Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Why this sheep farmer won't be splashing his cash on pampered 'fashion show' rams

John Fagan

John Fagan

It's the time of year when the focus begins to switch towards lambing 2018. It's time to get your sheep in shape for the breeding season and keeping the basics right generally leads to a successful lambing season.

If you haven't already condition-scored your sheep you need to do so immediately and place the thinner ewes on better grass and send the heavier ladies to Weight Watchers.

I cull ewes based on age, condition, lameness and mastitis. You need to be ruthless about culling.

It's always the problem sheep that cost the most and it is generally in time and labour that they are most costly, so get rid of them.

The rams make up 50pc of the flock and often they get the raw end of the stick in terms of time and labour but they are obviously hugely important.

The fertility of a ram can be mostly judged from a visual assessment. Good feet, condition and testicles are essentially what you are looking for in a ram.

A lame ram, particularly in his hind legs, is of little or no use. I foot bath them regularly, treat them for lameness and give them a little bit of meal daily in the run up to the breeding season.

This generally gets them ready to roll but I try not to over pamper them and if any of them require too much attention they are culled.

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I never buy rams at a breeding sale. I buy them from pedigree breeders who have been recommended to me over the years.

I hate sales or sheep fashion shows as I call them. You see lads out with polish, hair brushes, hair driers, fluffers and what not and yes I admire them for their enthusiasm, care and pride in their stock, but I have to ask myself the question: is all of this pampering really relevant to what I need as a sheep farmer?

Every sheep farmer I know can tell you the story of the prized ram bought for big money only to see him melt into nothing on return to the real world of sheep farming. They are sometimes pampered to the extent that they cannot cope in the real world. It's a point that is often missed when we talk about breeding sheep.

I would generally recommend farmers also to buy hogget rams rather than ram lambs. In New Zealand it's generally unheard of to breed with ram lambs in the first year as they are not able for the task and need time to grow and maintain their development.

In Ireland the sales are structured towards ram lambs and it is generally unusual to purchase hogget rams.

The breeders I deal with only sell hoggets that have little or no pampering and therefore I get better value for money as they don't deteriorate and are capable of carrying out their task.

Another thing that I find intriguing about pedigree sheep in Ireland is that we are recommended to run one ram per 30 or 40 ewes.

In New Zealand, the ram to ewe ratio is generally 1:80 to 1:100. This is where we should be aiming to be - if we bred rams with this ratio in mind would we not ultimately be breeding better sheep?

Lamb trade

The lamb trade is holding up well, and another Muslim festival is imminent. My ram lambs are all on meal and I should have them ready in the next two weeks. I haven't really looked at my ewe lambs but I intend to select whatever ones I want for breeding and sell the rest.

For the last couple of years I've been vaccinating my replacement ewe lambs for toxo and enzootic abortion. It's something that has cropped up in the flock over the last number of years so it's important to deal with it.

I have found that my scanning rate is generally quite good but this is not being reflected with lambs on the ground.

What I have found is that ewes that scanned in lamb were generally barren by the end of the lambing season indicating abortion or perhaps reabsorption of the lamb foetus post scanning.

This is symptomatic of enzootic abortion so vaccinating my replacement ewe lambs for this should result in more lambs on the ground.

I'll make my annual pilgrimage to Ballinrobe Co Mayo to pick up some quality mule replacement ewe lambs.

The sheep breeders do a good job on the ewes and you could do worse things than buy a few Mayo Mules. I like them because of their mothering abilities, prolificacy and milkiness.

What they lack in conformation can be easily catered for by crossing with a Suffolk or Texel - the only problem I have is that they cost me a fortune.

John Fagan farms in Gartlandstown, Co Westmeath

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