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Expert encourages sheep producers to be more flexible with weaning

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

            During the American Sheep Industry Association’s (ASI) December Research Update podcast, Lincoln University Associate Professor of Animal Science Dr. Bruce Shanks discusses the importance of minimizing stress when weaning lambs and encourages producers to be flexible in deciding when to wean their lambs.        

Weaning stress

            To begin, Shanks points out weaning is a very stressful event for both the lamb and ewe.

            “There is a strong mental bond between ewes and lambs, which is pretty remarkable,” states Shanks, noting many shepherds have likely marveled at the ability of a ewe to recognize and bat away any lamb that isn’t hers. “When this bond is broken, there is potential for a lot of stress caused by maternal separation, social disruption and a huge hormonal response.” 

            Despite this, Shanks notes there are some practices producers may consider implementing to reduce stress felt during weaning.             

            One of the most important of these practices, according to Shanks, is to wean in a clean, sanitary environment.

            “This is important at any stage of development, but it is absolutely critical during weaning,” he says. “Producers who wean in old, muddy lots or barns where they keep their sick animals are just setting themselves up for problems. I can’t stress enough how important a clean, sanitary environment is to successful weaning.” 

            Another practice Shanks is a strong advocate of is natural weaning.

            “Nursing really defines the closeness of the ewe/lamb bond, so as milk supply diminishes over time, so does this bond,” explains Shanks. “As they get older, lambs go longer amounts of time between nursing events and become more independent while doing so. Eventually, nursing aggravates the ewe, and she will naturally wean off her lamb.” 

            Additionally, in order to reduce stress during weaning, Shanks recommends tagging and vaccinating lambs before they are weaned, removing ewes and leaving lambs in familiar surroundings when weaned and keeping around an old “grandma” ewe to teach young lambs and ease their nerves. 

Weaning timing and type

            Shanks notes the U.S. sheep industry is home to a diverse array of management styles, with some operations weaning lambs 30 days after birth, others waiting an entire year and everything else in between.

            “The typical weaning age in the U.S. is around three to four months old. However, weaning age varies greatly, and it ultimately depends on the particular operation,” he says, noting there are advantages to both early-weaning operations and those who wait a little longer. 

            “Programs with high inputs such as dairy operations who try to coax more production out of their system may benefit from early weaning,” states Shanks. “Operations with parasite issues, pasture quality or quantity issues, ewe condition issues and drought may also see some economic advantages of weaning early.” 

            On the flip side, Shanks explains later weaning is not only less stressful on ewes and lambs, it also allows time for ewes to regain body condition and recover before rebreeding. Later weaning also helps with mastitis issues, allows producers to take advantage of available forage and may help them save on labor.

            In addition to determining the time of year they will wean, Shanks says producers should also consider the time of day they wean their lambs and the type of weaning style they will implement. He points to research conducted by himself and a few colleagues, which compared weaning during the day versus at night as well as fence-line weaning versus traditional weaning. 

            “The study started out looking at the impacts of calves when fence-line weaned versus traditional weaned and weaned in the morning versus at night. We found some pretty incredible things. In fact, calves weaned at night, especially those which were fence-line weaned were less stressed and performed better,” Shanks explains. 

            “Since we are sheep producers, we decided to apply the same research model to lambs and found the exact opposite was true,” he continues. “It is better to wean lambs during the day and to get ewes completely out of sight and mind.”

Weaning flexibility 

            While many producers have found a weaning style and time to work for their operation, Shanks says this shouldn’t be set in stone. In fact, he encourages producers to consider several factors year to year while determining when to wean their lambs. 

            “Markets and weather are always hard to predict,” he states. “Producers can’t get entrenched in a certain weaning time. They need to be flexible and make adjustments.” 

            For example, Shanks notes, in drought years when feed supplies are reduced it may be economically advantageous for producers to wean earlier than usual. He also notes markets should play a role in their weaning timing.

            Hannah Bugas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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