisions made can impact on the lifetime productivity of the weaner. The key to successful yard weaning is meeting the lamb’s nutritional requirements and ensuring that adequate fresh clean water is available. This also includes ensuring adequate trough and feeder space. If you have set feeding times ensure that there is 10-15cm/head trough space or 2-3.5 cm/head if you have an adlib self-feeder or lick feeder. Ensure you allow 1.5cm water trough space per lamb. Be aware that if you are trail feeding on the ground in the weaning pens the risk of coccidiosis is increased as grain will have increased faecal contamination. Remove lambs that are doing poorly or are shy feeders and treat them separately. If weaning large numbers of lambs it may be an advantage to split them into two or more mobs based on their weights.

It is essential that the lambs are imprint fed whilst still on the ewes with the feed that is planned to be used during the yard weaning phase and the method of feeding. There is no use trailing, say for example barley on the ground during the imprint phase, and then put the barley in a lick feeder during the yard weaning phase, as lambs have not become accustomed to the lick feeder.

Mineral supplements are useful to optimise the lamb’s nutritional requirements and adding salt and limestone to grain based diets essential. Be aware that adding powdered minerals to lick/self-feeders may not be ideal as the powders tend to sift to the bottom of the feeders. Adding a pelletised version which contains a buffer would be best. A cheap alternative may be to offer stock lime and stock salt in a 50/50 ratio in tubs with small holes drilled into them for lambs to free choice themselves. This however does not incorporate a buffer and increase the risk of acidosis.

Mob size is important when yard weaning. Ideally mobs should be 400 or less and certainly no more than 500. Lambs need a minimum of 1m² per head or ideally 5m². The area to be used must be well fenced. If possible incorporate shade and shelter in the form of existing or temporary structures.

Ensure that all lambs have been drenched and vaccinated. Vaccination against pulpy kidney is particularly important if they are going into high risk grain feeding scenario.

Remove ewes to as far away as possible from the yards, and run a dozen or so older wethers with the lambs, as this can help them settle more quickly and help lead the lambs to feed and water.

Weaning is a critical learning period for lambs. Use the yard weaning process to get the lambs accustomed to humans and dogs, if you use dogs. You can do this by walking through the pens once or twice a day with a quiet dog. Lambs only need to be yard weaned for a minimum of 5-7 days for good outcomes to be achieved. The lambs should have achieved good social bonds by this time which will make their transition to the paddock less stressful.

Ensure that you transition the lambs from yard weaning to the paddock (which should be of high quality feed) does not cause digestive upsets. Ensure that you do not put the lambs out hungry but perhaps with a half full belly of fibre, so they are encouraged to consume some pasture and continue to feed fibre for a few days until they have become accustomed to their new feed base.