Meat and Wool Innovation

Management of Triplet Ewes - A summary of information

By Dr. Jenny Burton, Cambridge farmer, member of Northern Sheep Council

The following information relates to ewes carrying triplet lambs, the lactation of those ewes and the requirements of the lambs for survival. Both extensive and intensive sheep farming is practised in New Zealand. The data in this summary has been provided by both sheep farmers and a review of the literature.

The successful management of triplet ewes and their lambs to weaning involves many factors. The importance of adequate nutrition cannot be over emphasised. However other factors are also important if optimal results are to be achieved.

Feeding Levels - Theoretical Calculations

Calculations found in the literature, for the feed requirements of triplet ewes in pregnancy and lactation, vary because of factors such as ewe live weight at tupping, ME of pasture, milking ability of the ewe (i.e. peak of lactation - time and amount, and period of lactation peak), DM/Ha of pasture and weight loss of the ewe, weaning weight of lamb, and birth weight of lamb.

Theoretical calculations for a triplet ewe (weight 65Kg at tupping) during pregnancy, on pasture, range from 2.4 - 2.8 Kg DM/day at the time of lambing. In late pregnancy abdominal space is limited by three growing fetuses. Rumen volume/capacity is also limited. Higher concentrations of NEFA's and B-hydroxybutyrates in triplet ewes (compared to twin ewes) indicate that triplet ewes are using their body reserves more to meet requirements.

After lambing the triplet ewe continues to require an increasing amount of energy/day to peak lactation. Calculations (based on 65Kg ewe) for the peak of lactation range from 2.5 - over 3 Kg DM/day if pasture ME is approximately 11.0.

A recent calculation has found that the energy requirements for a triplet ewe peak at the end of pregnancy (at 4.5% - total DM/day as a percentage of body weight, then drops following lambing to 2.4% and gradually increases to 3.9% peak which lasts over 3 weeks).

The feed quality must therefore be high, otherwise the ewe simply won't be able to get enough energy. When the energy is low and grass intake is not adequate, the ewes will lose weight and the lambs will not get enough milk (or milk/ grass) for optimal growth.

Pasture Quantity And Quality

It is important that the grass does not become too short.

A trial with different sward heights from 2 - 8cm, found best results with a sward minimum of 4cm of pasture during mid to late pregnancy. Ewes grazing 2cm during pregnancy were lighter at day 132, at lambing and at weaning. Lambs born to ewes on sward heights of only 2 cm had small girths and were lightest at birth. Also, on a sward height of only 2 cm in late pregnancy, ewes had lower calcium and magnesium, and higher NEFA's and BOH levels (compared to sward heights 4cm, 6cm, and 8cm). The results also suggested that there was no need to feed above 4 cm in pregnancy or lactation to optimise lamb weaning weights and lamb survival. Weaning weight of the triplet lambs was 23Kg (day 87).

Another trial had no feed restriction on ewes and lambs during lactation with pasture covers (improved ryegrass/ clover) maintained between 1800 - 2600 kg DM/ha. The average growth rate of the triplet lambs was 380g/day to 12 weeks. The best set of triplets grew at 396g/day and averaged 37.4 Kg at 12 weeks.

At lambing time, on a low feed level, ewes are more likely to move away from the birth site earlier.

Careful use of nitrogen can be used to boost pasture growth. If the quality of grass is poor, although fertilizer, subdivision and good grazing management has taken place, it may be worthwhile considering pasture renewal. Such high quality paddocks could be used specifically for triplet ewes and their lambs.

Triplet Ewes/Lambs Alone Or Combined With Others?

Some trial work and the experience of farmers with high weaning percentages suggest that triplet ewes/lambs are best by themselves. Data from one trial says that twin and triplet ewes do not need to be separated to achieve optimum lamb production (triplet lamb weaning weight = 23 Kg; twin lamb weaning weight = 27 Kg). Lamb losses (in this trial) to weaning were 14% in twin born lambs and 32% in triplet born lambs. This compares with farmers on intensive properties who are achieving 230% or more at docking when triplet ewes are not combined with single and twin bearing ewes.

Prepared by the New Zealand Sheep Council (Meat New Zealand and Wool Board joint venture)

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