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The crucial factors in lambing outdoors

TRIALS on outdoor lambing at the Teagasc Knockbeg sheep unit in Carlow have shown a 15-minute labour requirement per ewe lambed outdoors compared with a 50-minute labour requirement per ewe lambed indoors.

In terms of ewe productivity, the conventional lambing system and the outdoor all-year-round grazing system showed similar results with average ewes' lambing percentages over the last three years of 93.7pc for the outdoor system and 92.2 for the grazing/silage/housed system.

Sean Flanagan, Teagasc Knockbeg, said selecting appropriate breeds and a suitable lambing date are critical factors to the success of the outdoor operation.

The lambing date for the outdoor group is April 1. The 160 ewes that are lambed outdoors at Knockbeg are Belclare crosses mated with a Texel ram. These are prolific breeds and the average litter size over the last three years was 2.22 for the outdoor system and 2.15 for the conventional system. The lamb survivability rate is similar for both systems at 88pc for the conventional lambed group and 85pc for the outdoor group.

In terms of lamb output, the outdoor lambs had a significantly higher birth weight of 4.6kg when compared to 4.0kg for the lambs in the conventional system. Also, due to the lower stocking rate the lambs on the outdoor system finished at 148 days with a lamb carcase output/ha of 325 kg compared to a 165-day finishing period and have a lamb carcase output/ha of 325kg for lambs on the conventional lambing system. The ewes are block grazed in a 6-paddock grazing system at a stocking rate of 10 ewe/ha.

The positive side of the low stocking rate is surplus grass at certain times of the year such as late spring/early summer but there is also the threat of pressure on grass in the autumn time if it isn't budgeted properly.

"The aim is to manipulate the surplus grass for use at other times of the year, for example the winter," said Sean Flanagan. "The farmer must develop grazing management practices for an all year round system as a substitute for housing and silage. The block grazing here in Knockbeg is fed to the ewes at 1kg grass DM/ ewe/day. It's a simply blocking grazing system that involves running the ewes from one paddock into another each morning. This system could easily be expanded to 800-1000 ewes with just one labour unit required. Obviously extra help would be required at lambing."

The lambs are scanned at 80 days and two weeks prior to lambing the ewes are separated into three groups of ewes carrying singles, twins and triplets. They are then moved off the block grazing to three individual paddocks where they can be watched at lambing time. The ewes are lambed over a 27-28 day period.

Naturally, at lambing time, the triplets require the most attention. Post lambing the ewes are assessed to see if they have enough milk for three lambs. If there is insufficient milk, the third lamb is cross-fostered or reared artificially. In general, there are very few difficulties at lambing time and the outdoor ewes seem to be fitter and the lambs hardier than those indoors. From our experience if you leave both the ewe and the lamb alone after lambing they are generally fine. Of course there are always the few that will require assistance," Mr Flanagan said.

Supervision at lambing time is between the hours of 6.30am and 8.30pm. "There is no one going out at night with a torch to see if the ewes are lambing. They are left to themselves this time. Only a minority of lambs will lamb at night; the busiest lambing time is between 6.30am and 11am."

All ewes are handled immediately after lambing, to check their general health. The lambs are tagged and weighed and ewe and lambs are then moved to a new paddock.

"There are probably four essential aspects to successfully operating an outdoor lambing system; suitable lambing date, good spring grass supply, convenient sheltered paddock/field structure and appropriate breeds. A quad bike and a little trailer are also a necessity for moving the ewes and lambs post lambing. It would be impossible to move all the ewes and lambs by foot," he said.

Are there any problems with foxes, dogs or grey crows taking lambs in the fields? "We have an electric fence all around the paddocks so that keeps them at bay. Over the past three years we've only lost four lambs to the fox or grey crows."

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