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Time to get a handle on condition

Condition score is very much a hands on assessment of ‘fatness’ or more appropriately the level of body reserves in the form of muscle and adipose tissue deposited on an animal. Ciaran Lynch, Teagasc Sheep Specialist discusses using this tool to improve flock productivity, health and labour input

Condition score is one of the easiest management tools available to improve flock productivity, flock health and reduce labour input during the season. However in some cases it’s not utilised to best advantage many flocks mainly due to a delay in assessing individuals with a flock and taking remedial action. With ewes weaned and dried off at this point in the season it’s an ideal opportunity for mid-season lambing flocks to assess and make any interventions necessary to address condition at an early stage as the daily live weight gain require to shift condition is lower and grass quality and its potential to deliver the gains required declines as the season progresses.

How to Condition Score Sheep

Condition score is very much a hands on assessment of ‘fatness’ or more appropriately the level of body reserves in the form of muscle and adipose tissue deposited on an animal. We use a scale from 0 to 5 (emaciated to over fat) in 1 unit intervals with more experienced operators subdividing this into 0.25 or 0.5 increments to categorise sheep’s. On this scale one unit in condition equates to approximately 12 to 15% of ewe body weight. So if we take a typical lowland mature ewe weighting of 80 kg a 1 unit of condition equates to approximately 10 kg – now consider how long it will take to put this weight on if required. 

The process itself is very straight forward. Condition score is assessed by handling the ewe along the top and side of the back bone in the loin area immediately behind the last rib and above the kidneys.

  • Feel the degree of sharpness or roundness spinous processes using the finger tips.
  • Feel the tips of the transverse processes using finger pressure for sharpness or roundness
  • Press the fingers into the area between the spinous and transverse processes to determine the eye muscle and fat cover.

The Process

The majority of ewes in Irish flocks will fall somewhere between a condition score of 2 to 4. When handling the ewes these scores can be described as follows: 

Score 2: Prominent spinous processes with little cover on the transverse processes which can be felt with slight pressure, the loin will only have a moderate cover

Score 3.  Both the spinous and transverse processes are smooth and rounded and it is necessary to apply slight pressure to detect the ends, the loin feels fuller.

Score 4: The spinous processes are practically undetectable and feel like a hard line. The transverse processes cannot be detected. The loin is full with a good fat cover. 

For lowland ewes the aim is to have them in a condition score of 3.5 by joining with the ram.

Therefore, from a management perspective it’s important to assess the whole flock and identify (spray can mark) the thin (e.g. score of 2.5) from the fit ewes (e.g. score of 3 or more) now and manage them separately. Even for flocks that maintain a good average condition there will always be a cohort of thinner ewes.  It’s always a good idea to deal with any health issues that may impair performance lameness etc. and re-check for problems when assessing ewes in particular mouths as this will limit their ability to regain condition.

The thinner ewes will need to be managed on high quality grass similar to that of finishing lambs. Grazing them alongside the replacement or finishing ewe lambs either is a simple way to achieve this. Remember the potential of a ewe to hit the target will depend on the starting point and how long an interval is left to rams being joined.

If we take the earlier example of an 80 kg ewe, a one unit change in condition is equivalent to that ewe putting on 10 to 12 kg in live weight. 

With good management ewes can gain 1 to 1.5 kg per week depending on grass quality. For early March lambing flocks there is 8 to 9 weeks left until the ram’s turnout. The level of performance in terms of weight gain needed to achieve this either now or at the start of September to improve condition is outlined in Table 1. Addressing the issue now means in order for that ewe to put on 1 unit in condition they will need to gain 1.5 kg per week, which is an achievable on good grass.

Not addressing the issue for another month means the at ewe will need to gain 2.5 kg a week to achieve the same condition score – with this shorter time frame and declining grass quality it will be difficult to achieve and will likely fall short.

In short the earlier you start the easier it is to address issues with ewe condition. Most of these thinner ewes can be re-joined with the main ewe flock in the final weeks prior to joining once they have pulled up in condition and as the main batch gets access to better pasture. 

Should ewes that failed to pull up in condition be retained?

These ewes nearly always remain in poor condition that season, scan poorly, present with problems at lambing, underperform rearing lambs and turn up again in poor condition the following autumn. As indicated earlier it was suggested that the thin ewes should be marked (spray marker etc.) when there being assessed and drafted to make them more obvious for re-assessment prior to ram turnout. Those that fail to substantially improve should be seriously considered for culling as they may have underlying/undiagnosed health issues and will struggle for the remainder of the season.

Flocks that struggle with ewe condition tend to enter a vicious cycle as it impairs performance the following year. Often they may only require a few basic changes to management to address the issue, seek advice where needed of either your Adviser and or Veterinarian or to address some of these issues and improve overall productivity.

You might like to read further information on this topic at Ewe Body Condition Impacts Weaning Rate (PDF)

The Teagasc Sheep Specialists  and advisors issue an article on a topic of interest to sheep farmers on Tuesdays here on Teagasc Daily.  Find more on Teagasc Sheep here. Contact your local Teagasc advisor here: Advisory Regions