Farm Ireland

Thursday 18 January 2018

Let's hope for success and a hassle-free birthing season for real farmers

John Shirley

'Tillage is not real farming. With the big machines it can be completed in a few days and you can head to Spain or Ballybunion for the rest of the year.

Calving cows and lambing sheep: now that's real farming in my book," said the man beside me at the mart.

Tillage farmers will point to poor margins and harvesting hardships, but I can see where the mart man is coming from. Machinery has allowed tillage farmers to scale up, but there is no machine that will take a calf from a cow or lambs from ewes and ensure that that the newborn gets that first vital feed of beestings.

If you are in livestock then getting that lamb or calf out alive and over the hump of the first weeks is critical.

In my own case, the annual lambing was the farming event most likely to engage the children as they grew up. They were prepared to take holidays to coincide with the lambing. My wife is from Dublin city and she too gets involved in the lambing process. Not only her but a couple of her Dublin friends have taken to the lambing and will enquire after individual cases when they are back in the metropolis.

Spring birthing can be the best and worst of times in the livestock calendar. There is the enormous pleasure of seeing a calf or a lamb getting to its feet and taking its first suck; there is the enormous sense of loss from the newborn that fails to take those first breaths.

Now there is a double whammy from dead cattle and sheep: knackeries are charging €140 for taking a young cow carcass. Every dead calf or ewe is costing €20 in the knackery.

The person you meet these days with the bags under the eyes has very likely come from the farm maternity ward. He or she knows how tight margins are -- losses must be minimised.

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Some farmers are very skilled in lambing and calving. When lambing ewes, small hands are an asset that I do not possess -- observers have described my arm ends as shovels. With calving complications, both skill and strength are needed.

An easy-calving sire is always highly desirable but, with suckler cows, the premium being paid for the highly muscled calf is forcing herd owners into further calving problems.

In assessing the calving difficulty risk three factors stand out: the sire shape, the cow shape and the feeding of the cow in the couple of months before calving.

If you want well-shaped calves you must use a cow with a large, open pelvis. Feeding that cow on hay or straw and meal rather than silage before calving seems to consistently lead to more successful calving. Equally, feeding oats as a main-meal source to ewes before lambing works well. It also helps that oats are cheap this year.

One of the sad issues on farms these times is that calling in the vet for a difficult lambing is not cost effective but, hopefully, sheep farmers will continue to use the vet on animal welfare considerations.

Vets are still very busy assisting with calving problems but I wish the cost of a caesarean section in this country was closer to the €100 charged in Belgium -- rather than the €300 plus that is the norm here. Nevertheless, an expensive vet is better than having no vet at all.

I believe that parts of the west are practically without a farm veterinary service. Ironically, it's the smaller herd owners that call in the vets. I remember being on a farm in Scotland where a small staff was lambing about 2,000 ewes and 500 cows. On close questioning, I discovered they were routinely injecting each newborn lamb and calf with long-acting antibiotics. Hopefully, that is not practised on Irish farms.

This spring, cattle and sheep farmers have little grass for the mothers with new offspring, but at least the weather is quite dry.

The dead grass will come to life at some stage. The calf or lamb that dies is gone for good. Here's wishing all real farmers a successful birthing season.

Irish Independent