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The birthweight and survival of Merino lambs can be predicted from the profile of liveweight change of their mothers during pregnancy

Oldham, C.M., Thompson, A.N.ORCID: 0000-0001-7121-7459, Ferguson, M.B., Gordon, D.J., Kearney, G.A. and Paganoni, B.L. (2011) The birthweight and survival of Merino lambs can be predicted from the profile of liveweight change of their mothers during pregnancy. Animal Production Science, 51 (9). pp. 776-783.

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The single largest influence on the survival of lambs in the first few days of life is their birthweight. Fetal growth and birthweight are regulated by genotype of the fetus, maternal genotype, maternal nutrition and the external environment. In this paper we report the extent to which the changes in maternal liveweight during pregnancy and lactation (liveweight profile) of Merino ewes can be used to predict the birthweight and survival of their progeny to weaning. At two sites [Victoria (Vic.) ∼700 ewes and Western Australia (WA) ∼300 ewes] in each of 2 years, a similar experiment used adult Merino ewes to explore effects of nutrition from joining to Day 100 of pregnancy and from Day 100 of pregnancy to weaning. The average difference between extreme treatments at Day 100 of pregnancy were 7 kg in ewe liveweight and 0.7 of a condition score (CS) and at lambing 11.9 kg and 1.3 of a CS. This resulted in average birthweights of progeny from different treatments ranging from 4.0 to 5.4 kg and survival to weaning ranging from 68 to 92%. Across the four experiments between 68 and 85% of all lamb deaths to weaning occurred within 48 h of birth. Lambs born to ewes in CS 2 at Day 100 of pregnancy were lighter (P 0.05) in both years at the Vic. site than those from ewes in CS 3 at Day 100 of pregnancy. Lambs born to the ewes grazing a feed on offer of 800 kg DM/ha during late pregnancy were also lighter than those from other levels of feed on offer between 1100 and 3000 kg DM/ha at the Vic. site in both years and at the WA site in 1 year (P 0.001). Lambs from the 800 kg DM/ha treatment during late pregnancy at the Vic. site had a lower survival than other treatments, especially in the second year. There were no significant effects of treatments on lamb survival at the WA site; however, the results were in the same direction. The birthweight of individual lambs was significantly related to the liveweight profile of their mothers. Their liveweight at joining, change in liveweight to Day 100 of pregnancy and change in liveweight from Day 100 to lambing all contributed (P 0.05) to the prediction of the birthweight of their lambs. The responses were consistent across experimental sites and years, lamb birth rank and sex, and confirmed that the effects of poor nutrition up until Day 100 of pregnancy could be completely overcome by improving nutrition during late pregnancy. At the Vic. site, survival to 48 h was most influenced by the birthweight of the lamb and survival was significantly higher in single- than twin-born lambs and female than male lambs after adjusting for differences in birthweight. A higher chill index during the 48 h after birth reduced survival of both single and twin lambs to a similar extent, but reduced survival of male lambs more than female lambs. There were no effects of birthweight or chill index on lamb survival at the WA site where most lambs weighed more than 4 kg at birth and climatic conditions during lambing were less extreme. Overall, these results supported our hypothesis that improving the nutrition of Merino ewes during pregnancy increases birthweight and this leads to improved survival of their progeny.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences
Publisher: CSIRO Publishing
Copyright: © CSIRO 2011
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