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Important to keep a close eye on ewe body condition from now until housing.

Tom Coll Drystock Advisor, reports from the farm of Sheep farmer, Sean Conway, near Ballymote, Co Sligo, as he reflects on the 2020 lamb performance and the experience gained from the previous year's mating. They discussed grassland management, silage results and ewe profitability in early November

Rams were introduced to the ewes and ewe lambs on the 17th of Oct as in previous years. 40 ewe lambs were retained this year with the best, and heaviest 30 mated to a Charollais ram. Sean operates a single-sire mating system for the first cycle, with preselected ewes mated to a Belclare ram to breed his own replacements. Last year an issue arose with an infertile ram that was detected when a high number of repeats were seen from day 17 to day 20 after the introduction of the ram. “Last year’s experience probably makes me a bit more paranoid and I am keeping a really close eye on things especially around now as the rams have been in for 16 days” says Sean. He changes the raddle colour every seven days to pick up repeats and for ewe housing, feeding and lambing management later on.

Grassland management

“Grassland management over the last month has been really challenging to say the least. The high rainfall and poor under foot conditions has resulted in a lot of grass soiling and utilisation is a struggle” according to Sean. The contract reared heifers have been housed since mid-October. They have been penned in 4 batches according to their weight. “The lightest batch will receive concentrates until I weigh and review again in 2 weeks time”. The ewes were all in good body condition going to the ram all at BCS 3.5-4 . They were allocated 2 to 3 day grazings depending on the weather and may have been moved out of paddocks earlier due to soiling of the grass. Sean ensures that especially in the first few weeks of breeding that ewes are not forced to eat trampled/soiled grass by moving them on to fresh grass that bit quicker if needs be. Ensuring that ewes are not all of a sudden going from a high to a low plane of nutrition, even for a short period in the early stages of pregnancy, will reduce embryonic loss and result in higher litter size and a more compact lambing. “To date I have 50pc of the farm closed for the ewes and heifers for next spring. The first paddock was closed on the 10th of October”. It is important to note that most of the grass that will be available for grazing next spring will probably be grown over the next 6 weeks. Under no circumstances should Sean re-graze these fields. Sean may however feel the need to let ewes back on paddocks grazed in the next few weeks, especially if he does not get a good clean outs initially. Some paddocks may freshen up after a few days post grazing and provided they are re-grazed within a few days and then closed this should not have a huge effect on grass supply in the spring. It will improve the quality of the grass available next spring when compared to leaving a large but of trodden grass that will die off over the winter period. These paddocks are not part of the 50pc that is already closed. If conditions deteriorate even further Sean may have to make the decision to house the ewes earlier than normal. If this decision is not made in time ewes can lose considerable body condition over a relatively short time period which is much more difficult to correct pre lambing.

Silage Quality

The decision to house will not be an issue for Sean as he has an adequate supply of high quality silage in stock for the coming winter. Silage made this year ranges in quality from 70.2 to 76.3 DMD. There is sufficient bales at 76.3 DMD at 45.5 pc dry matter and 12.8 pc protein to meet ewe requirements. The majority of the remaining silage is 74.9 DMD, 46.6 pc dry matter and 12pc protein and will be fed to the contract reared heifers.

Ewe productivity and Lamb performance

This year mature ewes weaned 1.93 lambs per ewe put to the ram and ewe lambs weaned 1.05 lambs per ewe lamb that lambed down. The majority of lambs were primarily finished off grass. The concentrates fed to lambs this year amounted to €3.25 per lamb weaned. In my opinion this figure is a better measurement of the grass contribution to the overall lamb diet than the figure we normally use ie concentrates fed per ewe including lambs. This figure is does not make the distinction when you compare the farmer weaning 1.25 and Sean weaning 1.93 on a per lamb weaned basis. The cumulative lamb drafting pattern excluding replacements is outlined in table 1 below.

Table 1 Cumulative monthly drafting pattern

99 % of lambs have been sold to date. Lambs were slaughtered through the Sligo/Leitrim quality lamb producer group at the ICM plant in Navan with exception of ewe lambs sold for breeding. Table 2 shows how the lambs graded and the average factory price, which for this year averaged €5.27 per Kg.  92% of the lambs were in the desired fat class 3. U grade lambs made a marginally higher price than R grades mainly as a result of better kill out percentage.

Table 2 Factory Lamb slaughter data

When selecting lambs for sale Sean weighs at a similar time each week to reduce the effect that gut fill can have on kill out percentage. When ewe-lamb sales are taken into account the overall average lamb price was €110.

Ewe profitability is largely influenced by the number of lambs weaned per ewe, lamb price and controlling costs especially variable costs. Sean sets himself a target of 160:80:80 €160 output per ewe with €80 variable costs to leave a gross margin of €80 per ewe to cover fixed costs and leave a positive net margin. This year Sean’s output per ewe should well exceed the €160 target as the cull ewe price of €108.5 almost matches the overall average lamb price. He has also kept a close eye on fertiliser and concentrate inputs in an attempt to grow enough grass to match his overall farm stocking rate requirement at 1.4 LU/ha.

Sean Conway (pictured above) farms at Coondrihara, Lavagh, Ballymote at the foot of Knocknashee in Co Sligo. Sean ran a dairy farm up to 16 years ago but changed from dairying to contract rearing and sheep. One reason for this was the heavy soil type on the farm. Sean is a founder member of the Sligo/Leitrim Lamb Producer Group who are currently sending lambs to Irish Country Meats in Navan. He is also a member of a sheep discussion group.