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Part 1: Making the most of your Sheep Improvement Scheme tasks

Just over 19,000 of the 36,000 sheep farmers in Ireland have applied to join the Sheep Improvement Scheme. Michael Gottstein, Head of Sheep Knowledge Transfer, Teagasc Macroom, discusses the Category A tasks.

As part of the scheme, farmers will have been asked to choose two tasks from a menu of options and each participant will also be required to purchase either one or two (depending on flock size) performance recorded and genotyped rams (lowland flocks) or a sire-verified, genotyped hill ram (hill flocks) during the life time of the scheme. From the point of view of the scheme, simply complying with the chosen tasks will ensure payment; however farmers should plan tasks carefully to ensure they get the best possible benefit from the chosen task.

Each flock owner was required to select one Category A task:

  • Lameness control (lowland flocks only);
  • Mineral supplementation of ewes post mating;
  • Meal feeding lambs post weaning (hill flocks only);
  • Parasite control (Faecal Egg Count).

Lameness control (lowland flocks only)

The target for each flock should initially be to get lameness levels below 5%. Lameness causes sheep pain and reduces animal performance. Reducing the incidence of lameness will pay dividends in terms of higher lamb growth rates, better ewe body condition and will reduce the labour and cost associated with catching and treating lame sheep. As part of the scheme, participants must gather sheep on five occasions and treat lame sheep. To get the most out of this task, any lame sheep should be separated from the flock and managed as a separate flock until all lameness issues have been resolved. This helps to prevent further spread within the flock. When lameness levels within the flock have be brought down to a low level, serious consideration should be given to operating a ‘two or three strikes and your out’ system for culling sheep that are repeat offenders.

Mineral supplementation post mating

The aim of this task is supplement ewes with minerals for the first 60 days of the breeding season. From a practical point of view, unless there is a specific production limiting mineral deficiency on the farm, the main mineral to target here is cobalt. Cobalt is not stored in the body so should be given frequently.  

Meal feeding lambs post weaning (hill flocks only)

The purpose of this task is to encourage hill flocks to feed lambs post weaning and prior to sale. Getting lambs trained onto concentrate feed is useful as lambs will be accustomed to hard feed when being finished on concentrate based diets at a later date. Opt for a concentrate feed that is highly palatable and contains high quality ingredients to maximise intake and animal performance.

Faecal egg count (lambs)

For lowland flocks, this tasks involves taking two faecal samples from lambs between June 1st and September 30th. This task can be used to assess when lambs need to be treated for worms (on two separate occasions) or alternatively it can be used to assess the efficacy of the wormer products on your holding. Assessing the efficacy of wormers is important given that we have widespread anthelmintic resistance to wormers on Irish sheep farms. Checking wormer efficacy involves taking an initial sample to determine the egg count and then taking a second sample either seven days (if treating lambs with levamisole-based wormer) or 14 days later (for all other wormers) to see if the egg count has been reduced by 95%.

For hill flocks this task involves taking a single faecal sample within four weeks post weaning. For lambs that have been grazing on lowland pastures, weaning time is a good time to opt for this as many flock owners habitually treat lambs for worms at weaning time. For lambs coming down off the hill for weaning, delaying this task for three or four weeks is best as lambs coming off the hill generally have very low worm burdens.

In the next article, Michael Gottstein will cover the Category B tasks and the ram task.