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Monday 17 December 2018

Sligo sheep farmer with over 450 ewes on coping through a challenging spring

Early treatment of lame ewes has paid off

Philip Higgins on his farm
Philip Higgins on his farm

Tom Coll

Lambing commenced on the Higgins farm on March 1 and was compact for the mature ewe flock with 85pc lambing down to the first cycle.

Ewe-lambs began lambing from March 17 with 90pc lambed by the end of April. Using the Beltex ram on the ewe-lambs did not create additional lambing problems, according to Philip, who farms a mixed enterprise of suckler cows and sheep in Skreen, Co Sligo.

The sheep enterprise consists of 316 commercial ewes, 29 pedigree Texels and 115 ewe lambs put to the ram on the October 9, 2017. The flock size has steadily increased from 200 ewes in 2012.

If anything he had a high percentage of small lambs around 3kg at birth. Twelve sheep aborted due to toxoplasmosis prior to lambing which equates to 3pc of the flock. Philip estimates lamb losses to be around 10pc at this stage from scanning to turnout.

Problems that arose last year, such as joint ill in lambs and lameness in ewes, thankfully did not materialise this year apart from a few cases.

"I put a huge effort into early treatment of lame ewes, ensuring ewes were in good condition at lambing and hygiene in the sheds was good around lambing time. It appears to have thus far paid off," says Philip.

Philip Higgins
Philip Higgins

"Ten percent of last year's lamb crop died due to an outbreak of joint ill. This year in the week prior to the commencement of lambing, I changed the ewes from a leafy high quality pit silage to higher dry matter silage which in my opinion left the plastic slats a lot cleaner at lambing than they were last year."

All lambing pens were cleaned and disinfected with an antibacterial powder after each ewe, the powder was also spread on the slats daily. This year weak lambs and non-sucking lambs at birth were stomach tubed with ewe colostrum unlike the use of cow colostrum in previous years.

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Read also: Expanding enterprise: How this Sligo farmer has more than doubled his flock numbers in the last five years

Challenging

This year was extremely challenging when it came to post-lambing management on the Higgins farm. Ewes were turned out to grass for the first two weeks of March and fed 0.5kg of concentrates per day.

Low growth rates and depleting grass covers forced Philip to increase feeding rates to 1kg per day and to cease letting out ewes. This put extra pressure on housing facilities and required a lot of additional labour.

From mid-March to mid-April an additional 300kg increasing to 400kg per day was fed to ewes post-lambing or 2.5 tons per week of concentrates at €300 per tonne. Philip has fed on average 67kg per ewe or €20 per ewe pre- and post-lambing this year.

Average farm covers for early to late March and the most recent farm cover are outlined in Table 1 (below). The current average farm cover on the grazing block being measured is 256kg DM/ha with an average growth rate of 20kg DM/ha for the previous 30 days.

Silage ground has been closed and fertilised on April 20 which leaves 17 days of grazing ahead on the grazing block. Philip is in a good position going forward as far as grass supply with ground temperatures now consistently above 10oC as measured in nearby Easkey.

TABLE 1

Date          Average Farm Cover

9/3/2018   123 Kgs DM/ha

23/3/2018  101 Kgs DM/ha

23/4/2018  256 Kgs DM/ha

Fertiliser

Based on the most recent soil samples taken in January 2018, 77pc of the farm is index 1 for P and 23pc index 2. Around 32pc of the land area is index 2 , 62pc index 3 and 6pc index 4 for K. Some 32pc of the farm is 6.3 or on target pH, 49pc between 6.0 and 6.3 and 22pc less than pH 6.0.

The first step for Philip to correct soil fertility issues will be to apply a tonne of lime per acre to soils with pH of 6.0 to 6.3 and 2 tonnes per acre to soils which are less than pH 6.0, which in Philip's case is rented land.

The farm is currently stocked at eight ewes per ha, therefore Philip will have to grow 8 tonnes of grass dry matter per Ha per year to meet flock demand. Twenty-five units of Urea per acre was spread on the silage ground and on the drier fields on February 20. The same fields got 1.5 bags of 18-6-12 on March 17 and an additional two bags of 18-6-12 on April 20. 18-6-12 + Sulphur and CAN + Sulphur will be used for the rest of the year when required.

The next critical time period for Philip is when to dose for nematodirus. He plans to dose sometime in the first week of May now that the lambs are eating more grass. Coccidiosis has not been an issue on the farm to date, but as sheep numbers increase, the situation will be assess on an ongoing basis.


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