Farm Ireland

Saturday 18 November 2017

Sheep: A high soya-based ration is key to milk quality in ewes

John Fagan plans to vaccinate all replacement ewes entering the flock.
John Fagan plans to vaccinate all replacement ewes entering the flock.
John Fagan

John Fagan

As election fever grips the country, what I call 'preparation fever' for lambing is gripping the farm. I am now only a few weeks away from the beginning of lambing. I have been preparing for this since last July so I find I can get a bit edgy at this time of year.

I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get fertiliser out on the fields closed off since last October. It is vital to get it out to ensure there is enough grass to last me through the spring without having to supplement my ewes and lambs.

Luckily the mild winter has left the grass cover on the farm in a super condition. So, given the right conditions, I will go out with a half bag of urea in most fields. I just need mother nature to lay off with the monsoons and hurricanes.

Feeding pregnant ewes in the run-up to lambing is a tricky business. You've got to check the ingredients of the feed that you are giving your ewes and give them the right quantity. I like to go for a high soya based ration.

This means that soya should be at least second or third on the list of ingredients making up at least 15pc of the contents of your ration. Without soya in your ration at a significant level you are going to find yourself in a situation where your ewes could lamb down without sufficient milk for their lambs.

You then have all the problems associated with this such as weak lambs with low levels of immunity. Ultimately you will be faced with significant losses.

Insist on a high soya based ration from your feed merchant and don't be fobbed off with alternatives. I have built the doubles and triplet carrying ewes up to 0.5kgs of a high soya 17pc ration.

I am now giving the triplet bearing ewes an extra 200 grams in the evening of a 20pc nut, which is again high soya based. I will also move the triplet ewes up to a total feed of 1 kilo of ration in the last 10 days, splitting the feeding in two.

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Lambing pens

In the meantime I have been busy cleaning up the yards, getting the lambing pens up and bedded down in the inevitable event that a ewe will lamb on a Sunday afternoon and I haven't got anywhere to put her or anything to give her. Every sheep farmer's nightmare!

I made the trip to the local vet supplies shop in Mullingar and got all the kit I need for lambing. It is extensive with lamb stomach tubes, lube, gloves, rubber rings, spray markers and iodine. You could call it retail therapy for a sheep farmer. I also checked all the red lamps to make sure that they are working in case I need to warm up a lamb.

I have been told that my mother's cooker is no longer an acceptable way to warm up a cold lamb. A local dairy farmer has been providing me with colostrum/beestings which I have been freezing up in small quantities.

I find cow colostrum is by far the best substitute for ewe's milk for lambs that need a kick start. I have used synthetic colostrum products over the years without much success.

I am getting the automatic lamb feeder dusted down and ready to roll. I invested in one of these three years ago and I haven't looked back since. It can feed up to 240 pet lambs automatically.

With 150 sets of triplets I will inevitably have a lot of pets as it won't be possible to adopt them all. It costs me roughly €50/hd to rear the pet lambs from the machine right through to finishing so it paid for itself in one year.

I am constantly checking my ewes for twin lamb disease. You need to be vigilant as it is easily missed by the untrained eye.

If you see a ewe hanging back from the feed trough or one that is lame or has lost a lot of condition, these ladies are particularly vulnerable to twin lamb disease and are easily treated if spotted in time. A quick dose of about 150mls of electrolytes and some calcium under the skin can easily save her.

They must be spotted early for treatment to have a positive effect. I would also put a shook ewe in a separate pen where they can get easy access to hay, water and feed.

One thing that I have noticed this year is the lower incidence of abortion. Last year I had a lot of cases, in fact most years I would always have had a few cases which I put down to little hurts that a ewe might pick up in late pregnancy.

This year, and not wanting to jinx myself, I have had none. Last year at lambing I brought samples to the regional veterinary office which tested positive for toxoplasmosis.

Last September I started to vaccinate the younger ewes and I am just ,thinking that perhaps it had been present in the flock over the years and finally I have got to the bottom of it. With any flock an abortion storm is not something you want to happen.

Toxoplasmosis is spread by cat faeces in straw, sheep inevitably stick their noses into it and this causes abortion. Immunity can be built up in sheep over time but the risk you are taking is with young sheep. My plan now is to vaccinate all replacement ewes entering the flock and therefore in time I will be fully immune to it.

John Fagan farms at Gartlandstown, Co Westmeath

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