Weaner Management

Whilst seasonal conditions vary across the State, the importance of good weaner management remains paramount across all districts, albeit to a greater degree in the drier areas. Weaner ill thrift and mortality is the fourth highest ranked priority disease, in terms of economic cost, to the sheep industry.

The liveweight of young sheep at weaning is a key driver of weaner mortality. Higher weaning weight is consistently associated with lower mortality across a wide range of flocks and production environments. Given the wide range in mature size among sheep flocks in Australia, a single target weaning weight in kilograms will not be applicable to all flocks. As a result, a target weaning weight based on a percentage of the standard reference weight of the flock is now recognised as industry best practice.

Target weaning weight should be 45% of the standard reference weight of your adult ewes.

Drafting off the lightest 25% of the mob at weaning and providing them with improved nutrition will greatly improve their chance of survival. Weaning weights and post weaning growth rates are both important in terms of weaner survival – they can both compensate for and undermine each other.

Developing a successful weaner feeding and management strategy requires some understanding of weaner biology. A feeding strategy, whether it is entirely based on pasture or includes some form of supplement, must meet the weaners’ requirements for energy and protein. These will change as your weaners grow.

Imprint feeding

In preparation for weaning, feeding grain or supplements to the ewes prior to weaning teaches the lambs to recognise what it is after weaning. This process is called ‘imprint feeding’. This allows the lamb to transition into the weaning phase smoother and with minimal, to no growth check. The use of imprint feeding is especially important when yard weaning (discussed below). It is particularly important when imprint feeding to use the same method of feeding whilst yard weaning. For example, using a lick feeder post-weaning, and not prior to weaning is counterintuitive, as the lambs have not yet become accustomed to the lick feeder and will not immediately start to eat.

Yard weaning 

Weaning lambs can often be a stressful period, and similar to yard weaning cattle, yard weaning lambs can have many benefits. The use of yard weaning is especially beneficial if weaning in dry years with lower feed availability as it is easier to manage the lamb’s nutritional requirements.

Yard weaning over a 4-7 day period in a small yard or feedlot pen can often result in:

  • Lower feed costs
  • Less weight loss or no growth check, lower mortality and less tender wool
  • Ewe body condition is regained faster for the next joining period
  • Improved rumen development for a better lifetime efficiency for converting feed to energy
  • Lambs settle quicker and learn to respect fences

 Weaning paddocks

Prior to weaning, or prior to weaners exiting yard weaning, paddocks need to be identified and prepared. Choose paddocks with high quality feed (1,200-1,500 kg green DM/ha and with 20% legumes), low grass seeds, low worm risk, and with clean good quality water.

Lamb health 

Ensure vaccinations are administered for the clostridial diseases (either 5-in1 or 6-in-1 vaccine) and cheesy gland at lamb marking and again 4 -6 weeks later (or at weaning). Ensure weaners are drenched (to prevent worm burdens) and trace elements are given, if required. If your weaners are at a high risk of flystrike, you may need to consider flystrike prevention.