Leveraging nutritional expertise for small ruminants

Small ruminant farming (sheep and goats) is an important and developing market and has the potential for further optimalisation and efficiency gains. This requires re-evaluating current management and nutritional strategies to take production to the next level. Here is how.

Marie-Valentine Glica
Global Ruminant Marketing Manager
Lallemand Animal Nutrition

The animal feed industry is constantly moving and many innovations and new feed practices have been introduced over the years for the main livestock species. The production of goats and sheep is a relatively small farming segment, yet an important food security, economic and social asset in – mainly – rural areas. In the most recent annual food outlook report from FAO (June 2023), it was expected that global production of ovine and goat meat will reach 16.8 million tons in 2023 (up by 1% from 2022). Main producers include Australia, China, Turkey, known for their intensive feedlot systems and the UK, where more extensive grazing systems are used. Goat milk is widely produced in West Africa but also in the Caribbean and Central Africa. In Europe, most sheep milk is produced in the Mediterranean region. The main goat milk production takes place in France, Spain, the Netherlands and Greece.

The performance and efficiency of small ruminants varies a lot between regions, as a result of differences in climate, diets, overall management and market demands. While some farms have already made huge professionalization jumps over the years, there is always potential to further optimize and be better equipped to handle more complex disease, production and sustainability challenges. An increasing body of research and expertise is available to help customers do so. Some of the science and solutions in diet formulation can be translated from the earlier work done in dairy and beef cattle, and some solutions are specific for use in small ruminants. To turn the latest science into practice and value for its customers, Lallemand Animal Nutrition recently brought together a group of experts to delve deeper into the solutions for small ruminant producers. Some of the highlights are presented here.

The biggest nutritional challenges for the ewes and goats occur during late pregnancy-early lactation. During this period, the animals require more energy than they can consume through their diet, leading to a negative energy balance and high mobilization of body fat reserves. “If this is not managed well, it can lead to serious diseases such as ketosis and acidosis. But also, colostrum and milk production for small ruminants require a lot of energy and can be affected by a negative energy balance during the transition phase. The total energy requirement per kg of BW of a goat producing 5 kg/d of milk (or sheep producing 3.7 k/d of milk) is equivalent to that of a cow producing 61 kg/d of milk,” said Antonello Cannas, Professor of Animal Nutrition and Feeding at the Department of Agricultural Sciences, University of Sassari, Italy. To stimulate feed intake levels, a few things are important: the quality of the forage, the particle size, the energy and NDF content, the level of protein and the supplements (e.g. yeast) used. For example, for particle size we should use half the size compared to what is used in cow diets. “It is also recommended to divide the animals in groups, based on BCS, twinning rate, stage of pregnancy and tailor rations accordingly. Automatic feeding systems can be used to individual dose concentrates,” Cannas said.

For all newborn animals, the quality and the quantity of colostrum is important to kickstart growth and to supply them with good nutrients and certain antibodies. Lysiane Duniere, Research Scientist in Microbiology for Lallemand Animal Nutrition at the Ruminant Center of Excellence explained that colostrum quality can be negatively affected by oxidative stress (heat stress, …), sub-clinical diseases and metabolic disorders during the whole gestation phase. Duniere pointed out some of the study results where a rumen specific live yeast was given in the diet of gestating ewes (3-4 weeks before parturition until parturition). “We saw that the supplemented ewes showed stabilization of microbial populations along the gastrointestinal tract, leading to better nutrient usage and better energy partitioning. It also had a beneficial effect on colostrum quality. Compared to the non-supplemented group, the live yeast increased the oligosaccharides, lactoferrin and IgG levels in the colostrum. This will help to produce more resilient and heavier lambs (+270 grams compared to control group), which are important prerequisites for survival rate and performance. Also, antioxidant supplements (like organic selenium with high levels of bioavailable selenium) are recommended for gestating animals, and have been shown to improve the antioxidant status (and hence quality) of the colostrum.”

