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Preparing Hill Ewes for the Breeding Season

To maximise the output & margins from a hill sheep enterprise the breeding season is most important. Research on the Teagasc BETTER farms hill sheep flocks has demonstrated that relatively high levels of production are achievable on hill sheep flocks. Researcher Frank Campion gives some information


One of the most important times in the cycle of a hill sheep production year is the breeding season. If the ewe flock is correctly manged at this time the output and margins from the enterprise can be maximised, however failing to manage ewes correctly prior to and at mating time can have effects that last all the way to the following autumn. Research carried out on the Teagasc BETTER farms hill sheep flocks has also demonstrated that relatively high levels of production are achievable on hill sheep flocks. However, in order to achieve this level of performance there are two key areas that need careful consideration at this time of year: ewe live weight and BCS at mating and options (if any) for crossbreeding.

Improving ewe output

In order to ensure ewes are of adequate live weight and BCS at mating, ewes most be assessed 8-10 weeks pre-ram turnout and corrective action taken where necessary to improve thin and underweight ewes. While this is far from a new concept, work carried out previously on the BETTER hill sheep farms has demonstrated how increasing ewe BCS at mating improved pregnancy rates by up to 10% (Figure 1). To put this in context per 100 ewes weaning 1.0 lamb per ewe joined, having ewes in BCS less than 2.5 can lead to a decrease of up to 10 lambs, which could equate to a loss of over €500 and higher depending lamb price and how lambs are sold.

 Figure 1. Pregnancy rate of ewes differing in condition score at joining on the BETTER farm hill flocks (Adopted from Lynch & Diskin, 2014)

Cross breeding

Improving pregnancy rates and ultimately weaning rates also opens up the options for cross breeding a proportion of the flock. While cross breeding is not a viable option for all producers for those who can it presents an opportunity to increase lamb sale value of the lamb the following autumn. As weaning rate increases the level of cross breeding that can be carried out on the flock can also increase without negatively impacting the number of replacement ewe lambs available.

An example of this comes from one of the Teagasc BETTER hill farm flocks running pure bred Lanark ewes. Over the course of three successive mating seasons the average BCS of the ewes was 3.1 while ewe live weight averaged 53 kg at mating. This helped the flock achieve pregnancy rates > 90% weaning rates between 1.1 to 1.2 lambs per ewe joined and meant the flock was comfortably able to crossbreed 25% of the hill flock. 

Ewe performance like this could potentially allow a flock to cross breed up to 52% of the ewes in the flock which would help increase weaning weights and the performance of lambs post-weaning. Cross bred ewe lambs bred from prolific rams are highly attractive to some low land producers and where lambs are well bred can obtain prices far in excess of a factory lamb. Niche marketing options like this, where viable, are vital to any sector but particularly the hill sector. There benefits from adopting this approach are as follows:

  • More saleable cross bred wether and ram lambs.
  • Heavier lambs (3-4 kg at weaning)
  • Improved selling price
  • Better performance during the finishing period
  • Prolific females available for lowland farms/sales

The potential for crossbreeding within each flock ultimately depends on the replacement requirement and for the most part is determined by the existing level of ewe and flock productivity. A guideline for the percentage of a flock that is required for producing replacements is outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Potential breeding strategies for hill flocks at different levels of output

Lambs reared per ewe joinedPure breeding (%)Crossbreeding (%)
0.80 66 34
0.85 62 38
0.95 56 44
1.00 53 47
1.05 50 50
1.10 48 52

Source: Adapted from Lynch 2012