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Friday 2 December 2016

Take a step back and look at what you can do to improve your flock next year

Sheep

Andrew Kinsella

Published 07/12/2011 | 06:00

Sheep farmers are at the start of another production year and hopefully it will be another good one. While it may be a conundrum for politicians, it is generally necessary for farmers to take a look back to make the best of going forward.

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What went well? What requires improvement? Was lamb or ewe mortality an issue? Was there a problem with grass growth? Was there a problem with lamb growth and lamb drafting? Prioritise one or two of the main issues and seek out ways to improve these. My priorities for next year are to move to a twice yearly shearing and to change the current system of rearing triplet lambs on their mothers.

ADVANTAGE

We have been winter shearing for more than 20 years and find it highly satisfactory. The biggest advantage is the 0.4-0.5kg increase in lamb birthweight. This is particularly important where there is a high proportion of triplets and results in less mortality. The increase in birthweight is a combination of the ewes taking in more food and the lambs being carried for an extra 1.5 days. As pregnancy advances, the metabolic processes of the ewe increase to provide the necessary foetal nutrients and this results in more heat being produced. This heat cannot be entirely dispelled through the skin because of the insulating properties of wool, so affected ewes end up breathing faster. This can be quite dramatic in late pregnancy during periods of mild weather. Shearing reduces body temperatures and respiration rates and basically results in the ewes being more comfortable.

The other advantage with winter shearing is that you can house more ewes. However, concentrate trough space is more critical because of its effect on feed intake and it is essential that all ewes can eat concentrates at the one time.

CONDITION

Yet another plus from shearing pregnant ewes is that it makes it easy to observe ewe condition so that feed levels can be adjusted relatively quickly.

In addition, ewes without heavy fleeces move easier within the pens, are easier to footbath and to administer the pre-lambing booster vaccine. The onset of lambing and any difficulties are also more readily seen.

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Lambs readily find the teats and suckling can be easily supervised. On turn-out, shorn ewes are more likely to seek shelter and so offer their lambs some protection. In addition, winter shearing reduces the number of ewes going on their back during spring and summer.

However, there are also disadvantages. There is the possibility of lambing difficulties with oversized single lambs especially, particularly ewe lambs and hogget ewes. These animals will need a downward adjustment in pre-lambing meal levels.

There is no doubt that ewes will also be more difficult to catch and hold. They are like 'trouts' and a large wide pen will accentuate the problem. Harnesses and trusses are required where prolapses occur. My biggest problem with winter shearing is the amount of wool that the ewes are carrying from September to the next mid-pregnancy shearing in December. While the ewes are less likely to go on their backs during the spring, they make up for it during the autumn.

We have had some casualties even with morning and evening herding. For this reason I am considering twice yearly shearing, in December and June. It costs roughly €2/ewe to shear once a year, but I am reliably told that there are shearers who will shear twice a year for €3/ewe. In addition, it will be possible to get away with using a cheaper product for blow-fly control, thereby reducing costs a little further.

MANAGEMENT

There are two critical management aspects for sheep farmers thinking of winter shearing. There needs to be an interval of at least eight weeks between shearing and let-out, and let-out should not be earlier than March 1.

Wool slip may occur in some ewes following winter shearing. This condition is manifested by the appearance of bare patches of skin usually on the rump 2-3 weeks after shearing. The condition does not appear to have any adverse effects on ewe performance. I find that delaying shearing for about two weeks after housing until bedding has built up and feeding a small amount of meals for a few days after shearing practically eliminates the condition. It is also necessary to take special precautions with thin ewes.

Andrew Kinsella is a former sheep specialist with Teagasc now sheep farming in Wicklow

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