Sheep masterclass highlights labour and health challenges

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Tommy Boland

Tommy Boland

We have been reasonably busy at Lyons since Christmas, with a number of key events in the sheep year. These included housing the ewes and ewe lambs, scanning these flocks, winter shearing, lambing the very small early lamb flock and hosting an Agricultural Science Association Sheep Masterclass, which was sponsored by Irish Country Meats.

We housed the ewes this year about 10 days earlier than we had planned as the underfoot conditions on the Redstart had deteriorated. There is some residual crop left here and it is our intention to graze this in the coming weeks with the early lambing ewes and perhaps the repeat ewes from the mid-season flock.

The ewes and ewe lambs were winter shorn on January 10, and this will allow nine weeks of wool regrowth before turn out after lambing.

These ewes are housed on straw bedding and being offered grass silage at the moment, with only the triplet and quad bearing ewes receiving concentrate supplementation.

Decisions on when to start feeding concentrates, and how much to feed must be based on silage/forage quality, ewe live weight, litter size and lambing date.

Frequent readers of this column will be familiar with our recent change in ewe breeds within the flock at Lyons, following a number of years in the Central Progeny Test program. This period also coincided with our litter size frequently falling below our target.


This year things are looking a little more positive. The flock was scanned on December 29 and the ewe flock scanned at two lambs overall with a 90pc conception to first service, which will make for quite a busy first week of lambing. The repeat ewes scanned at 1.7, meaning the ewes which scanned as pregnant to first service are carrying on average 2.13 lambs. Of the 266 ewes in the flock this year, almost 200 are hoggets.

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The ewe lambs scanned at 1.37 overall. Seventy percent scanned as pregnant to first service, with 90pc pregnant after two services.

The remaining 10pc will be carried dry until mating, as we are currently building numbers in the flock.

Meanwhile, over 60 people from all facets of the sheep industry travelled to Lyons to attend the Agricultural Science Association Sheep Masterclass last week.

Andrew Kinsella, who retired from Teagasc after working with them for many years, opened the event. He currently runs a mid-season lambing flock in Wicklow currently, which routinely scans 2.2 to 2.3 lambs per ewe to the ram. He opened his talk by describing the very important contribution made by the sheep industry to the Irish agri-food industry.

Key challenges laid out by Andrew included:

* the labour requirements in sheep farming, especially in light of an ageing demographic and lack of technological solutions in many cases

* the challenge to maintain animal health, particularly in relation to lameness control in the ewe and joint ill in the lamb

* the issues around anthelmintic resistance and what this means at farm level. Andrew also made a call for a greater involvement of Animal Health Ireland in the sheep industry.

Professor Michael Diskin, from Teagasc Athenry presented results from their hill store lamb finishing programme over the last four to five years.

Key messages from this work include:

* growth from grass should be maximised prior to commencing intensive feeding, recognising that feed value of grass declines significantly from mid-October

* there is a big variation in lamb performance, both between farm of origin and within farm of origin

* a strong animal health programme is essential to ensure a successful finishing system

frequent drafting of lambs is required to maximise carcass value

* a very small proportion of hill lambs will refuse to eat meals indoors.

Dr Noirin McHugh, a sheep and beef geneticist based in Teagasc Moorepark was next to speak and outlined the work behind the INZAC flock, which is a cross country (New Zealand and Ireland) breed comparison study of Suffolk and Texel sheep.

The INZAC flock consists of elite Irish and NZ genetics, and low Irish genetics. Noirin started by highlighting the much higher rate of genetic gain in the NZ flock compared to the Irish flock, and also highlighted that the NZ sheep are genetically separate (and visually different) from the Irish sheep.

While this project is in its early stages and the results are preliminary a couple of important trends are developing.

The elite sheep are outperforming the low sheep across key metrics including lamb mortality, growth rate, days to slaughter and lambs finished from grass. The NZ sheep had less lambing difficulty, the highest lamb performance, and finishing from grass of all groups and in 2018 scanned 0.22 of a lamb more than the average of the Irish sheep.

Anne Marie Crowley from Trouw Nutrition, highlighted the importance of mineral nutrition and mineral supplementation. Copper came in for a lot of discussion and Anne Marie put a couple of myths around copper nutrition to bed during her talk, and highlighted the importance of correctly identifying mineral imbalances at farm level.

Prof Michael Doherty, Dean of Veterinary Medicine at UCD, highlighted the value of flock health planning, and the need for it to be seen as more than just a KT requirement, but rather an activity that can add real value to the sheep farming system.

He also stressed the point that if some animals in the flock are displaying clinical signs of a disease, particularly metabolic disease, many animals are suffering at a sub clinical level, and this is where the major economic loss can occur.

I highlighted the potential of multi-species swards in sheep systems, especially in terms of reducing requirement for anthelmintic administration. A number of challenges remain in relation to these sward types and the development of a clear management blueprint is essential and one of our next tasks in this field of study. The annual Teagasc National Sheep Conference takes place at the Lough Rea Hotel, Co Galway on January 30 and Nuremore Hotel, Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan on February 1, where I will be speaking on late pregnancy nutrition.

Associate Professor Tommy Boland is a lecturer in Sheep Production, Lyons Farm, University College Dublin. @Pallastb

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