Flushing Ewes Again This Year


I waffled again this year on whether or not to “flush” the ewes prior to breeding. Flushing is putting them on an increasing plane of nutrition as they come into heat, coaxing their bodies to release more eggs, to render a higher rate of twins and triplets. Last year I did it, and had a 200% lamb crop born, so I think I’m going to stick with the plan for another year or so; and then maybe experiment with dropping it and see how it compares.

I know plenty of people who don’t flush and feel their lamb crops don’t suffer. There is solid research showing the general link between flushing and increased yield. But what’s not known is whether this applies to all ewes equally, or just ewes that are a bit thin going into breeding season. I once attended a lecture by Susan Shoenian, where she said that ewes already in good condition do not benefit from flushing.

But, I figure if the flushing renders one extra lamb, it pays for itself; so it’s probably worth the investment. It has the side benefit of doing a little training of the ewes, to get them to come for a bucket of grain. I’ve been giving the rams some grain too, to prepare their bodies for having full access to it once they join the ewes. I’ll keep the ewes on a high ration through the first seventeen days of breeding, then tail them off, presuming most of them are pregnant. Then I’ll start them back up again in the last month of their pregnancies, to gear them up for lambing.

Last year and this, I’ve chosen to feed dry COB (corn, oats, barley, with no molasses) as my grain, because I’ve read that whole grains are better for sheep rumen health than refined grains. Given Woody Lane’s advice that good quality green grass competes with grains for nutrient quality (and sometimes beats them), and that my ewes are in pretty good weight right now, I’m really not sure if flushing with anything is going to be beneficial.

My local feed store carries Land O’Lakes sheep ration, which is 14% protein. The COB is only 9%. But I have reservations about mixed, refined grains. Land O’Lakes had a recall for a lethally bad mix of their sheep ration just last year. I may consider  using it for late pregnancy, I don’t know.

I’m also moving the ewes into the Reed Canary Grass pasture for breeding time. This grass is pretty lush. The rams have been on it since August, and boy, they are getting fat (and they’ve been getting a little grain too, but not nearly as much as the ewes!). So, it may be the case that this grass will also serve as a flushing feed.

Last year, I only had seven sheep, so was able to feed them out of inexpensive (new) plastic paint buckets, to ensure each sheep got a measured amount of grain. This year, with sixteen ewes bellying up to the bar, I had to think of something else. I’m always constrained by the fact that whatever equipment I use for them has to be easily moveable, since I’m moving them weekly.

I wandered around Home Depot looking for an easy and cheap solution. I originally had envisioned cutting some large PVC pipe in half lengthwise, to make some long troughs. But they didn’t have pipe with a big enough diameter. What I settled on was plastic gutter sections, and they work perfectly!


6 thoughts on “Flushing Ewes Again This Year

  1. bruce king says:

    wolfkill can (and does) make sheep feed. Ed, one of the guys at the counter, has 300 ewes that he raises. If you’re looking to flush, you’ll want a decent amount of feed — maybe 1,000lbs? You might want to give him a call and see what that would cost you in a supersack vs your bagged feed.

    You have a tractor so you can move the supersack in and out of the back of a pickup pretty easily.

    Eds number is 360 629 3418. Tell him Bruce sent you.

  2. Michelle says:

    I’m only planing them up to a total of 1lb/ewe/day total. I know some people do a lot more, and some of my bigger ewes might benefit from more, but I also have quite a few smaller ewe-lambs. Since they are all already in really good condition, and the grass is still very lush, I don’t want to over-do it and let them get fat. And I’m balancing the cost/hassle, so settled on the pound per day strategy.

    I plane them up over 17 days such that the are at the peak amount just as they are going in with the rams, then stay there for 17 days, then rapidly ramp back down over another several days. So I figure for my 16 ewes, plus a little extra for the rams beforehand, it adds up to 540 lbs, or eleven 50lb bags.

    I double-checked the price, it’s $10.39/bag for COB (which I think is cheaper than processed ration- I think that’s ~$15/bag). So, I figure with tax, I’ll spend $122 on flushing. So one $200 lamb born extra and it’s a good investment.

    For their pregnancy & nursing ration, I may consider going the bulk way, but I have to have a place to store it as I use it over 2 months, and that’s a challenge right now, with no barn. I am planning on feeding 1100 lbs of grain then. So that’s around $250 for COB, or more like $360 for ration, so I could save a little by buying in bulk.

    I’ll have to check out Wolfkill’s recipe. I’m just so not keen on ratio-ed feed recipes (including dog food), so paranoid some lackey on the manufacturing floor will make a factor-of-ten error on a mineral ingredient and kill all my sheep! Or that they buy some nasty faux-protein ingredient from China that will kill all my sheep… Or…. 😛

    I’m not sure if our 30hp tractor can lift a 1K pound supersack or not? I’ll have to look that up, I can’t remember off the top of my head how much it can lift, but a half ton seems like a lot for it, it’s kinda little.

