Colm Murray, Business & Technology Advisor – Drystock at Teagasc, discusses preparing for the sheep breeding season.
TF: When should sheep farmers begin preparing for the breeding season?
CM: “Fail to prepare, and be prepared to fail.” This is a true saying, but never more true when it comes to sheep farming.
If farmers fail to prepare, they can run into problems, impacting litter size and increasing workload.
Failure to prepare adequately could have a negative impact on the farm’s profitability.
If preparation does not occur, problem ewes will go to the ram for another breeding season. Thin ewes will go to the ram, and the litter size will be affected.
Farmers should start preparing for the breeding season 8 to 10 weeks before the rams go to the ewes.
On many farms, the breeding season has already started. Once ewes are dried off after weaning, they can be assessed to find out whether they are suitable for the next breeding season.
Sheep breeding season
TF: Why should farmers assess their flock?
CM: Farmers should assess their flock after weaning once they have dried off ewes. They should assess the flock to pick out problem ewes. Furthermore, they should assess ewes with problems and poor Body Condition Score (BCS) for culling.
Body Condition Score (BCS)
- Ewes should have a BCS of at least 3.5 before mating. Ewes should be fit, not fat.
- A ewe with a BSC of 2.5, will take approximately 10 weeks of good quality grass to get to a body condition of 3.5;
- Prioritise ewes with a poor BCS and draft to a separate bunch to give them a chance to improve. An option here could also be to put the thin ewes in with ewe lambs.
Assess ewe’s mouths and cull ewes. Also, cull ewes with overshot or undershot (hog mouths).
Farmers need to inspect ewe’s feet if they are lame, and treat any scalds or footrot. If treated ewes are not recovering, cull them.
Also, cull ewes that have prolapsed in the past.
Assess ewes need for pendulous udders (hanging udders) and cull.
Examine udders for lumps or lesions, and cull if there are any problems. Ewes with blind teats previously need to be segregated. Ewes who had mastitis in previous lambing seasons need to be excluded.
Rams are half your flock, and a ram that fails to impregnate your ewes can be very costly. Ram infertility or sub infertility is quite common.
In many cases, the problem goes unnoticed until scanning time, when the result shows a high percentage of barren ewes and a low litter size.
Using raddle on your rams will help to identify infertility early, allowing you to take action before it is too late. Rams should be raddled, and colour changed at least every 14 days.
Start with lighter colours (yellow → orange →green → red → blue → black) and change the colour every 14 days. If lots of ewes start repeating, suspect that there is a problem with the rams.
Like the ewes, the rams also need to be examined for their body condition score (BCS). Rams ideally need to have a BCS of 4: fit, not fat.
If a ram is thin, farmers need to investigate the reason. Is it due to disease, age, lameness or teeth?
It is critical that a ram’s BCS is good as he can lose up to 15% of his body condition during a mating season of 6 weeks.
It can take up to eight weeks for a ram to build his BCS up to the optimum for the breeding season.
It is important to ensure that the ram’s feet are in good order, with no evidence of previous sores. Make sure that each ram is walking correctly.
Check the ram’s brisket for sores, as this could indicate excessive lying from lameness.
Any rams tending to lay down much of the time need to be investigated and diagnosed.
As with ewes, rams with mouth problems or overshot or undershot mouths need to be culled.
Check reproductive organs for infection or damage from shearing. Testicles should be evenly sized, move freely within the scrotum and not have any lumps. The ram to ewe ratio is 1: 40 for a mature ram and 1: 25 for a ram lamb.
TF: How have sheep prices been fairing out this year?
CM: Sheep prices this year are very positive due to the tight small supply. Good prices at the end of 2020 have helped and improved the trade because fewer hoggets were carried over to 2021.
Fewer lambs and hoggets coming from Northern Ireland has also made supply tighter and improved markets. Strong prices during the year encouraged farmers to sell lambs quicker and earlier than in previous years.
Production and availability in the UK are reduced, thus allowing more room in the EU market for our Irish lamb.
Much of the lamb and sheepmeat imported into the EU from New Zealand is being redirected into China. This gives a good opportunity for the Irish lamb market to grow and exports to increase to the EU.
Further reading on sheep breeding
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