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Monday 25 March 2019

Tommy Boland: It's all hands on deck for 10 days of intensive lambing

A ewe with two spring lambs gets caught in a snow shower in Drumphea Co Carlow on Sunday. Met Eireann are predicting cold, very unsettled and changeable weather through the rest of the week. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
A ewe with two spring lambs gets caught in a snow shower in Drumphea Co Carlow on Sunday. Met Eireann are predicting cold, very unsettled and changeable weather through the rest of the week. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Tommy Boland

Tommy Boland

The lambing starts in earnest today at UCD Lyons Farm. We operate a synchronised breeding program which results in a very intensive lambing period of approximately 10 days, with the repeat ewes lambing a couple of weeks later.

We offer 24-hour supervision in the lambing shed for six or seven days each year, depending on how lambing progresses. Michael Roynane will supervise the night shift with Stephen Lott and Ger Egan, supervising the day shift.

There is a large workload here compared to a commercial farm. There are three large scale research studies underway; about 40pc of the ewes are carrying triplets or more and a comprehensive data recording program is also underway with all lambs being EID tagged in the first 24 hours of life.

Our ewes are penned according to litter size, and the first job each morning is to feed concentrates to the ewes according to litter size. Over recent years a concerted effort was made to improve silage quality on the farm. This year the ewes are eating silage with an ME content of 11.2 MJ ME per kg DM and a crude protein content of just under 16pc.

This resulted in concentrate feeding for the twins only commencing three weeks prior to lambing. I have mentioned before, the high number of triplets in our flock.

These ewes are receiving 850 grams of a 21pc protein concentrate, in addition to the above grass silage. The big concern with triplet ewes, is that their silage intake drops in the last week to ten days of pregnancy, so we need to have adequate energy and protein going into them from the concentrate allowance.

So what does the typical day look like during lambing in Lyons?

As we offer 24-hour supervision, there is a change-over in personnel at 8am in the morning.

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Feeding is the first job to be attended to, bearing in mind as many as 50 ewes could have lambed in the previous 24 hours. Silage is offered ad lib, and then ewe numbers in each pen are counted, and concentrate allocations per pen are recalculated.

Space is frequently an issue, so the next task is to free up individual lambing pens. We have up to 80 lambing pens available to us, but these fill up quickly.

This is further complicated by the fact that all lambs receive an EID tag at approximately 12-18 hours of age.

Before any ewe is removed from an individual pen, her data and her lambs data are entered onto a hand held EID reader to be subsequently uploaded onto the TGM software.

This is a time consuming process, taking three to four hours on a busy morning, but from a research and flock management perspective is essential for our farm.

Data such as lambing time and date, lambing difficulty, lamb birth weight, gender and vigour are all recorded, plus if lambs are fostered to or from a ewe.

The value of spending this time on data collection, at the busiest time of the year is we can track lamb performance, and link it back to their dam, allowing us to identify our best, and perhaps more importantly poorest performing ewes in the flock.

Prior to removing lambs from the individual pens, they have their tails docked using a rubber ring and the males are castrated.

Lambs also receive a flank number corresponding to that of their ewe. Weather depending lambs will either be turned out to grass, or may be moved to a group pen for a day or two.

Tetany

As we do not offer concentrates to ewes and lambs after lambing, all ewes receive a magnesium bolus to reduce the risk of grass tetany. This is a time consuming exercise and care is needed not to damage the mouth and oesophagus when administering the bolus.

Once ewes and lambs are removed from the individual pens, the pens are limed and rebedded. We do not clean the straw from the pens between ewes.

As all this is taking place, ewes are continuing to lamb. And as we are a teaching farm too, our undergrad students are being trained in how to lamb ewes, look after new born lambs, stomach tube lambs, cross foster and many other techniques.

They are also shown the more subtle aspects of animal husbandry, such as the early signs of lambing, a ewe that is unwell, a hungry lamb or a sick lamb.

I think as farmers we can often take these things for granted, but they are considerable skills.

Growing up on a farm, you begin to learn them shortly after potty training is mastered, but for people coming from non-farming backgrounds it can take some time to become familiar with the various animal signals.

Twelve hours do not take long to pass dealing with the above and before long it's late in the evening, the next task is to ensure the night crew have enough pens to see them through until 8am.

Lambing with us, like everywhere, has its ups and downs, some years it goes well and other years you wonder why you do it. The secret to our success (if you can call it that) is there is a good team of good people who want to see a good outcome.

We do have a lot of help, but there are a lot of activities with our flock, that are not replicated elsewhere, not least 90 ewes being completely milked out by hand on three occasions and their lambs being subsequently stomach tubed!!

It's essential that everybody gets a break during lambing and this helps to make it a bit more tolerable.

The next month at Lyons will be focussed on successfully completing the lambing and the late pregnancy experiments and setting up our triplet rearing study and the flock in their grazing rotation for the remainder of the year.

Professor Tommy Boland is an associate professor in sheep production at Lyons Farm, University College Dublin. Twitter: @Pallastb Email: tommy.boland@ucd.ie

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