Automated feed system rears hundreds of lambs from a highly prolific flock
Having excessive lambs is not an issue for most sheep farmers, but it's a problem Offaly farmers Ken and Richard Matthews have tackled head-on.
Their hugely prolific Belclare-cross-Suffolk flock achieves scanning rates topping 2.7 lambs per ewe and sees as many as 200 lambs reared artificially each year on their farm just outside Tullamore.
The father-and-son team opened up their farm recently for an event organised by SheepNet, an EU-funded project on sheep productivity.
Farming in partnership near the village of Killeigh, just outside Tullamore, Ken and his son Richard embarked upon their version of the Belclare system more than 10 years ago.
"I had cattle for years," Ken says, and along with his brother he used to rear 250 dairy calves a year, finishing to beef.
However, they found the calves were too expensive and they couldn't make money out of them. "I could never see as much money per hectare out of cattle than I could see out of sheep. There's more money in these girls," he says.
The Matthews' farm extends to 80ha, with 6.5ha in forestry, 25ha arable and 43ha in pasture. Their sheep enterprise is a 310-ewe mid-season lambing flock focused on prolificacy.
"We start with the commercial Suffolk breed ewe and we cross them with a Belclare and we use the cross-breds to produce our prolific ewes.
"We have 11 rams of the Charolais and Belclare breeds, with over 70 ewe lambs kept as replacements," Ken explains.
The scanning rate for the mature Belclare ewes on the farm was 2.75 this year with the whole flock averaging 2.41.
"The barren rate was only 2pc this year; we couldn't believe it - only six barren ewes out of 310. The mortality on the lambs is 11pc. It was about 7-8pc at lambing which is quite good in our system," Ken says.
To manage all these lambs, the Matthews operate an artificial rearing system for excessive lambs.
"The max number of lambs we put to any ewe is two. Excessive lambs are reared on an automatic feeder and finished indoors - 147 lambs were reared on the system this year. About seven died, most within a day or so. Two years ago we weaned 200 lambs on the same machine," he says.
The Matthews use commercial Suffolk ewes as the base for their flock. Ken explains that he brings in some replacements every two years as hoggets.
"I go to a local dealer and tell him to buy 20-25 hoggets out of a mart anywhere - no genetics involved," says Ken. "When they come onto the farm they are separated from the rest of the flock for six months, and we then breed them back to the Belclare."
"There are about 70 ewe lambs put to the ram each year on the farm, with a scanning rate of 1.45," says Ken. "We give them more time than the mature ewes and don't lamb until the middle of April, early May at around 13 months.
"We want to get a ewe lamb at 45kg live weight going to the ram. We only put the rams with the ewe lambs for three-four weeks to ensure the lambing season doesn't drag on excessively."
Ken's son Richard explains that, in their system, ewes are not culled based on their age.
"There are plenty of examples of ewes on the farm that are six-seven years old. "However, we would have six-seven prolapses per year with our high prolificacy. These are automatically culled along with ewes with foot or general health issues.
Richard explains that the ewes are kept on the farm until November and finished at 85-90kg.
The mature ewes on the farm are split into about three groups, with around 100 ewes to each group.
"The first 10 days lambing go in one group, the next 10 days go in another and so on," Ken explains.
He says that each group stay individual to each other for the whole year.
"They have mini farmlets of their own, with five paddocks which the flocks rotate around. This helps us for dosing because lambs are the same ages," he notes.
Ken also emphasises the importance of topping on the farm to ensure grass quality. "We top fields down to two inches or a bit more and leave the sheep in the paddock for half a day to eat it out and walk it down."
The Matthews rely on Typhon to finish their outdoor lambs. The lambs are weaned at 14-16 weeks.
Typhon is a hybrid brassica and is a cross between a Chinese cabbage and a stubble turnip. Ken highlights that they leave a grass headland around the sides of the field so when the lambs come in onto Typhon first, they have access to some grass.
He also highlights that lambs on Typhon will actually lose weight after the first week on the crop.
"It's in weeks four, five and six where you see a strong thrive. Lambs could put on 3kg a week or more in this period.
"You also get a massive killout even in August where you would be expecting a drop-off."
Over 90pc of lambs are drafted on the farm by mid-October, and that includes lambs from the ewe lambs.
Average carcass weight last year was 21kg, with lambs drafted at a liveweight of 41kg (June) to 47kg (October).
All lambs are sold via the Offaly Lamb producer Group Co-Op for which Jim is a co-ordinator. It sells 30,000 lambs annually from 150 producers.
Due to the prolificacy of their flock, the Matthews decided to implement an artificial rearing system for excessive lambs.
Ken explains that for a while he used to put triplets to pasture but quickly realised that many of the ewes were just not able to rear three lambs.
In the Matthews' system, the maximum number of lambs a ewe will rear is two.
Above that lambs are taken off the ewe at two to four days old. Initially, they are bottle-fed until they get used to drinking from a teat.
They are then put onto the computerised machine rearing system where the lambs have access to adlib hot milk.
"The machine is German-made and is like a big coffee machine," says Ken. "The biggest problem we have with the system is trying to get them to eat enough concentrate. They get too fond of milk."
He says they aim to get the lambs consuming 250g of concentrate a day before weaning.
"We actually mix Frosties breakfast cereal into the meal to make it sweeter to get them to start on the meal," says Ken. "We wean at about 6-8 weeks. The earlier we can wean them, the better as milk powder is so expensive.
"The weight is not the most important thing. The key thing for us to track is how much concentrate they are eating," Ken says.
He also explains that he prefers to pick ram lambs for the system.
"If we have a ewe with triplets we would take the ram lamb away and leave the ewe lambs," he says. "This is because the ram lambs don't get as fat on the concentrate feeding system."
At the lambing stage, the farm heavily relies on students.
"We get veterinary students and students from ag colleges, and they are a huge help," says Ken. "I prefer girls. They are far better for the lambing time."