Sheep

Sheep Fetal Programming: Keep an Eye on Nutrition

Wellness : Health

Wellness : Nutrition

Clay Elliott, Ph.D.

Companion Animal Nutritionist, Technical Solutions

Every trimester is important when it comes to lamb development. Ewes need proper nutrition from day one of gestation to set lambs up for success.

The concept of fetal programming may sound complicated. But it’s simply a different way of thinking about how outside influences play a role in a lamb’s development. Fetal programming uses nutrition and the environment to help get lambs off to a good start before they’re even born.

Ewe management during pregnancy can significantly affect the growth, carcass quality, health, reproductive performance and wool production of their offspring later in life.1 And, fetal programming can help increase the percent lamb crop, lower death loss and boost profit margins.
 
Keys to successful fetal programming include reducing ewe stress and maintaining proper nutrition from the first day of gestation through birth. Follow these tips to get started:

Monitor body condition score

Ewe body condition score leading up to and during gestation plays a pivotal role in lamb development. An under-conditioned ewe won’t have enough nutrition and energy to support their own maintenance needs and support lamb growth. On the other hand, an over-conditioned ewe may be at risk for health challenges, which can negatively impact the lamb.
 
Aim for an average body condition score of 2.5 to 3.0 on a 5-point scale and maintain that level throughout the pregnancy. Females at this body condition score are more likely to be healthy and not under nutritional stress.
 
Consider supplementing ewes before the breeding season with a well-balanced, high-quality, bioavailable mineral such as Purina® Wind and Rain® Sheep Mineral to help maintain body condition.

Meet nutrition requirements in every trimester

Historically, the third trimester was considered the most important for both the lamb and the ewe. But each trimester is vitally important in its own way. Proper management and nutrition are essential throughout gestation to optimize lamb success.
 
Here’s a look at what happens during each trimester:
 
The first trimester is more important to lamb development than many producers realize, especially the first 45 days when embryonic attachment occurs. Avoid stressing ewes during this time and use low-stress handling and transport methods if those actions must occur. Also, make sure nutrition remains sound so females don’t lose body condition, which can stress ewes and lead to fetal death. The first trimester is also when initial lamb organ development begins. Make sure ewes receive adequate nutrition support to ensure organ development progresses normally.
 
The second trimester is when organ development continues, performance factors like muscle tissue develop and lamb reproductive organs develop. For instance, a female lamb’s future egg production takes place in the second trimester. It’s extremely important to provide the mother with proper nutrition throughout the entire pregnancy, especially if you’re planning to keep replacement females. Maintaining body condition and avoiding stress in the ewe will help support the future reproductive performance of the lamb.
 
The third trimester is when 75% of fetal growth occurs, and organ development is completed. Lambs are pulling energy from the ewe, so increase the amount of nutrition to the ewe to keep energy levels up. Lambs born from ewes that receive supplemental minerals throughout the pregnancy are usually born stronger, are more vigorous and nurse more rapidly. Supplemental nutrition can also increase the chance of multiple births in a flock. The third trimester is a good time to add free-choice access to a Purina® Accuration® Sheep & Goat Hi-Fat Block for ewes, particularly if lower body condition score is a concern. The block offers two-and-a-half times more energy than a carbohydrate, making it an efficient energy source.
 
Ewe calcium and other mineral needs are high during this time, especially with multiple lambs. Don’t skimp on these essential nutrients. Feed Purina® Wind and Rain® Sheep Mineral, formulated with high levels of calcium and other trace minerals.

Ultimately, good ewe care and nutrition during pregnancy don’t have to be complicated – the benefits to fetal programming and the resulting higher percentage of healthy lambs are well worth the effort.
 
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Smith SM, Du M, Lewellyn D, Pru JK. 2020. Importance of Fetal Programming in Sheep. Washington State University Extension. Available at: https://s3.wp.wsu.edu/uploads/sites/2049/2020/08/ImportanceofFetalProgrammingInSheep08.14.2020.pdf.