Susan Schoenian, Sheep & Goat Specialist, University of Maryland Small Ruminant Extension Program
(Previously published on the Maryland Small Ruminant Page)
Weaning is when the milk is removed from the diet of a young mammal. Usually – but not always – it coincides with separation of the young from their dam. Weaning age varies greatly in sheep and goats, from as early as 14 days to natural weaning, at more than four months of age. Lambs have been successfully weaned as early as 14 days; kids as early as 28 days. Early weaning is usually defined as weaning prior to 90 days of age; 60 days is most common. Late weaning is anything after that.
Wean by weight
It is generally better to wean based on weight rather than age. A general recommendation is that lambs and kids not be weaned until they have achieved 2.5 – 3 times their birth weight. Artificially-reared lambs and kids should weigh at least 20 – 25 lbs. before being weaned. If lambs are being raised by their dams, they should weigh a minimum of 40 – 50 lbs. before being weaned.
Even more important than weight is dry feed consumption, as weaned lambs and kids need to be consuming enough dry feed to support their maintenance and continued growth – in the absence of milk in their diet. Their feed consumption should be at least 1% of their body weight at the time of weaning. Creep feeding is an aspect of most early weaning programs.
There are many factors to consider when deciding at what age to wean lambs and/or kids. These include age, season of birth, potential parasite problems, predator risks, markets, labor, facilities, and forage resources. There are advantages and disadvantages to different weaning ages.
Early weaning eases the lactation stress of high-producing females and other females that may be highly-stressed, due to their age or physical condition. It helps prolific females raise their offspring. Early weaning enables females to return to breeding condition earlier. There is usually less worm burden and predator risk associated with lambs and kids that are early weaned and fed in dry lot.
From an economic standpoint, it is less expensive to feed lambs and kids than to feed dams and their offspring. Young animals convert feed very efficiently.
On the other hand, early weaning causes stress to both females and their offspring. There is a greater risk of mastitis with early weaning, as weaned females may still be producing significant milk . Early weaning usually requires more facilities, pasture fields, and pens. It requires a higher degree of management.
Early weaning is most commonly associated with early, winter, and shed lambing. After weaning, lambs and kids are usually finished on hay and/or grain diets. Early weaned lambs and kids are usually creep fed. Early weaning is probably best suited to prolific breeds and breeds that have high genetic potential for growth.
Early weaning is also associated with certain production systems and scenarios. In a dairy sheep enterprise, it is common to wean lambs when they are 30 – 35 days of age. Lambs and kids that are artificially-reared are usually weaned by the time they are 6 – 8 weeks of age. Show stock are usually weaned early, so that the offspring can be pushed for rapid growth.
It goes without saying that late weaning is more natural. It is less stressful to lambs and kids. The risk of mastitis is much less. Late weaning usually allows producers to take advantage of available forage to finish their lambs and kids. Pasture gains are often more economical than those achieved on hay and grain diets. Management is simpler, as females and offspring can be maintained in a single group for a longer period of time.
On the other hand, late weaned lambs are more likely to become parasitized or killed by predators. Summer temperatures may limit weight gains. Lambs and kids have to compete with their dams for the forage resource. Depending upon species, breed, and age at weaning, it may be necessary to castrate or remove male offspring.
Late weaning is most commonly associated with late lambing, spring lambing, and pasture lambing. Lambs and kids are typically finished on pasture diets. Creep feeding is less common, though creep grazing may be a advisable practice. Late weaning is probably best suited to less prolific breeds and breeds with less potential for growth.
Stress at weaning
Regardless of weaning age, efforts should be made to reduce stress at the time of weaning. Creep feeding reduces the stress of early weaning. Dams should be weaned from their offspring, not the other way around. Lambs and kids should remain in familiar surroundings and in their pre-weaning groupings.
The diet of lambs and kids should not be drastically changed two weeks before or after weaning. Vaccinations and other management tasks should be performed at least two weeks prior to weaning. In cattle, fence-line contact has been shown to reduce the stress at weaning.
Recently weaned lambs and kids are very vulnerable to coccidiosis. Cocciodiostats should be administered in the feed, mineral, or water prior to and after weaning. Early weaned lambs should have received their first vaccination for CD&T (overeating disease and tetanus) prior to weaning. The second vaccine should be given four weeks after the first.
To prevent mastitis in early-weaned ewes and does, high quality feed should be removed from the female’s diet prior to weaning. By the time weaning occurs, females should be consuming a low quality forage diet.
Under no circumstances, should recently weaned ewes and does be turned out to lush pasture. Poor producing females should be removed from the flock after weaning. It may pay to improve their body condition prior to taking them to a sale barn.