Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

Planning key to successful lambing season

Tommy Boland

Tommy Boland

Our ewes and ewe lambs were housed on December 30, following grazing of forage rape for the past month. There was probably another couple of days grazing in this, but underfoot conditions had deteriorated badly.

After a bit of a struggle during the year with lameness in the flock, the situation is now looking a lot better, with only around 2pc of the flock lame at housing. These animals were pared and housed separately. All ewes/lambs were foot-bathed with formalin, prior to housing. Stephen, our shepherd, changed to formalin in the autumn, following a reasonably long period of using bluestone or zinc sulphate and, for us at least, this appears to have been of benefit. The ewe lambs received their second vaccination for the clostridial diseases at housing.

Ewes will be scanned this week and with a projected mean lambing date of March 12, we are getting towards the end of the window for reliable scanning results, especially in ewes carrying multiples. Ewes will also be body condition scored at scanning. Obviously this will then allow us to tailor our feeding programmes according to litter size and body condition.

In my mind, these are two of three key variables affecting any feeding regime. Equally as important is forage quality and we've samples being analysed at the moment. For March-lambing flocks, especially where ewes are being housed, now is the time to do this.

Make sure you analyse what is actually going to be fed to the ewes. This is money very well spent and in reality it represents only a tiny outlay in terms of the overall feed costs.

When sampling forage, a fresh representative sample is key. Don't take a sample feed from the feed face that has been exposed for a period of time, and don't hand pick the sample, as this will completely defeat the purpose. Your local adviser is best placed to provide full details on this.


Armed with your results you can then best develop your feeding plan. If forage quality is good, this can lead to significant savings in concentrate costs, and if forage quality is poor you will know in time and can act accordingly to avoid problems at lambing time.

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The key is to avoid ewes lambing down in poor condition with weak, lethargic lambs and small volumes of low-quality colostrum. This will lead to increased labour at lambing, increased disease occurrence and lamb mortality. And perhaps, most detrimentally, a reduction in lamb growth rate at grass.

Energy supplementation requirements generally kick in around 6-7 weeks before lambing, with the big increase in protein demand not occurring until the last two to three weeks of pregnancy. With poorer quality forage, supplementation will need to start earlier and will increase to higher levels.

This is where knowing the lambing date with reasonable accuracy can again lead to savings as supplementation can occur in a more targeted manner.

Not only does the quantity of protein required change as pregnancy advances, so too does the form of protein which is required by the ewe. There are two forms of useful protein present in any animal feedstuff, that which is broken down in the rumen, and that which by-passes the rumen and is broken down in the small intestine. The latter becomes more important late in pregnancy, and while it is more expensive to include in rations it is essential that it is included.

I will expand on feeding management during late pregnancy at the end of the month.

Dr Tommy Boland is a lecturer in sheep production at Lyons Research Farm, UCD. Email:

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