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Sheep Farm Management Notes: 27/04/2010

Feeding meals to lambs – is it economic?

Michael Gottstein

Over the last week or so I have been getting a good few queries about feeding meals to lambs. So maybe it’s that time of year again when we should take a look at the options and the financial consequences of feeding meal to lambs.

The 2008 profit monitor for sheep farms shows that €19 per ewe was the average expenditure on concentrate feed to predominantly mid season ewes. This figure is in line with the figures for the last few years and represents 30% of total variable costs on lowland sheep farms. With a lamb output of 1.45 per ewe and allowing €7 for ewe ration this means that the average expenditure on meal works out at about €8.30 per lamb.

So now the question is; does it pay to feed €8.30 of meal to a lamb that will realise around €70-80 in the market place?

Here are a few points to consider;

  1. It takes approximately 14kg meal to produce 1kg of lamb carcass – Dr. Seamus Hanrahan (at the Teagasc Sheep Conference 2008)
    If meal costs €200/tonne then 14kg meal will cost €2.80 plus labour to feed it. By feeding meal lambs will eat less grass so the saving on grass is about 80 cent. But consider that at modest stocking rate the extra grass saved may just go stemmy and have to be topped (i.e. wasted)
  2. Lambs can be finished off grass with good management.
    With good grassland management Teagasc Athenry have been finishing lambs off grass with no meal. The key here is good grassland management. On mixed cattle and sheep farms finishing lambs off grass should certainly be possible. On highly stocked sheep farms or sheep flocks with very high litter sizes the challenge is greater.
  3. To get lambs into decent money you have to take them to heavy weights.
    To increase output many sheep farmers are now killing lambs at carcass weights greater than 21 kg. But remember that if to get this extra weight you have to stuff €8 worth of meal into the lambs you are just diverting part of the factory cheque to the feed miller.
  4. This year due to lack of grass in March / April lambs are behind target weight for age.
    Certainly this spring has been very challenging in terms of achieving the targets normally set out. If lambs are a good bit below the target weight at weaning this will have knock on effect on drafting pattern and grass supply in the autumn when ewes are being flushed. Therefore some meal may be justified.

There is certainly a role for feeding meal to lambs on sheep farms. But it is important that meals are fed for a reason and not just to make up for deficiencies in grassland management. The aim of every sheep farmers should be to get the most out of grass. Look at the meal as a mechanism for propping up the system where grass can’t achieve this.

Where meal feeding is practiced the following recommendations apply;

  1. Where grass is plentiful and of good quality up to 300grams per day can be fed to speed up drafting where lambs are below target.
  2. Where grass is in short supply or of poor quality feed up to 600 grams per day until grass supply / quality is back on target.
  3. Ad lib feeding of concentrates to mid season lambs is not economic and should not be practiced over the summer / early autumn grazing period.
  4. The economics of meal feeding depends very much on the price of the feed. Expensive cooked / pedigree lamb crunches are good to get lambs started but you should try to switch to cheaper quality rations as soon as lambs start eating significant quantities of meal.
  5. Aim for rations that are high in cereals (maize, barley, oats, wheat), Pulps (beet / citrus), and protein sources such as Soya, Distillers and rapeseed (limit inclusion levels to max 15% for the latter two).
  6. Including an appropriate lamb mineral/vitamin premix in the meal can save you having to dose the lambs with cobalt at regular intervals.
  7. Getting lambs to market earlier as a result of meal feeding can pay dividends in terms of saved grass, reduced veterinary cost (i.e. less dosing / blowfly treatments etc) and attaining a higher price. But the figures will not stack up where meals are used to make up for deficiencies in grassland management.