John Fagan: You never stop learning in sheep farming

John Fagan on his farm in Gartlandstown, Co. Westmeath.
John Fagan on his farm in Gartlandstown, Co. Westmeath.
John Fagan

John Fagan

Lambing is just about to kick off here and I am glad that I left it that bit later. It's almost the calm before the storm amidst the storms. March has always come in like a lion and generally goes out like a lamb and judging by the weather forecast this week it seems the weather gods are looking somewhat favourably on me this year.

It's always the case that in the run up to lambing getting started you'll have a few problems, ewes will lose lambs for various different reasons and it's worth keeping track of things that happen.

A farmer friend once offered me some advice about survival in the sheep business saying that all you needed was a 'sharp spade and a short memory'. He has somewhat of a point.

Obviously, we can't bury dead stock on the farm anymore, however it is important to keep track of deaths on the farm and the reasons that they happen so that next year changes can be made to best avoid them.

In previous years, I have had trouble with abortion and having dropped samples to the regional veterinary lab in Athlone, I discovered that it was down to 'toxo' and enzootic abortion.

On foot of this I began to vaccinate my breeding ewe lambs annually and this has done the trick. Needless to say I still get abortions but these can be attributed to minor issues and the losses are negligible. If you get an abortion, it is worth your while getting a sample to the lab to find out what exactly the problem is, and don't just ignore it, as an abortion storm in your flock could be soul destroying.

The way to remedy this is to find out what the problem is, then begin a vaccination programme with replacement ewe lambs if needs be. In the meantime, if an abortion does happen you need to remove and isolate the ewe from the rest of the flock as quickly as possible.

So far this year I've lost a couple of ewes due to uterine prolapse. This is the most severe form of prolapse and the ewe unfortunately has to be put down. Uterine prolapse usually takes place in late pregnancy and is caused by the ewe over eating or is a problem associated with over fat ewes.

Get the latest news from the Farming Independent team 3 times a week.

I actually got two of these on the same morning, in the same place, and quickly came to the conclusion that their food intake had to be rapidly reduced. Since then I have had no problems. I also lost two ewes this year that were stuck on their back, again being over fat or just unlucky I don't know what, but sometimes you'd need eyes in the back of your head to take care of them.

I don't want to be all doom and gloom about flock deaths, but you do need to take note of things that happen during lambing and in the run up to it and know how to take action when things go wrong.

No one gets through lambing unscathed by unexplained deaths so don't be too hard on yourself if this happens.

My lambing start date was St Patrick's Day, so last week we were busy getting the place in shape before all hell broke loose. I'm going to let out the mule ewes to lamb outside. Generally, they do the job themselves. Lambing outside has many benefits, it reduces labour and when the weather is in your favour, it makes lambing a breeze.


You just need to be vigilant, up early, keep vermin at bay and a nifty sidestep certainly comes in handy. The only sheep that will be lambed inside are the triplets and the singles, as I aim to adopt, where possible, the triplet lambs. The ewe lambs are looking great, and I intend to also lamb them inside in April.

Finally, I cannot put enough emphasis on hygiene when lambing inside, especially as lambing draws on.

You need to keep pens cleaned out, disinfected and you need to thoroughly bathe the lambs naval with iodine as soon as possible. Joint ill and watery mouth is a curse and you can be sure that these issues arise because of poor hygiene. Keep it clean.

There is no better milk for a lamb than the milk produced by its mother. However, if the ewe hasn't enough milk, it is always handy to have some back-up colostrum on hand as it is liquid gold at 2am when you have a bunch of screeching lambs and a ewe who hasn't let down her milk.


John Fagan farms at Gartlandstown, Co Westmeath

Indo Farming

For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App