The number of lambs sold per ewe to the ram is a key driver of profitability of a sheep enterprise.
Over the years, many farmers have introduced more prolific maternal breeds, to increase litter size.
When scanned litter size creeps over 2.0, a significant percentage of ewes are carrying three or more lambs.
At the recent Teagasc National Lowland Sheep Conferences, Michael Gottstein, head of Teagasc sheep knowledge transfer programme, gave an excellent presentation on strategies for dealing with surplus lambs.
The following is a summary of the options outlined in his presentation.
The immediate priority for ewes carrying three or more lambs is an appropriate feeding regime to ensure that lamb birth weight approaching 4kg each is achieved.
Smaller, weak lambs, particularly in multiples, will lead to higher mortality levels.
In practice, supplementary meal feeding of triplet or quad-bearing ewes should commence 8-10 weeks before expected lambing dates.
Depending on ewe body condition and the quality of forage available, the level should rise to around 1kg per head per day (split into two feeds) in the weeks before lambing.
As with all newborn lambs, the target is to get 20% of the lamb’s bodyweight as colostrum into him during the first 24 hours of life.
This is not just a source of nutrition, but also supplies the immune system with antibodies for the newborn to fight infection.
In many cases, suckling the mother will be able to provide this for the first 24 hours, but supplement if necessary.
So what then? A ewe with a single to foster one of the lambs is the best option.
Easier said than done, I hear you say. Some form of what’s known as wet fostering seems to work best.
In bigger flocks, you probably won’t be waiting long for a single. Ideally, you should assist the ewe, so that the lambing fluids can be collected in a strategically placed plastic bag.
The foster lamb should then be washed in warm water, and both lambs immersed in the lambing fluids.
Tie the legs of the foster lamb before presenting both to the foster ewe.
He can be released after 1015 minutes, by which time the foster ewe has hopefully been licking and bonding with both lambs.
Some ewes will be able to rear three lambs, but will require supplementary feeding of both the ewe and lamb.
Most flocks will still end up with some pet lambs. The higher the expected litter size, the more significant the numbers are likely to be.
For these lambs, the option is to either sell them or rear them artificially. Small numbers are generally bottle- reared, which is labour-intensive, at an average of four feeds per day for five weeks.
It may appeal to younger family members.
Where bigger numbers are dealt with, there is the option of simple adlib milk feeders that keep the milk replacer at a constant temperature.
Michael Gottstein’s presentation costed artificial and other finishing systems.
n Ad lib milk replacer for five weeks and creep to about 10 weeks, turning out to grass at eight weeks: cost €53/lamb;
n Ad lib milk replacer for five weeks and creep to finish indoors intensively, cost €70;
n Where lambs could be reared successfully as triplets on the ewe, even allowing for meal input to the ewe and all three lambs, it was substantially cheaper, €28 per lamb.
If you opt to artificially rear your lambs, ensure a high level of animal and feed management is maintained, and bear the following in mind.
n Remove lambs from the dam at 24-48 hours old, and train them on bottle or feeder;
n Maintain good hygiene in pens and feeding equipment;
n Group according to size and age;
n Reducing the milk temperature as lambs get older helps avoid overfeeding in ad-lib systems;
n Wean abruptly at five weeks, aim to have lambs eating 250g creep/head/day, and weighing at least 2.5 times their birth weight.
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