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Strategies for Coping with Drought for the Sheep Flock

Livestock Update, July 2007

Dr. Scott Greiner, Extension Animal Scientist, Sheep, VA Tech

Areas of Virginia are coping with moderate to severe drought conditions. The following management considerations may be useful for flocks considering their options:

  1. Wean lambs.  The ewe nursing lambs has energy and protein requirements 200-300% that of dry ewes.  Lambs older than 60 days of age are not receiving significant nutrition from a lactating ewe, particularly when nutrition is limited.  Lambs can be removed from pasture, and placed on feed in a drylot facility or sold. Removing the lambs from pasture also serves to decrease the grazing pressure on pastures, and allows for existing forages to be used for maintenance of the ewe flock. The decision to sell or feed lambs to heavier weights will be based on market prices, weight and condition of the lambs, and cost of additional gain.  In most cases, the cost of additional gain through grain supplementation is economically beneficial.  There are several protein supplements that are formulated to be mixed with whole shelled corn for growing/finishing lambs. These diets can be provided relatively inexpensively, and do not require supplemental hay when whole shelled corn is fed.  Target these lambs to be sold in the fall.
  2. If pastures become short enough that supplemental feed is necessary for the ewe flock, consider feeding corn or barley, or other energy supplements (corn gluten feed) to ewes. Feeding 0.5 to 1.0 lb. per head per day will help "stretch" pastures and decrease the ewe's dependence on limited pasture forages as the sole nutrient source.  Prior to breeding, additional energy through grain supplementation also has the added benefit of flushing the ewes, which has a favorable impact on number of lambs born.
  3. In some situations, pastures may become so depleted such that the ewe flock must be provided their entire diet through supplemental feed. In these situations, remove the flock from pastures to allow forages to recover once moisture is received. Since the ewe's nutritional requirements are low (assuming ewes are dry), utilizing poor to average quality hays is an option. A 175 pound ewe would require 3.5 pounds of hay (50% TDN, 9% crude protein) to meet her maintenance requirements for energy and protein. Limit feed hay to prevent consumption above requirements, and to minimize wastage. If hay supplies are short, supplementing with grain will help limit the amount of hay needed. Supplementing grain will be most economical if hay needs to be purchased. However, ewes need to consume 1% of their body weight as roughage to maintain rumen function. For the 175 pound ewe, a minimum of 1.75 pounds of hay needs to be fed. To meet maintenance requirements, an additional 1 pound of corn per day would need to be fed.
  4. Be sure to follow a strategic deworming program, even during dry conditions. Excessive worm loads will cause additional stress on the flock, and short pastures are conducive to parasitism
  5. Provide a selenium-fortified complete mineral formulated for sheep to the ewe flock at all times.
  6. Evaluate the productivity of the flock.  Cull poor performing ewes.

For additional drought information, contact your local Animal Science Extension agent or the web site

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