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Tuesday 20 November 2018

Sligo sheep farmer on plans to increase ewe numbers to 500

Philip Higgins on his farm in Skreen, Co Sligo
Philip Higgins on his farm in Skreen, Co Sligo

Tom Coll

Philip Higgins is the latest farmer to join the Sheep Tech joint venture run by Teagasc in conjunction with Irish Country Meats.

Philip farms just outside the village of Skreen in Co Sligo. His flock consists of 316 commercial ewes, 29 pedigree texel ewes and 115 ewe lambs put to the ram in 2017.

Philip plans to increase ewe number to 500 in the next few years.

The mature commercial ewes lambed in early March and the ewe lambs from mid-March. Mature ewes were weaned on June 27 and ewe lambs weaned on July 7.

Philip's main goal this year is to finish as many lambs off grass as possible without meal feeding.

Prior to weaning, no concentrates were fed to lambs with the exception of 23 artificially reared lambs. After weaning, the lambs were split into two groups, lambs over 35kg and lambs under 35kg. Philip fed the lighter lambs 0.4 kg/head/day of a lamb ration in troughs.

"The heavier batch of lambs are on target to be finished off grass," says Philip.

Approximately 75pc of the lambs in this group have been slaughtered to date without meal feeding. A decision will be made over the next few weeks whether to start meal feeding the remaining lambs based on how they are performing.

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They are currently grazing silage aftermath that has been split up into paddocks using four rows of electric wire and plastic posts.

The lambs are let into paddocks with 8-9cm of grass they graze down to 6cm and then the weaned ewes are used to clean out the paddocks grazing down to 4cm.

"I have used this method of grazing post-weaning over the last few years and it makes grassland management a lot easier and the lambs have a constant supply of young leafy grass," says Philip.

The ewes were in good body condition score at weaning and Philip says that, based on previous years' experience, the body condition will improve even when the ewes are cleaning out the paddocks after the lambs.

Thin ewes especially first time lambers are being grazed in a separate group and given preferential grazing as they will have to improve body condition by up to 2 scores or gain over 20 kg live weight from weaning to mating.

To date 173 lambs have been drafted for sale at an average live weight of 47.4kg. These have averaged €106.14 at the ICM plant in Navan through the Sligo/Leitrim Lamb Producer Group of which Philip is a founder committee member. Factory data for the lambs slaughtered to date is outlined in the below table.

All lambs were weighed the evening of the day prior to sale and had a kill-out percentage of 42.4pc.

Grades

When the U grade lambs are compared to R grade lambs at similar live weights 47.2 versus 47.6kg and 81pc of fat score 3, the U grade lambs yielded an extra 1.01kg of carcase due to the higher kill out percentage.

This accounted for a price difference of €8.45 per lamb when adjusted to weight paid on limits.

The price differential was influenced by the high percentage of U grade lambs in the first two drafts.

Philip says he will use the information from previous slaughter data to determine future drafting weights.

Lambs will be weighed at similar times of the day over the coming months and lambs with better conformation and fat cover will be selected at lighter weights than lambs with poorer conformation based on potential kill-out percentage.

Philip has identified 160 of the fastest growing ewe lambs as potential replacements. The lambs selected are averaging 47kg and range in weight from 43-57 kg.

"The weight of the lamb early in the season is usually a reflection of the milking ability of the ewe," says Philip.

"Keeping the heavier, faster growing ewe lambs will improve the milking potential of the flock and increase the percentage of the ewe lambs that will lamb down in their first season."

He aims to have all ewe lamb replacements over 50kg at mating in mid-October.

The plan is to select 150 ewe lambs to go to the ram this year - 120 home-bred and 30 mule ewe lambs recently purchased for €170/head on average at the recent Mule sale in Ballinrobe.

Silage

Pit silage was made on the farm on May 28 and a second pit made on June 27.

The first silage was closed for five weeks prior to cutting the second pit was closed for seven weeks having been grazed later by the sheep. Analysis of both cuts will be given in later articles.

Philip has adequate winter fodder made to date provided he doesn't have to feed stock with forage prior to the winter housing period.

An additional 11 acres of second cut silage was made in early August. This will be used primarily for feeding to suckler cows.

Lambs were dosed for nematodirus in early May and were not dosed again until weaning based on faecal egg counts carried out on a weekly basis.

Philip says that he would have given the lambs an extra dose prior to weaning if he had not been faecal sampling. The latest worm count was 300 epg taken last week.

We will continue to monitor the worm count every two weeks to determine when dosing is required on the Higgins farm.

All lambs were given a cobalt and selenium drench at weaning and will be dosed every three weeks with a similar drench when drafting lambs for sale.

Lameness

Lameness in lambs became an issue in early June when the grass became "a bit stemmy."

"I have a batch footbath and let the lambs and ewes stand in the Zinc sulphate mix for 10 minutes once every two weeks. They then are retained on concrete for half an hour to let the hoof dry.

"This has almost eliminated the scald problem apart from the odd case where I would also use an antibiotic spray when the hoof dries." says Philip.

The prolonged dry spell affected grass growth which had slowed somewhat on the farm during July from 53 kg DM per day to 20kg DM.

However, the recent rainfall has resulted in growth rates returning to 39kg DM per day this week and now the farm is above target with 32 days grass ahead of stock at present.

Tom Coll is a Teagasc advisor based in Mohill, Co Leitrim

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