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Big focus on milk yields to boost 2015's lamb output

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Ewes and lambs are moving out of pasture for Tom Boland.

Ewes and lambs are moving out of pasture for Tom Boland.

Ewes and lambs are moving out of pasture for Tom Boland.

THE lambing season continues and the long days and longer nights are coming to an end. The Scotch Blackface ewes that are producing replacement Scotch Blackface lambs are the last to lamb.

It has been a busy period with a large amount of the ewes lambing in such a short period of time. There have been ups but also there have been some downs, such as the fox making a few unwelcome visits. The recent turnaround in the sheep trade is a welcome boost, with hogget prices closing in on €6/kg. This makes it easier to put in the hard work when there is some promise of good end results. There are also reports of ewe hoggets being killed because of the good prices. This might lead to strong breeding sales towards the end of the year due to a lack of breeding hoggets. Saying this, anything can happen from week to week.

This year, I have paid particular attention to the level of milk ewes have when they lamb down and also to how their lambs are thriving over the first few weeks.

The majority of the ewes are milking well and the lambs are thriving because of this. But there are some ewes that just don't have the milk, even though they are in the same body condition and are getting the same feeding. I am not talking about different breeds of sheep but the difference within breeds of sheep. Some sheep within a breed perform very well and I will use these for producing replacements.

Performing

Milk production is something I believe all farmers should take note of. The ewes that are not performing will be culled this year and hopefully I can breed milkier strains. Perhaps I should select my replacement ewe lambs at or before weaning. This would help highlight the difference between the ewes that didn't perform and those that did.

It is known that lambs and calves are at their most efficient in terms of converting food into body weight early in life. This is why paying close attention to lambs' growth rates before weaning is important. The main source of food lambs have before weaning is milk and therefore the more milk ewes have, the better the lambs will thrive.

Genetics and breeding schemes such as Sheep Ireland's Lambplus put great emphasis on this indirectly through lamb growth rates in the first six weeks of life. All my pedigree Bluefaced Leicester lambs were weighed at birth and will be weighed again at six weeks. This gives a good indication how much milk the ewe has and also the lamb's potential to grow. I hope these records will help me improve growth rates, longevity, prolificacy and milk yield.

A ewe is at her peak milk yield in her third lactation, when she produces about 25pc more milk than her first lactation. There is little change between the third and sixth lactation. Nutrition is a very important factor when it comes to ewes having milk and this is why I continue to feed ewes for a number of weeks after lambing until I have enough grass. When nutrition is taken out of the equation however, breeding and genetics are key to improving milk yield.

I will put out some more fertiliser once ground conditions allow. I also intend to reseed some ground this year to improve grass quality and quantity. I haven't reseeded ground in a number of years but the last time I did the response was quite good with quality grass which was available early in the season.

Tom Staunton owns the Mask View flock, which he runs at Tourmakeady, Co Mayo

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