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We are at one of the most critical stages in lambing, as lambs are being weaned from the ewe and they are becoming dependent on new sources for their own nutrition. The extreme weather we have seen in the past 12 months is also adding additional stress as it has impacted the nutritional value of grazing land and lambs could be missing out on a range of trace elements that are critical to their growth and development.
In a previous blog, we discussed how many farmers can be guilty of putting stunted growth rates at weaning down to a poor season but the reality is that poor performing lambs at weaning are down to the lambs missing out on the key nutrients they need to fulfil their potential.
A shortfall in trace elements at weaning can lead to a wide range of health issues and can impact the growth of the lamb. They can even impact the immune system, putting the lamb at risk of diseases. Weaning lambs require large amounts of energy and nutrients to sustain their rapid growth and this makes them particularly vulnerable to a shortfall of the minerals.
Weaning lambs need a range of trace elements to drive the biological processes that are key to their growth and development at this stage in their life. In this blog, we explore what are the trace elements lambs need at weaning, what each trace element does for the lamb, what are the signs of a trace element shortfall in weaning lambs and, crucially, what you can do to make sure your lambs are getting all the trace elements they need?
Regardless of whether your lamb is destined for breeding stock or prime markets, it is critical that its growth and development is optimised, and trace elements are the driving force behind this process.
These trace elements, or minerals, were sourced through the ewe’s milk but, at weaning, the lamb must get all these nutrients through its diet. This can be a significant challenge as the mineral content in the diet can vary greatly due to a number of factors from geography to the weather.
Even with a good quality diet, it is difficult to ensure that weaning lambs are getting all the trace elements they need.
Lambs require a range of minerals but there are number of specific minerals that are key to powering the biological and hormone processes that lead to a healthy and profitable lamb such as selenium and cobalt.
The key trace elements all play a central role in a number of functions for a weaning lamb, and these are listed below. In all cases, a shortfall in these elements will impact the growth and performance of the lamb.
In some cases, shortfalls in these minerals can present with obvious symptoms but, in the majority of cases, it is often impossible to see if a lamb has a shortfall of a key trace element without testing. All too often, when you become aware of an issue, it will be too late to do anything, and the damage has been done.
Cobalt is arguably the most important trace element for weaning lambs and is essential for lamb growth. Cobalt is key for the synthesis of for Vitamin B12 which is responsible for breaking down feed, even when cobalt levels are only slightly low, it can significantly impact the growth of the lamb.
A shortfall in cobalt, known as Pine, is most common in weaning lambs and is usually as a result of low cobalt concentrations in the soil. Lambs who have a shortfall in cobalt can present clinical signs and these include lethargy, low appetite, poor wool and body condition, and small size. Severe cases are known as ovine white liver syndrome, lambs in these situations show signs of nervousness, appear unfocused and wander aimlessly and can also be seen head pressing.
Lambs and sheep are poor at storing cobalt so it is crucial that they have a steady supply of the mineral to maintain healthy growth, bolusing is an easy method of administering this supply.
Copper is another important trace element and is vital for the immune function as well as playing a role in the enzymes needed for connective tissues, cell-building, and growth. Copper is a problem mineral for farmers as sheep can suffer from copper poisoning if too much accumulates in their body and many are wary about adding it to the lamb’s diet. It is important that farmers know whether the breed of sheep they keep is susceptible to copper toxicity or not and are aware of the copper content of the soil/grass their sheep is grazing as well as whether antagonists such as molybdenum and sulphur are present.
However, copper is key to the healthy development of weaning lambs and shortfall can cause irreparable damage to the animal. In addition to making lambs more susceptible to disease, another key sign of a shortfall in copper is poor growth, a condition known as Swayback, anaemia and poor wool that lacks its distinctive crimp and is sometimes described as “steel wool”.
Again, a copper shortfall can be hard to diagnose, and testing may be required of the animal and forage to check if supplementation is needed. As copper can also pose a threat, speak to your vet or an expert with the Agrimin team before providing lambs with copper.
Selenium and Vitamin E are antioxidants that supports healthy cell and muscle development, protect cells from damage and is also important to the immune function. A shortfall of these trace elements leads to a condition known as white muscle disease or stiff lamb disease.
Symptoms include the lambs becoming stiff and slow to move, making them easy to catch and, if left untreated, the lamb will eventually not be able to get up. In older sheep, a Selenium and Vitamin E deficiency can lead to problems with fertility too.
Iodine is key for regulating metabolism in the fast-growing weaning lamb and ensures carbohydrates can be efficiently absorbed from the gut. This mineral is a key component of thyroid hormones and ensures the lamb has the energy it needs to grow quickly and healthy.
Selenium also plays a key role in the lamb’s ability to use the iodine, so making sure the weaning lamb has good access to both is critical.
A shortfall in iodine is difficult to identify with an external examination as it usually presents with an enlarged thyroid. However, low energy and poor growth could be symptoms of an iodine shortfall.
Testing for a shortfall in weaning lambs can be challenging and costly and it is more cost effective to provide a reliable source of supplementation of the trace elements your livestock needs.
However, there is value in testing your soil and forage and monitoring the feed intake of your lambs as this will help you to understand if there are any shortfalls and what you need to supplement to prevent any health issues.
Trace elements present in the soil will be absorbed by growing plants and will then be available to the lamb through grazing or forage. It’s worth testing both soil and forage to check trace element levels and identify any potential issues early on you can then provide appropriate supplements.
It is also worth remembering that the mineral content in forage will deteriorate over time and this must be factored into any supplementation strategy.
As part of this, you must also consider what trace elements are available in the feed you provide and then monitor the feed intake among your lambs. This can obviously be challenging, and you need to consider reliable sources of trace element supplementation alongside feed.
When it comes to testing the animals themselves for a trace element shortfall, this can be done with blood tests, but this can be costly and time consuming. In the worst case scenario post-mortem tests can also be carried out to check for internal signs of a trace element shortfall.
It’s important to provide a healthy, balanced diet, clean water, and appropriate conditions for lambs to thrive, grow and be healthy but, as we’ve discussed in this blog, this will not guarantee that they won’t be affected by a shortfall in trace elements.
These minerals help to ensure you optimise the health of weaning lambs, give them the best start in life and, ultimately, ensure they perform for you and the farm.
Preventative action is key when it comes to managing trace element intake and this means providing a reliable source of mineral supplements for the lambs,
With many supplements, such as a lick or a drench, it can still be difficult to guarantee that every lamb is getting the required amount and the only way to be sure you lamb is getting its full requirement is to use a bolus.
A bolus is administered orally to the lamb, and it then lies in the reticulum and slowly dissolves over several weeks, slowly releasing the daily required amount of key trace elements. This predictable and reliable release provides farmers with the security they need to know that any potential shortfalls have been addressed and the lamb is at optimal health.
For weaning lambs, Agrimin provides the 24·7 SMARTRACE® LAMB bolus which has been specifically designed for ruminating lambs with a liveweight over 25 kg.
Containing iodine, cobalt and selenium, the bolus releases the minerals over 120 days to help maintain and maximise growth rates, ensuring strong vital lambs. A copper lamb bolus is also available for farms where a shortfall is a risk.
If you would like to know more about how to manage trace elements in weaning lambs or have any questions about supplementation, please do not hesitate to get in touch with Agrimin’s expert team at [email protected]