  3. Julia says:

    I did try flushing my ewes this year, although I’m not sure if I did it right. I gave them barley, (it looked like porridge oats), and I worked them up to a pound a day, but I stopped once I put them with the rams. Sounds like I should have continued for a while. I had two breeding groups, and kept them in those groups for a month and a half. I just put them all together again mid january, but I noticed my more dominant male was chasing one of the ewe lambs around for a couple of days just recently. Might it be because I really didn’t flush them properly? I thought part of the purpose of flushing was to get all the ewes cycling at the same time, so you have better control over when they are lambing. I only have seven ewes and two rams, and so I haven’t used anything to indicate that they have been bred, so it’s a bit of a guessing game. Last year I only had three ewes to breed, and I only had singles from them. Two were cotswolds on their second breeding, and they aren’t known for always having mutilples. The other was a suffolk/arcott cross who had been a triplet herself. Although she only gave me one ewe lamb, she was black, and I was pretty pleased about that. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes for these three ewes this year. I have friends who work buying and selling grain from farmers, and so end up with whole grain samples. It’s not a ton, and I recently read your blog about the “moving pile of grain”, so I thought maybe I should be giving it to them sooner than later. So I’ve just been giving them one handful per sheep for a few days now. It’s mostly barley, and some oats. Should I be holding off on this until into March? And is the whole grain better than the prepared? And what’s the difference between the grain and alfalfa pellets? I was laughing at your comments of concern that you could be killing your sheep at any turn! I know the feeling. I also see that this was posted back in 09, and your flock size and experience have both obviously grown. This my second year with sheep now, and I’m not quite as on edge this year. But all this is very new to me. My husband and I are both city slickers, and so are most of our circle of friends, so I don’t have too many people to draw on for information. Whenever I meet a farmer type, I have to refrain from falling at their feet, clinging to their legs and crying out for them to teach me everything they know! It’s great finding like minded people on the internet.

  4. Michelle Canfield says:

    Julia- flushing is basically putting them on an increasing plane of nutrition leading up to when you want them to conceive. It fools their bodies into thinking “this is a really good food year!” and makes them more likely to drop multiple eggs when they ovulate, so they will be more likely to twin or triplet. There is really solid research proving this method works, but, with some caveats. It only works on ewes that are lean heading into breeding season. If they are already fat, then it has very little affect.

    You can flush with almost anything- grain of any type, alfalfa hay or pellets- just anything that’s going to put them on an upward curve nutritionally from what they were eating before. If you do flush, you should start planning them up a full cycle before breeding- so at least 17 days prior. Then keep them there all during breeding-another 17 days, and then tail them off gradually. If you drop them back down too abruptly, this nutritional signal can sometimes cause a very early abortion. And thus you might see them cycle again and re-breed a few weeks later. The first 30 days of the pregnancy, the fetus and its attachments are kind of fragile, so that’s sort of the period I’ve learned to walk on eggshells a bit- I try not to handle the sheep or have them running or anything. Once the fetuses are pretty big in there, there is less that can physically damage them; I think partly because they’re crammed in there enough that nothing can shake them loose from their placental moorings.

    I did try skipping flushing one year, and felt my conception rate was lower than it should have been, so I’ve been afraid to test it again. There is another way to increase the conception rate- using the “teaser ram” effect. This is also proven. If the ewes haven’t seen a ram for a long while, and then he appears on the other side of the fence, it’ll kick them into high reproduction gear. If you leave them like that for 17 days, to let them all cycle once, then kick the ram in, the ewes will be more likely to drop multiple eggs in that second round.

    Re: grain feeding, I use it for flushing, then tail them off and just leave them on hay through the winter. About 6 weeks before lambing, I crank them back up to 1 lb/head/day of grain. With Katahdins, almost all of them have multiple births, and we are pushing them for big fetuses. So they tend to get so much fetus volume in there in the last 30 days that they can’t take in enough grass hay to maintain their weight, their rumens are too compressed. They can start burning muscle, fall into ketosis, and disaster occurs. So grain just gives them a denser nutrient source, so they don’t have to take in so much volume. Alfalfa hay works too, but for me, corn-barley in bulk is cheaper.

    Re: whole grain versus rolled or processed. There is emerging thinking and evidence that whole grain is safer. Processed grain is digested faster in the rumen, and tends to create an acidic environment, which is risky. Whole grain goes through them more slowly. Maybe they don’t digest quite as much of it, but it lowers the risk of acidosis. I’ve been using rolled grain to this point, but I’m going to experiment with some smaller quantities of whole grain this summer, and see if I like it better. And it may foil the grain mites, too!

    I know what you mean about the mental adjustments- especially when animals die! It’s like a whole shift in psychology to get used to the mortality rate, and there aren’t many people you can discuss this with at dinner parties! But you do get over the hurdle, as I imagine doctors, paramedics veterinarians do. Now I’m pretty casual about dead things- of course I don’t like losses and always work as hard as I can to save everything. But when I don’t, I unceremoniously cut them open so I can necropsy them and learn! It’s all about acclimation…

    • julia says:

      Thanks for all the info Michelle. That helps give me some direction for next year, and some plans going into march, and should help me understand some of the resultes I may get. I think my sheep were all pretty good sizes going in to breeding, but with all the wool on them, harder to tell. I’d been told that their hips shouldn’t be boney, but rounded over their back, but I didn’t check that then. I’ve checked for that after they lambed, and given them alfalfa pellets to add to their nutrition. Because we have 5-6 months of snow covered ground, our sheep get alfalfa hay during the winter. (There isn’t much grass hay here, because hay is grown mostly for horses and cows), so they are getting a pretty rich diet through the winter. Our land is poor quality grass, growing on sandy soil, so ideal for sheep as I understand it, but not too much else. Anyway, I’m excited for spring and seeing what results we get. A couple of the girls look like their bellies are starting to hang a little lower already, but that could also be because they are long wool sheep.

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