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Why this Donegal sheep farmer says there's plenty of ground for optimism ahead of the 2020 lambing season

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Teagasc advisor John Cannon and Michael Duffy on Michael's farm in Kerrykeel, Co Donegal

Teagasc advisor John Cannon and Michael Duffy on Michael's farm in Kerrykeel, Co Donegal

Michael Duffy

Michael Duffy

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Teagasc advisor John Cannon and Michael Duffy on Michael's farm in Kerrykeel, Co Donegal

With 2019 now firmly behind us, Michael Duffy - like all farmers - is looking forward to 2020. There is usually optimism at this time of the year, with farmers waiting for the scanning results, grass growth speeding up in February and the arrival of lambs in March and April.

December was quite a mild month with some frost but no snow. This results in grass growth since October being about the 10 year average.

Flock Update

Ewe body condition at mating was quite good and most ewes were mated during the first three weeks.

Michael scanned his flock on January 6 and the Table 1 shows the 2020 scanning data for the Duffy flock.

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Feeding time: Ewes are fed by diet feeder on the Duffy farm; as the lambing season approaches, Michael says he is aiming to have over 720 lambs for sale during 2020.

Feeding time: Ewes are fed by diet feeder on the Duffy farm; as the lambing season approaches, Michael says he is aiming to have over 720 lambs for sale during 2020.

Overall scanning result is excellent with 2.07 lambs scanned per ewe mated and a litter size of 2.19 per ewe. This compares with a scanning rate of 2.02 and litter size 2.22 in 2019.

Michael was very happy with the scan results, saying: "Although there were eight more ewes mated this year the number of barren ewes is down from 27 to seven. The number with twins is up from 141 to 167 and while the number with singles is up by 14 and the number with triplets is down by eight, the overall number of lambs scanned from the ewes is up by 43 from 618 to 661."

Table 2 shows the 2020 scan results for the ewe lamb flock - 127 ewe lambs were mated compared to 113 in 2019. They scanned at 1.27 versus 1.41 in 2020.

As per last year Michael says he does not plan on turning out any ewe lambs with twins. "I will remove one of them for fostering or artificial rearing," he says.

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On a general note, scanning results appear to be quite good this year. Good ewe body condition at mating time seems to be the main reason.

Those farmers with very good scans in the past (1.8+) have maintained performance but those with mid-range scans (1.6+) have shown improvement.

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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

The objective for Michael and all sheep farmers should be to keep lamb mortality below 12pc. If he achieves that he will have over 720 lambs for sale during 2020.

Now is a good time for farmers to go through their Flock Register and calculate their lamb mortality from scanning in 2019.

Grassland

The entire farm was closed by late November/early December. There has been some visible grass growth since Christmas because of good soil temperatures of around 6˚C during January.

Michael's fields have a grass covers ranging from 4cm to 7cm now. Lambing is due to begin about March 12. Michael plans to follow what he has done in recent years and apply about 25-30 units of nitrogen in early to mid February. The exact date will depend on having ground conditions; two to four days of good weather forecasted and soil temperature at or above 6˚C.

Ewe feeding and management

Michael's ewes are divided by Scan and Body Condition Score (BCS). Overall the ewes are excellent for BCS.

All ewes are now being fed meal by diet feeder as an ad-lib meal and silage ration as follows: singles and doubles 0.4 kg/day; triplets and thin doubles 0.6kg/day, with a group of about 20 thinner triplets getting 1.0kg/day; single ewe lambs 0.6kg/day; ewe lambs with doubles 0.8kg/day.

Michael has not got silage analysis results back yet, but expects it to be similar to last year at 69DMD.

The meal ration is currently a high-energy 13pc CP but will be changed about four weeks from lambing to a 19/20pc CP ration containing 20pc soya bean meal. The ewes will receive their next/third fluke dose over the next two weeks - probably a Rafoxanide product - and will be given their Clostridial booster in mid-February.

Store Lambs

Michael has 800 store lambs remaining and will be slaughtering about 40 per week. "The lamb price is very good which helps to make up for the high workload on the farm at present," he says.

Spring 2020

He again has an agricultural science student from LYIT lined up to assist on the farm at lambing. "I had an LYIT student in 2019 and it worked out very well," he says.

Preparation for lambing will begin in earnest from mid-February. This includes setting up lambing pens, purchasing new stomach tubes, assembling a bank of colostrum, ear tags, electrolyte, lambing ropes, disinfect, plastic gloves and having a discussion with his vet.

Michael plans to soil sample the whole farm next week as it is five years since the last samples were taken. A new nutrient management/ fertiliser plan will then be drawn up based on the updated soil analysis.

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

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