Lysiane Duniere – together with colleague Bernard Andrieu – also delved into the importance of silage quality, and its relationship with animal health. “Producing a good quality silage is all about controlling the fermentation and the dry matter content. Studies in cattle showed that high quality silage increased important fibrolytic populations and lactate users, while decreased opportunistic pathogens (compared to low quality silage). The use of inoculants is important to produce high quality silage. A trial in dairy goats compared a classic silage inoculant with an antioxidant inoculant. The latter improved the silage antioxidant capacity and ruminal VFA concentration, increased IgG levels, decreased pro-inflammatory cytokines and increased anti-inflammatory cytokines. And this was also reflected in better milk quality. Duniere explained: “This trial showed that inoculating alfalfa silage with an antioxidative inoculant (specific strain) can act as a functional feed to improve the rumen fermentation, antioxidant capacity and immune performance, as well as the goat’s milk nutritional and antioxidant composition. This is a clear example where silage quality has a direct impact on animal health.”

David Yáñez-Ruiz, senior scientist at the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) in Granada addressed the importance of rumen development in young animals to stimulate a healthy weaning process and beyond. He addressed: “Goats and sheep are born as being functionally non-ruminants. In the first weeks after birth, both the rumen papillae and microbiota, as well as the small and large intestines need to undergo significant changes to resemble the anatomy of an adult animal (full ruminant). A healthy rumen and intestinal tract will better prepare the animals for the weaning moment.” The development of the rumen papillae and microbes can be positively influenced with feeding strategies. Apart from supplying good quality colostrum and milk, a good quality starter concentrate and access to good quality forage need to be available. On top of that, other nutritional tools can be used such as the addition of live yeast in the diet. Trials with lambs showed that rumen specific live yeast supplementation in the first weeks of life (on top of maternal milk and started feed) supports the anatomical development of the rumen reflected an in increased the production of VFA’s (including butyrate) in the rumen and led to longer rumen papillae.

Yáñez-Ruiz also gave an update on the sustainability component of small ruminant farming. He said: “Just like in dairy and beef farming, we have to make sure we work towards more sustainable farming practices, to reduce antibiotic use (and AMR), increase animal welfare and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The best way to dilute the emissions we create in ruminant production (mainly methane) is to increase the efficiency of milk production of the animals. We can also reduce methane emissions by improving the quality of the diet, and mainly the forage. If we can increase the digestibility of the feed, we can lower the methane. Again, feed additives (such as probiotics, yeast) can be helpful here as well, as they improve the digestion of feed and boost the health of the rumen function, along with more precision feeding (including the selection of unproductive animals.)” Also ensuring overall animal health (avoiding digestive disorders and heat stress for example) and longevity (diluting the emissions per animal as we are prolonging the number of lactations) are part of building a more sustainable small ruminant sector. Health, management, good nutrition, and breeding for resilient animals are key to be able to increase the longevity of animals.

Integrated nutritional approach
Every aspect in the life of small ruminants is crucial to success – in both milk and meat production. Lallemand Animal Nutrition is a global leader in the science of fermentation, and a primary producer of yeast and bacteria. The company’s mission is to harness microorganisms to improve performance and maintain animal health, optimize forage management, and the animal microbial environment. The company’s specific solutions help manage rumen function for optimal feed efficiency (e.g. LEVUCELL SC), as well as support antioxidant defense (e.g. ALKOSEL and MELOFEED) for optimal performance and animal welfare for ovine and caprine dairy or meat production. The integrated product offering also includes solutions to enhance silage quality, bedding quality, manure quality and to feed processing. For more information, please go to: https://www.lallemandanimalnutrition.com/en/europe/species/small-ruminants/

About Marie-Valentine Glica
Marie-Valentine Glica is an agronomist, and has been working for Lallemand Animal Nutrition for 2 years as global ruminant marketing manager. Glica is in charge of marketing and communication for the feed additives range (trial valorization, on-farm services and training tools development). She has previous experience in technico-marketing in healthcare for large and young ruminants.