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Saturday 24 February 2018

Maintaining quality grass supply is the main focus as we wean the lambs

Stock photo
Stock photo
Tommy Boland

Tommy Boland

The first group of lambs were weaned at Lyons last week at 100 days of age or just slightly over 14 weeks.

These were twin lambs that were part of a research project looking at easy-to-measure predictors of feed intake and, ultimately, feed efficiency for grazing sheep, which is part of Michelle McManus's PhD project.

Despite being in the yard for some part of the day, every day for five weeks, the lambs achieved a very respectable weaning weight of 34.75kg. This represents a daily growth rate from birth to weaning of approximately 300g per day.

In my last article, I wrote that the hill ground was struggling a little for moisture. Since then the situation has improved and grass growth was maintained at normal levels over the last four weeks. Rain arrived at the correct times to keep the grass growing, without conditions ever becoming wet. This resulted in highly digestible, high dry-matter grass being available to the flock, which is critical to maintain animal performance.

Lambs received a cobalt drench at weaning and, though we plan to bolus animals with a cobalt bolus in the coming weeks, there were some issues in sourcing these for weaning. A small number of lambs were drafted for the factory just in time to coincide with the price drop!

Maintaining a good supply of high-quality grass is the key focus now for the remaining lambs in order to finish them as soon as possible.

Grass quality and quantity are two of the major issues restricting lamb performance on Irish sheep farms and the recent open day held in Teagasc Athenry focused strongly on good grassland management.

At the risk of repeating myself, I would also pose the question as: how many people know their animals' performance?

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A very simple option is to select a number of lambs at weaning (15-30) and weigh them each time the flock passes through the yard.

This will allow the identification of poor growth and even aid in understanding what is driving this. These lambs should reflect variation within the flock - otherwise it would be a futile exercise.

At weaning, the ewes averaged 77kg live weight with a BCS just below 3.0. This further supports the fact that ewes were well fed since lambing. No meals were offered to ewes and lambs at any stage.

While the majority of our ewes are winter-shorn, there are a small number that were shorn in early June.

Despite wool being an excellent material, its value is disappointingly low, as it has been overtaken by synthetic fibres. Shearing this year is pretty much a loss-making activity.

Some second-cut silage has been harvested at Lyons with the objective of having high-quality winter forage for the pregnant ewes and reducing the meal feeding requirements during the winter housing period.

Our aim is to have grass silage of high digestibility, with good protein content, thus reducing the duration and volume of concentrate feeding.

It may seem untimely to be discussing this in June, but we must prepare well in advance, as no changes can be made when the silage is opened next winter.

The focus over the next month will be on maintaining lamb performance, including monitoring parasite challenge. Replacements will be selected now at each weighing.

Grass intake

Michelle McManus will also be recording grass intake for her ewes once in mid-July. This involves dosing the ewes with an indigestible marker for 12 days and faecal-sampling them for the final five days of this period.

This allows us to estimate how much grass each ewe has consumed that week.

Finally, Dr Frank Campion, who now works on the Teagasc Better Sheep Farm programme, graduated with his PhD from UCD last Monday.

Many of you will be familiar with Frank's name from these articles and I would like to congratulate him on this achievement. I am delighted that he is now a central part of the national sheep industry.

Assoc Prof Tommy Boland is a lecturer in sheep production, Lyons Farm, University College Dublin. Follow @Pallastb on Twitter. Email tommy.boland@ucd.ie

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