Lambing season goes into overdrive in north Donegal

It's all hands on deck at Michael Duffy's sheep farm with over 700 lambs expected to be delivered this year, writes John Cannon

Claire Duffy leading a twin ewe to grass on the Duffy farm in Kerrykeel, Co Donegal
Claire Duffy leading a twin ewe to grass on the Duffy farm in Kerrykeel, Co Donegal
A simple ID system can be a major asset if a lamb is separated from its mother

John Cannon

The news is good from the Duffy farm in Donegal.

Since the last report in February grass growth has been good, lambing is in full swing with ewes and lambs being turned out to very good grass covers.

The next two weeks will be very demanding for Michael as by the end of that period lambing will be well through. The main focus will then switch to grazing management, closing for silage and Nematodirus prevention.

Flock Update

In February I informed you that Michael's flock of 306 ewes and 113 ewe lambs were scanned for 777 lambs (2.02 lambs/ewe and 1.41 lambs/ewe lamb mated).

A simple ID system can be a major asset if a lamb is separated from its mother
A simple ID system can be a major asset if a lamb is separated from its mother

Of these there were 94 sets of triplets and 53 ewe lambs were scanned with twins. According to Michael "the scanning results meant that preparation this year had to be much better than normal as I knew that I would need the automatic lamb feeder operating from start of lambing and that I could end up with 100 pet lambs if I do not leave the twins on the ewe lambs."

Lambing began on March 5 and according to Michael it "was slow for the first 12 days but has picked up quite a bit since and we are expecting a hectic two weeks to come now. Overall it is going very well with lamb mortality below 10pc but, when we get a 'hit' they are heavy hits."

On March 24 there were 120 ewes lambed with over 240 lambs.

Losses at present are 24 lambs and four ewes. Michael clarified those figures by saying "10 of those 14 deaths occurred in late pregnancy before lambing began".

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There were just 14 lamb deaths since lambing began (about 6pc). Michael's target is to keep lamb mortality under 10pc.

"If we can keep lamb mortality at or below 10pc we should end up with 700 lambs".

Michael Duffy has had to change the feeding strategy for his sheep by housing them
Michael Duffy has had to change the feeding strategy for his sheep by housing them

It is important to set annual goals or targets and review progress later with the objective of learning for the following year. Of the four ewes that died, three were all scanned with triplets and one with quads.

One ewe just went off her feet and probably ended up with pregnancy toxaemia; one died following prolapse; one ewe had an intestinal prolapse and the fourth died following an induced lambing as she had been showing a vaginal discharge.

The ewes are lambing down with good body condition scores (BCS) of 3.0-3.5. Milk supply is good but after about 12 days lambing Michael ran into some 'Watery Mouth' problems and has started using Spectam since then.

Lambing management

Michael allows the ewe to lamb within her pen.

Michael Duffy with Teagasc sheep advisor John Cannon (left)
Michael Duffy with Teagasc sheep advisor John Cannon (left)

He normally pens her off in the corner using two hurdles once the first lamb is born. When she has licked her lambs he carries the lambs to an individual pen and the ewe usually follows behind.

Here the navels are sprayed with iodine and they remain in the individual pen for 24 hours unless there is pressure for pen space.

There are 16 pet lambs on the automatic feeder at present and this is being added to on a daily basis. These are mainly triplet lambs.

"I give all triplet lambs 100 ml of cow biestings and leave them on the ewe for 12 hours. I try and leave an evenly matched pair on the ewe by removing either the strongest or the weakest lamb of the three".

The pets are all in one group at present but the aim is to have at least two groups split on age.

Michael has taken on one causal worker for the lambing period - an LYIT Agriculture student on a six-week placement.

His wife Claire and daughter Aishling are available every evening and at the weekends and his sister Bridget flew in from London on Monday 25 and will spend two weeks helping out. Michael's parents Philomena and William also play a very active role in the farmyard during this hectic period.

Weather & Grassland

The weather in February was quite good but from March 2 to March 18 it was poor with heavy rain, wind and sleet showers.

Michael did not get any ewes and lambs to grass until March 18. On March 23 he had 65 ewes turned out and was turning out more during my visit. He EID tags and numbers his lambs just prior to turnout. The ewe has a matching number.

A numbering system such as this leaves management simpler when he spots an issue in the field such as a lame lamb or a lamb that appears to be 'off colour'.

Sunday, March 24 was too stormy and cold to turn out sheep but on Monday Michael turned out approximately 40 ewes with lambs in small groups of 5-6 ewes. These are usually walked one at a time to a small paddock beside the lambing shed.


Michael applied 32 units of Nitrogen on February 20 (as 25kg of 18.6.12 and 25kg of 46pcN Urea per acre).

On March 23 all fields had between 6cm and 11cm of grass with an average cover being about 8cm. Michael was turning his ewes and lambs out to fields with 7cm-8cm.

He plans to graze his heavy covers when the ewes are out 10 days, are more settled and have higher intakes.

The ideal scenario would be to graze off these heavy covers over three to four days, but he will need bigger groups to do that.

With the amount of grass available one could be tempted to close off some fields for silage now but as the weather can change quite quickly at this time of year it is too early to chance that. (In 2018 covers ranged from 7cm down to 4cm at this time).

Michael was planning to feed his ewes between 0.5kg/head/day for a few weeks post turnout but this plan may have to be changed if the weather stays mild and good grass growth continues.

To tackle the current grass cover, Michael plans to turnout the 27 ewes that were originally scanned as barren.

At least 70pc of these have been mated since scanning and he plans to scan these again around April 10. He will also turn out his rams and nine dry ewe lamb replacements.

He currently has over 300 store hoggets left. He could also turn the lighter hoggets to grass. It is a big change from previous years when most farmers would be trying to save grass for ewes and lambs at this time.

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

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