Farm Ireland

Friday 17 August 2018

'I only got three to four hours of sleep per night during the last week' - Farmer on lambing around the clock in Donegal


Michael Duffy feeding the sheep on his farm in Donegal.
Michael Duffy feeding the sheep on his farm in Donegal.

John J Cannon

Poor weather conditions have added to the pressures of a hectic lambing season in the north-west

This report is the latest update from Michael Duffy's sheep farm in Kerrykeel, 23 miles north of Letterkenny on the Fanad Peninsula in Donegal.

Michael Duffy numbers his lambs to aid in identification
Michael Duffy numbers his lambs to aid in identification

Mating commenced on October 18 and the first few lambs arrived on March 13. Ewes began lambing in bigger numbers three days later and as of March 26 there were about 195 ewes lambed with approximately 350 lambs at foot.

Ten ewe lambs have also delivered and lambing has gone quite well so far.

"They are lambing around the clock and I only got three to four hours of sleep per night during the last week," said Michael.

Additional help is on the way with Michael's sister Bridget due home shortly from London. Her trip is a week later than originally planned due to unforeseen circumstances.

Michael Duffy, his daughter Aishling and dog Dora inspecting the housed ewes on the farm at Kerrykeel in north Donegal
Michael Duffy, his daughter Aishling and dog Dora inspecting the housed ewes on the farm at Kerrykeel in north Donegal

Overall, Michael is relatively happy: "I am getting very good lamb weights with some pairs weighing approximately 6-7kgs each but it does leave some big single lambs being more difficult to lamb."

Lamb mortality from scanning to date is running at about 9pc which is slightly high but acceptable. He has 34 lamb deaths recorded, two ewe deaths and one hogget ewe.

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"The ewe deaths were non-preventable. I found one ewe dead in the pen and a second ewe died as a result of lamb deaths before birth due to a twisted lamb bed. This is quite unusual according to my vet. The hogget ewe lambed okay, but I found her dead with a severe prolapse the next morning".

All lambs are EID-tagged before turnout and also numbered on the side with their mothers.

Michael Duffy
Michael Duffy

The first 99 born are red, the next 99 blue and then it's back to red.

This makes problems during the first three weeks on grass easier to address.

Ewe Management

In my last report I explained how Michael had introduced concentrate feeding immediately post-housing this year to try and maintain ewe body condition scores (BCS).

Michael Duffy on his farm at Kerrykeel on the Fanad Peninsula.
Michael Duffy on his farm at Kerrykeel on the Fanad Peninsula.

However, he is disappointed that over the last three weeks before lambing, ewe BCS slipped on about 30pc of his flock for no apparent reason.

The flock received an average of 46kgs of concentrates per ewe up to the start of lambing.

These ewes were on 72pc DMD silage and 46kgs would normally be the concentrate budget if the silage was 65pcDMD.

There seems to be some underlying issue here for Michael to sort out for 2019.

Grassland Management

Michael took advantage of a slight improvement in weather and reasonable ground conditions to spread about 30 units of Nitrogen per acre on February 26-27 (one 50kg bag of 18-6-12 and a quarter bag of 46pc N Urea per acre) on about 60pc of his grazing area.

He is using 18-6-12 as his main fertiliser again in 2018 to try and get Soil P up to Index 3.

"The remaining 40pc is much heavier ground and there has not been a suitable opportunity to apply fertiliser on it since then," said Michael.


Most of Donegal escaped the recent heavy snowfall that hit the south and east of Ireland.

However, the north Donegal coastal area, north and west of a line from Kerrykeel to Buncrana was exposed to snowstorms. Michael's farm was hit with drifts of snow up to 1.5m deep on some of the adjacent roads.

Grass growth has been very poor to date this year which means that Michael and most sheep farmers in Donegal will have to budget on feeding for at least three weeks post lambing.

He has 75 ewes and their lambs on grass in three groups of 25 ewes. These were turned out to covers of 5-6cm.

He has one 2ha field with a cover of 7cm but it has poor shelter from the west.

As the current forecast is for rain from the west he will hold off grazing it until more favourable weather arrives

Two groups of ewes are on 1.0kg/per head per day while a group of thinner ewes are on 1.5kg/head/day.

While inconvenient and costly this meal will be used to slow down the grazing rotation until mid-April when growth normally picks up considerably.

Weather trends

The accompanying table shows rainfall, mean temperature and mean soil temperature on a monthly basis at the Met station on Malin Head over the past three years.

Rainfall since June 2017 has been above the mean with October and November and February 2018 slightly below the mean.

The mean temperature since June 2017 was also below the mean except for October and December.

The mean temperature and the soil temperature in January and February was approx. two degrees below the 2017 figures. Grass growth only occurs when the soil temperature goes above 6C.

Store Lambs

There is good news on the store lamb front for Michael. He has sold 120 finished store lambs to date and has another 100 ready to go.

This will leave him with approximately 280 remaining. Mortality since purchase in late December was only four lambs which is less than 1pc.

When I asked Michael about this, he said: "I think that it was due to the colder weather since I purchased them which resulted in lower humidity in the shed".

New Developments

Michael purchased an automatic lamb feeder for feeding his 'pet lamb' milk replacer. He went for a Britmilk unit which cost him £1600 sterling (€1,800) plus VAT.

He only has 20 pet lambs at present so it was 'still in the box' at the time of writing. No doubt some readers may think that this is hard to justify, but Michael has thought it out.

"If I write it off over 10 years and rear 50 odd lambs per year it will work out at less than €4 per lamb.

"The most important issue for me is that it will free up one labour unit at a very busy time".

This should also help to save another few weak lambs that might die otherwise.

Michael plans to apply a second application of fertiliser of 25-30 units of Nitrogen per acre in 10-14 days time to help drive grass growth. This will be spread as 1.5 bags of 18-6-12/acre.

The next Sheep Tech report will be from Tom Coll, Teagasc Mohill in our May 1 edition.

John J Cannon is a Teagasc advisor based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal email:

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