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John Fagan: Hygiene is essential for reducing lamb mortality

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At sixes and sevens... Sheep looking bewildered in Fenagh, Co Leitrim. Photo: Gerry Faughnan

At sixes and sevens... Sheep looking bewildered in Fenagh, Co Leitrim. Photo: Gerry Faughnan

At sixes and sevens... Sheep looking bewildered in Fenagh, Co Leitrim. Photo: Gerry Faughnan

Sometimes March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lion too. The weather in early spring is volatile - you can be lucky or very unlucky.

I feel really sorry for the farmers who have been affected by the torrential rain that we got in February. It's been very tough. It's hard enough to make a few bob at farming when the weather is in your favour… The rain was of biblical proportions. I have never seen our farm as wet.

At least it has abated somewhat and you can almost hear the land drying out. I hope that my fellow farmers that have been flooded get back on their feet as soon as possible.

Think positively and if you need help, it's no harm to ask a neighbour or chat to someone.

During the difficult weather, I was able to keep the ewe lambs fed with a Logic feed snacker and Gator. It was a lifesaver.

The feed snacker meant that I could get the large Corby cob nuts out to the sheep in different locations each time, quickly and efficiently without them wallowing around in mud.

It was tight going between the monsoon showers, but it has kept them going, kept them in good condition. I hope we have weathered the storm.

It's important to keep pregnant ewe lambs in good condition. Remember they are growing both a lamb and themselves and therefore they require good-quality feed and don't need any setbacks.

The ewe lambs are not due to lamb until April but need close watching. Prior to lambing, they will get a fluke and worm dose and their second clostridial vaccination, leaving them right as rain for lambing.

Twin-bearing ewe lambs need to be, as a rule, treated like triplet-bearing mature ewes. You need to bring them up to almost a kilo of meal per head per day prior to lambing and make sure that afterwards they get to go to good grass. And if the weather is tricky they may again need extra feeding.

If you neglect to do this they will suffer a setback for the following years. Treat them well and they will look after you.

The main flock is just about to explode here. I have all the twin-bearing ewes ready to be let out for lambing, and the triplet- and single-bearing ewes are lambed inside.

This I find works really well as it allows me to quickly adopt any triplets onto singles as they lamb. A pet lamb adopted is, as far as I am concerned, a way to cancel out the loss of a lamb.

I have about 20 individual adoption pens at the ready during lambing for this reason. I can safely say each year we could adopt over 100 lambs. An adoption unit will pay for itself very quickly and is a must at lambing time.

At lambing time, it's important to have all the things you might need at the ready. There's no point in looking for stuff on a Sunday afternoon when everything is closed. The usual things to have are gloves, gels, rubber rings, iodine, stomach tubes and milk replacer.

Hygiene is essential if you want to reduce lamb mortality.

Having some hydrated lime is a great disinfectant, but you need to be careful with this as it is extremely dangerous if it gets into your eyes or lungs. Wear protective dust masks and goggles.

I sprinkle lime throughout the whole shed each time we are re-bedding, and we also lime the individual pens and clean them out after each time they are used. This reduces the E-coli bug that causes issues such as joint ill and watery mouth in lambs, which are silent killers and are a direct result of poor hygiene and also a lack of adequate colostrum from the ewe.

Poor colostrum is a result of either poor feeding or it's an issue with the ewe herself. Either way if the lamb doesn't get enough colostrum in the first six hours after birth then the odds of its survival are severely limited.

I have tried synthetic colostrums and I find them hit and miss. They can be very thick and hard to mix. By far the most effective substitute for colostrum is cow beestings. If you talk very nicely to your dairy-farming neighbour he or she might give you some excess cow beestings, which is a great booster for a struggling lamb if the mother has no milk.

It's not the full substitute but I find its absolutely brilliant in giving them a kick-start. Simply warm it to body temperature and tube them gently and slowly.

When tubing the lamb, it's no harm to warm up the tube before using it. I do this by putting it in a jug of warm water, which makes it softer and easier for the lamb to swallow.

With regard to iodine, I moved away from spraying the navel and instead I use a teat dipper to fully immerse and bathe the navel. This means the iodine gets all over the navel and not just on one side, which can be the case if you spray it.

Five or six years ago I had huge trouble with joint ill and watery mouth, and as much as I thought I was being hygienic and was doing the right thing, I was losing loads of lambs.

The reason for this was that I wasn't thorough enough with my infection controls. Iodine and lime is cheap, so you need to use it. If you find that you have a serious problem with watery mouth, it's worth chatting to your vet. They may recommend that you treat lambs with an antibiotic, but this is in extreme cases and provided you are keeping things clean in the proper way, antibiotics should not be needed.

Finally, if you are looking for a good guide, The Veterinary Book for Sheep Farmers by David C Henderson is an encyclopaedia for sheep health. I regularly refer to it for guidance and refreshment of sheep management dos and don'ts.

John Fagan farms in Gartlandstown, Co Westmeath

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