Plenty to keep sheep farmers busy

It’s the busiest time of year on sheep farms. Denis Lehane finds out how the lambing season went

FOR dairy or suckler farmers, the introduction of the calving camera has made a huge difference in easing the workload at calving time.

A good calving camera can save a farmer time and energy. However, there is no such luxury at lambing time for the sheep farmer.

Because of the unpredictability of the ewe — she can lamb very quickly, and also because of the sheer number of breeding ewes that most sheep farmers carry — the only cameras that the sheep farmer can really count on are the two fixed to his or her head.

Lambing time is very hands-on and modern technology has yet to assist the sheep farmer in any major way, as it does in other farming enterprises.

The six to eight-week typical lowland lambing season usually comprises of constant toil.

Sean and Colette Dennehy from Shandangan, Carrigadrohid, Co Cork, farm 300 acres of mostly rented land in the Lee Valley. They have three children Nicola 13, Laura 10 and Robert 7.

About 150 ewes lamb every week in the busy season on their farm.

The late Jerry Dennehy, Sean’s father, started farming here in 1966, and since then sheep have nearly always been part of the system.

Helping Sean this year with the lambing are farm worker Alastair Wilson and Clonakilty Agricultural College student Denis O’Sullivan from Kenmare.

Also, veterinary students from UCD spend some time on the farm each year during the lambing season, getting first-hand knowledge of the work.

Lambing began on Mar 1, and was well under way when I talked to Sean about the work. I first asked him about the sheep breed they have on the farm.

“In 1984, we first started breeding sheep, and over time, the breeds and systems have evolved,” Sean explains.

“These days, our flock consists mainly of Belclare cross ewes (the Belclare breed was developed by Irish scientists), and some Suffolk cross ewes.”

“We are very pleased with the Belclare cross, they are very prolific — this year they scanned an average of 1.8 lambs per ewe. Other years, they have scanned even higher, up to 1.98. This of course gives rise to a higher proportion of triplets which, while this is welcome, considerably raises the workload.

“Belclares are nice quiet ewes, they are good mothers, and have a good supply of milk.

“The Belclares we keep are crossed with Suffolk and Texel rams. The Suffolk ewe lambs are retained as replacements to be crossed back to the Belclares as two-year-olds, in order to keep a closed flock and maintain Suffolk blood lines in the flock.

Suffolks are renowned for their weight gain and ability to reach maturity quickly.

“We try to breed replacements from ewes who have consistently brought twins and have good size, and have no undesirable breeding traits.

“The Texel ewe lambs are sold as breeding replacement stock to other farmers, and the feedback from these farmers has been very good.”

“Farmers are finding them well conformed, prolific, clean and very good mothers, combining the best traits of both the Belclare and the Texel.

“All surplus ewe lambs and castrated male lambs are sold to three local craft butchers, Michael Twomey in Macroom, Donal Lordan in Ballinspittle and Ó Crualaoí butchers in Ballincollig.

“These shops are an important market for our lambs, and I personally like the idea of selling my lambs locally so that the local consumers can sample what is being produced right here in the Lee Valley area.

“Also, I feel by selling our lambs locally we are giving the local economy a boost. I think this is very important in these times when there is such an emphasis placed on supporting home grown businesses.

“Irish lamb, in my eyes, is the best lamb in the world.”

But before the butcher gets his hands on the lambs the lambs have to be born. I asked Sean how lambing went this year.

The weather can have a major bearing on a successful lambing season, and up to the first week of April it could not have been better.

March, a busy month on sheep farms, was extremely mild this year. Met Éireann summarised March as being a record breaker, with mainly warm, dry and sunny weather everywhere.

This exceptional weather made the lambing a lot easier.

“Yes indeed, the weather was excellent, which meant that ewes and lambs were able to go out and, in effect, stay out. There were less problems outside with weak lambs. Good weather makes the lambing job a thousand times easier.”

However, the weather isn’t the only important element in having a successful lambing season, the ewe too needs to be in tip-top order.

“In any given year, one of the most important tasks carried out pre-lambing is scanning the ewes. The ewes will then be fed according to litter size.

“Barren ewes are identified and re-scanned at a later date, and any barren ewes found at that second scanning are sold to the factory.

“Single ewes are fed on a restricted grass diet to regulate the size of the lamb. This makes lambing problems due to big single lambs less likely.

“Ewes having twins get a flat rate feed of half a kilo of concentrates, and grass ad-lib, in the last four weeks prior to lambing.

“As soon as lambing starts, provided grass supply is adequate, concentrate feeding for the twins stops. This, I find, settles the ewes, and allows them to find their own spot to lamb undisturbed.

“Triplets are housed at scanning and fed silage and concentrates. The week before lambing, these ewes will be on 1kg of concentrates per head per day, continuing right through until they have lambed. This results in a bigger, more viable lamb.

“Twins and singles are lambed outside and the triplets are lambed in the shed.

“The ewes lambing outside are checked every two to three hours.”

Sean finds his quad bike very beneficial at this time of the year. With the quad, the flock can be checked quickly, and problems identified faster. So what problems does he come across?

“Well, the main concern I would have before lambing would be ewes going on their backs, twin lamb disease and prolapse.

“Ewes having lambing difficulties are easily caught from the quad. If the lambs or ewes need a lot of attention, they are taken back to the shed in a small trailer behind the quad.

“After lambing, problems might include mastitis, sore teats, grass tetany, and so on.”

As if the sheep farmer doesn’t have enough to contend with, a visit from a hungry fox is always a possibility when lambs are about.

So overall, there is plenty of work to keep a sheep farmer busy, and his or her eyes well peeled over the lambing season.

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