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Weather gods finally shine on sheep farmers in the west

The lengthy dry spell has allowed the fast turnout of flocks to good grazing conditions

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Sean Conway

Sean Conway

Sean Conway

In a recent phone conversation Sean Conway and I discussed the four flock focus areas that Sean has prioritised this month to maximise lamb performance.

As outlined in earlier articles, the overall farm priority is to maximise output per ewe while keeping costs under control, especially concentrate costs.

One of Sean's annual targets is to finish a high percentage of his lambs off grass with no concentrate input.

Lambing review

Output per ewe is largely a factor of lambs weaned per ewe put to the ram in autumn.

This year mature ewes scanned at 2.10 lambs per ewe put to the ram and ewe lambs scanned with a litter size of 1.20.

This spring, ewes have gone to the field with 2.03 lambs per ewe joined and the ewe lambs are rearing 1.15 lambs per ewe lamb that lambed.

Lambing was compact on the Conway farm - it began on March 10 and was completed by April 10 when the last of the ewe lambs lambed down.

The lamb mortality figure to date is excellent at 3.50pc.

The very favourable weather conditions since mid-March resulted in no losses since turnout, says Sean.

The ewes are currently in three groups: the earlier lambing batch, the later lambing batch and a batch of ewes rearing triplets and ewe lambs rearing twins.

The later batch, consisting of 16 ewes and ewe lambs, are the only sheep receiving concentrates at this stage. The main focus of the review is to try and maintain this level of performance in future years.

Grassland management

The focus here is to ensure that ewes reach their peak milk yields to drive subsequent lamb performance. Spring grass availability is mainly influenced by date of closing in the autumn and then soil fertility.

Ground conditions improved dramatically on the Conway farm since mid-March and ewes were let out to grass within 24 hours of lambing.

The contract-reared heifers were also let out to grass in late March which was six weeks later than last year, due mainly to the high rainfall in January, February and early March.

All stock are entering paddocks with 8-10cm of grass grazing down to a post grazing height of 4cm.

"As a general rule I try to get the paddocks grazed out in three to four days either with the ewes and lambs or with the heifers who are grazing their own separate blocks within the farm," says Sean.

He used protected urea for the first round of fertiliser spread at 20 units per acre in early February. He followed this up with a bag of 18:6:12 + S for the second round plus slurry at 2,000 gallons per acre. This will be followed by another application of 18:6:12 + S. Protected urea will be used for the remainder of the year as required.

"As in previous years I do not intend to close off a specific area for silage, my winter silage requirements will be made from taking out strong paddocks in the rotation," says Sean.

Removing all of his winter silage requirements in the form of baled silage has enabled Sean to make high quality silage of 75+pc DMD and at the same time ensure that ewes and lambs are grazing paddocks with a large proportion of leaf in the sward.

Twin-rearing ewes reach peak milk yield approximately three weeks post-lambing and ewes with singles will peak at about five weeks.

It is important that Sean currently has an adequate supply of leafy grass as otherwise lamb performance will suffer throughout the year.

It is also worth noting that generally, at a similar level of nutrition, ewes rearing twins yield approximately 40pc more milk than ewes rearing singles. Therefore, special care must be taken with twin-rearing ewes which make up the vast majority of the ewes on the Conway farm.

Lameness

Treating lame ewes prior to turnout and routine footbathing of ewes and lambs has become common practice on the Conway farm.

Every year we hear of farmers with lame sheep and lame lambs. The reality is lame lambs don't thrive and lame ewes don't reach their peak milk yields even where grassland management practices are excellent.

Scald and footrot are the two major causes of lameness in sheep and are interlinked. Scald is the major cause of lameness in young lambs and spreads rapidly through the flock.

One day you have two lame lambs and next week 25pc of the lambs may be lame if left untreated.

In 2012 Sean built a simple, roofed batch footbath at the end of his race. Ewes and lambs are routinely footbathed every two to three weeks over the summer months. They stand for five minutes in a 10pc zinc sulphate solution and are then left to stand on a concrete yard for one hour for the hoof to dry.

Routine footbathing is generally done in conjunction with other tasks such as dosing or shearing, and normally coincides with a movement into the next paddock in the rotation. "I do not have a problem with lameness on my farm, but I probably would have if I hadn't installed the batch footbath or stopped routinely footbathing," says Sean.

Nematodirus

Sean is planning on dosing the earliest born lambs this week for nematodirus with a white worm drench following the nematodirus forecast which was issued on the Department of Agriculture website by the nematodirus advisory group.

They advised that lambs in the south west coast and west of Ireland should be dosed with a suitable anthelmintic, a white drench from mid to late April, while those in the rest of the country should be dosed from late April to early May.

Sean's flock graze the same fields each year which increases the risk of infection. He will dose the later born lambs in early May when they are old enough and consuming grass. Enterprises with high stocking rates are particularly vulnerable.

Twin lambs, or single lambs born to ewes of poor milking ability may be at a greater risk of developing disease as they begin consuming greater amounts of grass earlier in life.

As in previous years, Sean plans to use faecal egg counts from June onwards to determine the requirement for future dosing.

In the case of nematodirus, it is the larvae that cause the damage to the intestine and so the nematodirus forecast is the best method of predicting when to dose.

Farmers need to be aware that the symptoms of a nematodirus outbreak are similar to an outbreak of coccidiosis. These include black scour, lambs becoming dehydrated and collecting around drinkers followed by death. The two conditions often occur concurrently. Sean has no history of coccidiosis on the farm .

Farm facts

Sean Conway (pictured) farms at Coondrihara, Lavagh, Ballymote at the foot of Knocknashee in Co Sligo.

The farm is of heavy soil type by nature and this was one of the reasons why Sean changed his farming enterprise 16 years ago from dairying to contract rearing and sheep.

Getting the simple management practices right on the farm has allowed Sean to maximise flock output and minimise variable costs. What are the simple practices adopted on the Conway farm?

They all revolve around a single common denominator: grass.

An adequate supply of quality leafy grass in August and September ensures that replacement ewe lambs were at least 48kg and ewes were in good body condition score, 3.5 and above, going to the ram in mid-October.

Having all lambs sold by the end of October makes sure that there is enough grass to match ewe requirements prior to housing in late December.

Closing paddocks in rotation as they are grazed from early October almost always guarantees an adequate supply of grass for lambing in mid-March.


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

Indo Farming