Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

Sheep Tech: Bitter conditions adding to the strain of lambing season

The bulk of Michael Duffy's flock remains backed up in the sheep shed on his Donegal farm

Up to 250 ewes and their lambs remain indoors
Up to 250 ewes and their lambs remain indoors
Michael Duffy scans and tags a lamb
John Cannon

John Cannon

This time last year, Michael Duffy encountered a number of issues including: silage quality; loss of body condition (BCS) in ewes pre-lambing; and an abortion issue that the regional veterinary laboratory (RVL) in Sligo could not definitively diagnose.

Michael addressed these challenges by taking steps that included:

• Silage DMD improved from 68 to 73 and 74DMD by cutting earlier;

• All ewes were vaccinated against enzootic abortion and all the replacements (home-bred ewe lambs and bought-in hoggets) were vaccinated against toxoplasma abortion;

• Michael had a feed budget of 42kg of meal/ewe for 2015. This was comprised of 29kg meal pre-lambing, which was an increase of 5-6kg per ewe on 2014. He also budgeted feeding 13kg per ewe to the flock from the start of lambing to turnout. Lambing is spread over four weeks and, without this extra supplement, the later lambing ewes are on meal for longer than the first lambing ewes.

At outlined in the January report, ewe BCS was beginning to slip at scanning. Michael gave ozyclosanide (as Zanil) to two pens of ewes, but it failed to generate any response in ewe BCS. The increased meal feeding did not seem to be addressing the BCS issue, so feed levels to those carrying twins were increased further, but ewes lambed down with BCS of not more than 2.75.

Abortion also reared its ugly head 10 days before lambing was due to begin, with 12 ewes aborting during this period and a number of lambs were sent to Sligo RVL.

The lab detected both toxoplasma and campylobacter in the foetal remains.

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While there were some abortions since lambing began, the problem seems to have settled. No action was taken as veterinary advice suggests that long-acting antibiotics have no beneficial effects as a preventative against toxoplasma or campylobacter abortion.


On a positive note, none of the replacements that were vaccinated against toxoplasma aborted this year. All the abortions occurred in older ewes that were not vaccinated against toxoplasma.

Michael plans to vaccinate all ewes in August 2015 against toxoplasma. He will also vaccinate all replacements next August against both enzootic and toxoplasma abortion.

Hogget prices were also positive, and at this stage, Michael has all but 250 of his purchased store lambs sold. The new sheep house was also a big positive as it meant that all ewes were in one yard during lambing which improved time management, both pre-lambing and during lambing.

Lambs are being electronically tagged at birth again this year. The purchased stores were fed on the outfarm as they do not require the same degree of supervision as the ewe flock.

It is fair to say that lessons have been learned here too. Getting the new sheep house completed by early December imposed additional demand on Michael's time during 2014. This, together with the purchased store lambs, resulted in less ground being closed in the late October to December period than was desirable.

Grass growth

Grass growth from October to December was quite good but the weather from December 1 to March 5, combined with soil temperatures not exceeding 5C, meant that any fields closed during that period showed very little grass growth.

Michael spread urea on 26ha of ground on March 18 at a rate of 25kg/ac (23 units of nitrogen). At that time, the field closed in early November had 6-7.5cm of grass, while those closed on December 1 were struggling to show 4cm.

As I write, there is 90pc of the flock lambed (40 left to lamb), but because of the Arctic weather since March 18, only 90 ewes and lambs were turned out.

The result is that up to 250 ewes and their lambs are backed up indoors on March 31 with little prospect of any improvement until April 4.

Ewes are being fed 1.5-2kg of meal plus silage. In recent days, it was difficult to get individual pens vacated in time to facilitate ewes with new-born lambs. Despite that, mortality post-lambing has been low and much better than 2014.

Much of Michael's farm faces west and cannot offer adequate shelter from northwest winds with rain and hail showers. The weather forecast from now until April 4 shows rain and wind with temperatures seldom exceeding 6C.

This combination will not suit turning out ewes and lambs, so the pressure and stress looks set to continue.

Adding to that pressure, Michael is one man down in the lambing shed because his father William got a sudden call into hospital on March 24 where, I am happy to report, he is making good progress.

We wish him a speedy recovery and hope it won't be long until he resumes duty.

Michael is planning an increased feed budget for the ewes in early-mid pregnancy, closing off more grassland in late October and November, and will investigate how successful plastic coats have been on lambs turned out during March 2015.

* The next Sheep Tech report from Sean Conway's farm in Sligo, will appear in our May 5 edition.

John Cannon is a Teagasc business and technology adviser (drystock) based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal

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