Farm Ireland

Monday 25 June 2018

Keeping a 1,000 ewe flock fighting fit for spring

His farm will be in the limelight all this week on television, so John Fagan's sheep need to be in good shape

John Fagan and Claire Marshall pictured ahead of RTE's Big Week on the Farm. John runs sheep, beef, dairy drystock and some tillage on 400ac.
John Fagan and Claire Marshall pictured ahead of RTE's Big Week on the Farm. John runs sheep, beef, dairy drystock and some tillage on 400ac.

"There's always something," is John Fagan's summary of the latest health challenge encountered by his 1,000 ewe flock at Gartlandstown in Westmeath.

One morning this spring, the young farmer discovered four dead ewes out in the field.

"I guessed almost straight away that it was grass tetany, but I'd never seen it strike so early in the season before," he said.

"Normally, I would put out bucket licks from the start of April, and that would cover me.

"But the combination of new reseed that is producing lush grass earlier than my older swards, coupled with the hard frost that we got that night was what triggered the deaths.

"The ewes affected were the ones that had lambed first, so I suppose they were also producing a lot of milk, which would have left them even more prone.

"I've certainly had cases before - usually about one a year - so I'd always be on the look out for it. I've tried to treat them with the bottle of magnesium, but it never seems to do the trick.

"I've heard from other farmers that it does work, and the ewe can literally bounce up and away if you get to her in time.

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"The best way of keeping it at bay for me is the bucket lick. I spend about €500 a year on about 50 hi-mag licks from Uniblock or Nutribio. They are left with the flock until they are all gone.

"I don't have a problem with the cost since it's the equivalent of about five sheep, and this year is a good example of how quickly I can clock up that number if the buckets aren't present," he said.

Copper content

The alternative for sheep farmers is a bolus, but Fagan is reluctant to use them because of the extra cost involved.

However, the Westmeath man cautioned farmers to watch the copper content in the licks being used.

"Most cattle licks will be high in copper, but I get ones with the copper removed because I find that some breeds like Texel are prone to copper poisoning," he said.

Feeding hay or dusting grass before grazing are other ways to keep grass tetany at bay, but for the latter to work you need to be set up with a fairly intensive paddock grazing system.

Prevention better than cure

John Fagan's preventative animal health programme

• 10-in-1 vaccine before lambing and top-up 1 month later

• White dose at end of April after first hatch of nematodirus in warm weather. Fecal egg count also used.

• Switched from dipping to shower system last year for health reasons

• Cobalt and vitamin dose every 4-6 weeks, along with a cobalt bolus for all lambs at weaning

• Foot bath flock once a month, using a hydrometer to ensure 5pc zinc sulphate solution maintained

• A clear dose for worms at weaning in June

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