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BETTER Sheep programme: Boosting performance through focus on body condition score

New BETTER farm entrant Eddie Gavin is learning how to reduce the number of low-BCS ewes and to avoid animal health issues when bringing in rams


Learning all the time: Eddie Gavin’s flock near Bagenalstown, Co Carlow

Learning all the time: Eddie Gavin’s flock near Bagenalstown, Co Carlow

Learning all the time: Eddie Gavin’s flock near Bagenalstown, Co Carlow

Eddie Gavin runs a sheep, beef and tillage enterprise near Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, and also does machinery contracting for local farmers.

He has just joined the Teagasc BETTER farm sheep programme. Along with local Teagasc advisor Eoin Woulfe and Teagasc sheep specialist Ciaran Lynch, he is devising a farm plan, and beginning to record data on the flock.

Eddie runs a flock of 320 ewes, with 80 lambing in January and the rest lambing from early March.

The early-lambing ewes predominantly older were joined with a team of Charollais rams on August 18. Hoggets were kept for lambing with the mid-season-lambing ewes.

All lambs from the early-lambing flock are sold, with replacements kept from the mid-season flock.

Overall, the average BCS of these ewes was good, at 3.6, but there was a wide variation, with a small number below 3.0 (the minimum target for mating).

The reason was that some of these ewes lambed in January while some lambed with the mid-season flock, meaning they didn’t have enough time between weaning and mating to regain body condition prior to mating.

Eddie, who farms alongside his wife, two young children and his parents, is monitoring the BCS on the mid-season flock, and thin ewes have been marked and drafted into a separate group to get preferential feeding.

In BETTER farm flocks, in most cases these ewes are run with the ewe lambs in the run-up to mating, to allow them preferential access to good quality grass.

The target for lowland ewes going to the ram is a BCS of 3.5 at mating.

However, averages can be dangerous and hide problems if there is a wide range of BCS within a flock.

Another way to look at it is to focus on reducing the number of ‘thin’ ewes, or reduce the number of ewes to the minimum.

Eddie will run a team of Belclare and Suffolk rams with the mid-season lambing flock from October 8.

The rams were checked in August and as a result Eddie decided he needed an additional Suffolk ram.

He bought a 5-star for the replacement index at the Sheep Ireland ram sale in August; he is a performance-recorded ram from a high-DQI flock, which Eddie is looking for in any rams he buys.

Buying early allows time for the ram to be quarantined and to go through a biosecurity protocol prior to being introduced to the flock.

This is important to ensure no new diseases are introduced.

Any stock purchased should get an appropriate fluke and worm dose immediately on arrival on the farm and remain indoors for at least 48 hours so they can pass out any resistant worms prior to being put onto pasture.

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Then new stock should remain separate from the rest of the flock for a number of weeks to allow any other issues such as CODD to potentially develop without risking infecting the rest of the flock.

As part of Eddie’s farm plan, he will be putting in place an autumn closing schedule for the grassland. He is trying to build grass covers for the weeks ahead.

For mid-season flocks, paddocks should be closed in rotation from late October in the rotation order they are needed for next spring, so the paddocks with the most shelter that ewes and lambs go to first should be closed first.

The grass grown in these paddocks over the winter will be vital next spring once lambing begins, and discipline is required not to re-graze them during the winter.

In Eddie’s case, a targeted area will also be closed in early October for the early-lambing flock to be turned out to in January.


Frank Campion is a Teagasc advisor based at Mellows, Athenry, Co Galway

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