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How to Provide Protein for Ewes in Late Pregnancy

14 January 2015


Protein requirements of sheep can be met without using a costly feed, suggest news finding from the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX).

Sheep require an adequate supply of energy, protein, vitamins, minerals and trace elements but protein is particularly important for the ewe during the last three weeks of pregnancy for udder development and milk production.

The ewe derives her protein requirement from two sources:

  • Rumen degradable protein (RDP)
  • Digestible undegradable protein (DUP)

Ewes need RDP daily and it is readily found in grass, hay, silage and green leafy brassicas. It is used by the rumen microflora to reproduce and then some of them are swept out into the small intestine for digestion. Known as microbial protein, this is the most important source of protein for ruminants. It is essential that the microflora have enough degradable protein in the diet.

RDP is usually enough to meet the ewe's protein requirements. However, in late pregnancy, due to reduced rumen capacity as foetuses grow and an increased need for protein, this often cannot be met from RDP in forage alone. Soya is usually used to boost high quality protein levels in diets for late pregnancy and lactation, but it can be costly for the producer. Currently three per cent of the soya imported into the UK is fed to sheep.

EBLEX has funded a project with HCC, ADAS and Reaseheath College to compare alternative protein sources to soya bean meal for pregnant ewes on a total mixed ration (TMR) system based on grass silage.

Six diets with similar crude protein levels were fed to six groups of 40 twin-bearing ewes for four weeks prior to lambing 2014. Ewe body condition score (BCS), ewe weight and lamb weights were collected at different stages.

There were no significant differences in animal performance between the diets. The soya based diet was the most expensive and the diet based on wheat distillers dark grains was the cheapest (based on feed prices from January 2014).

The findings from this project show that alternatives sources to soya can be used without affecting animal performance and could provide savings on ewe feed costs.

Not all producers have access to TMR facilities but some will have the opportunity to mix their own diets so could consider some changes. If diets are to be changed, help from a nutritionist is crucial and forage analysis should be carried out so feeds can be used to complement it.

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