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Calving and lambing during COVID-19

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Calving and lambing time presents its own challenges each year. However, this year has brought its own unique set of circumstances with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in March.

Graeme Campbell, Senior Beef and Sheep Technologist at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) said: “In a very short space of time, everyone had to come to terms with the social distancing concept and our normal daily routine very quickly had to change.”

“Throughout this emergency, lambing and calving duties have continued at CAFRE’s Hill Farm Centre. Work processes have had to change ensuring that the Covid-19 guidelines in the workplace are fully adhered to ensuring social distancing, personal hygiene and that the PPE and sanitising essentials are all used effectively.”

Lambing Update

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Fortunately, weather conditions have been excellent since mid-March, allowing ewes and lambs to be turned out to grass shortly after lambing. However, due to the lack of rainfall and low night-time temperatures, grass covers are relatively low at present.

Graeme continued: “The main focus at the CAFRE Hill Farm Centre is the integration of the livestock enterprises and environmental management. The farm is partially situated within the Antrim Hills Special Protection Area (SPA) for hen harrier and merlin.”

“The Hill Farm Centre has the capacity to run up to 1,100 breeding ewes producing ewe lamb replacements, store and finished lambs. The majority of lambs are finished at the CAFRE Dairy Centre, with a small proportion sold as store lambs.”

“The stratified sheep breeding programme consists of a hill flock of pure Blackface ewes and an upland flock of Texel/Blackface crossbred ewes. A number of Blackface ewes are crossed to Swaledale to introduce hybrid vigour. The upland/crossbred flock is crossed with Texel, Meatlinc or Lleyn.”

Lambing at CAFRE’s Hill Farm started on March 18, with just under 950 ewes lambed to date. Lambing has gone very well this year with a current lambing percentage of 171 per cent on what has lambed.

“All lamb birth weights are recorded through the Shearwell system to help monitor growth rates and performance throughout the year and to help select the best-performing animals to be retained as breeding stock.”

“Vaccinations against clostridial diseases and pasteurella are due to commence shortly. Some concentrate feeding is currently taking place due to grass availability,” Graeme added.

Calving Update

In addition to the sheep enterprise, there are 110 spring calving suckler cows at the Hill Farm Centre.

The three-way breed programme consists of Angus, Shorthorn and Limousin cows crossed to Shorthorn, Limousin and Angus sires. All calves are moved to the CAFRE Beef and Sheep Centre, Abbey Farm at weaning where the replacement heifers are synchronised and fixed time AI’d before returning to the Hill Farm Centre for calving at approximately 24 months.

Graeme Campbell said: “Calving started in mid-April with 75 cows calved so far and is likely to be completed by early June. The breeding period lasts for nine weeks with a calving interval of 370 days.

“All calves are weighed at birth with all weights recorded on the Farmplan system in order to ensure enterprise targets are fully met. Calving ease score, cow temperament score, udder score and teat score are all recorded for each cow.

“Cows and calves are getting turned out within a few days of calving although as grass supplies are scarce supplementary silage feeding may have to be introduced in the near future.”

Educational Role

The Hill Farm Centre plays a key role through providing resource for the delivery of CAFRE education, training and Knowledge Technology Transfer (KTT) programmes to students, farmers and landowners. It is used extensively to demonstrate, profitable and sustainable livestock production while simultaneously seeking to improve habitat condition.

Students on the Foundation degree in Agriculture and Technology course and the BSc (Hons) Agriculture Technology course, jointly delivered with Queen’s University Belfast, UPLANDS (Uniting the Production of Livestock and Nature Development for Sustainability) project are closely involved with the husbandry and management of the CAFRE Hill Farm Centre.

On a normal year, these students gain valuable experience at lambing and calving time but sadly due to the current pandemic this could not happen in 2020.

However, a few students on the Level 3 Extended Diploma in Agriculture course who live locally to the Hill Farm Centre were able to assist and gained great experience from the opportunity.

The Hill Farm Centre staff and students have worked extremely hard throughout the pandemic to ensure all calving and lambing needs were fully adhered to.

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