Worlds apart - the radical approach to lamb rearing in New Zealand
Tommy Boland reports from the North Island of New Zealand on a radically different approach to lamb rearing
Lambing in New Zealand is a very different proposition to what I am familiar with.
The scale can be hard to comprehend, as is the system, which in most instances is completely outdoors, with minimal supplementary feeding other than grass/herbage.
As with any process or system, you can only learn so much about it through research, and it's not until you see things up close and experience them first hand that you get a real understanding of how its done.
Some commentary would have us believe that sheep farming in New Zealand is a homogenous industry, with all farms achieving a standard level of output from a single production system.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In a country with such variation in climate and topography, it's inevitable that systems will differ.
Just this week there was a large fall of snow on the South Island, but many farmers have not started lambing. Yet on the North Island where I am based on this trip, lambing is quite advanced.
The same variations occur in litter size, ewe condition in late pregnancy and grass supply at lambing.
These differences are a function of both management and of climate.
Just as in Ireland, there are farmers who embrace triplets and those who would rather not see them.
One such farm where triplets are embraced is a commercial farming enterprise with approximately 5,000 triplet-bearing ewes to manage across a number of properties - 1,800 of these on a single farm.
These triplets are all lambing outdoors without concentrate supplementation in late pregnancy. In most cases the ewes are expected to rear (or attempt to rear) all three lambs.
This farm has a low-cost triplet-rearing shed where lambs which are really struggling outdoors are taken inside and artificially reared.
With about 80pc of the ewes lambed, there were approximately 100 lambs in the shed.
This triplet farm was one of the first farms I visited when I arrived in New Zealand.
Three of us did a farm walk to measure pasture mass; to give some idea of the scale of the operation: I walked 11km just to cover one third of the lambing fields.
It was also one of the wettest grass farms I have ever set foot on, and there was genuine concern among the farm staff about the 1,800 ewes that were about to lamb.
When we returned three weeks later, conditions had improved substantially, with hundreds of ewes rearing three lambs in the paddocks.
There were lots of ewes with twins and singles also, and some wet-dry ewes, ewes which lost all lambs.
The lamb mortality percentages will be calculated at docking, with the hope that ewes will have a docking percentage of 230pc on this farm (2.3 lambs per ewe).
Ewes are set-stocked for lambing, and one of the big challenges is to have sufficient feed available at the beginning of the lambing period to carry ewes right through, thus avoiding the need to move ewes with very young lambs at foot.
It goes without saying that when lambing ewes at this scale, there will be a lot of lambs lost.
A recent article in the mainstream press here reported 100,000 lambs being lost as a result of spring storms.
If we take the above farm, with a mortality rate of 23pc for the triplet lambs, they will lose approximately 1,250 lambs over the season.
Agriculture in New Zealand seems to be coming in for a lot more criticism from the general public than it was the last time I visited, or maybe this criticism is now just more readily facilitated due to social media.
Farmer organisations, though, are engaging with the public to explain why suggestions of housing all ewes, or moving ewes and very young lambs to shelter, are not practical options given the scale of enterprise here.
Disposal of these dead lambs is also very different to Ireland, with what's called 'dead-hole' the destination on each individual farm.
The big challenges before lambing from what I have experienced so far are ewes being cast (on their back), bearings (prolapse) and weather, both from a feed and a lambing condition outlook.
There are lots of suggestions but no solid conclusions as to what causes prolapse and how to prevent it.
The lack of supplementation pre-lambing, and lack of intervention around lambing time are the two major differences from my own experience.
I have been lucky enough to participate in lambing beats on both commercial and research farms which are very much a hands-off process.
Assisting a ewe lambing is a rare event from my experience here, with the majority of ewes lambing unassisted.
Twin lamb birth weights from a grass-only diet (or herb/clover swards) are comfortable in the 5-6 kg region.
Mothering ability is very apparent in the ewes, though you need to be careful not to upset this in the early stages after lambing.
There is a lot of interest here among sheep and beef farmers in alternative grazing forages, with plantain and Lucerne being in focus at the moment.
Plantain is generally sown in combination with clover, and there are some limited herbicide options to control both grass and weeds in these swards, while Lucerne is sown as a monoculture.
While some aspects of this could be adopted/adapted in Ireland, there are others which won't be suitable.
There are certainly lessons to be learned.
But equally important is the message that in Ireland we cannot simply directly replicate the New Zealand system from either a scale, climate or regulation point of view.
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