Sheep farmers may be surprised when condition scoring ewes this autumn ready for tupping, as good grass growth means there are some fit ewes around, says independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings.

“Farmers putting ewes to the tup in September should have already condition scored at weaning. But those planning for October should be condition scoring ewes and rams now and feeding appropriately,” says Ms Stubbings.

Farmers must physically be feeling ewes for condition and this can be done by handling them in the lumbar region, immediately behind the last rib, says Ms Stubbings. “The prominence of the spinous (SP) and transverse (TP) process should then be felt and the amount of eye muscle and degree of fat cover over the processes assessed.

Condition scoring

“Hill ewes should be at a condition of 2.5 at tupping, upland ewes three and lowland ewes 3.5. And for a condition score of three you should feel a smooth and round SP that can only be felt using pressure. The TPs should be smooth and well covered by fat, with firm pressure needed to feel over the ends. The eye muscle should also be full, with moderate fat cover,” she says.

Ewes should then be sorted into fat, fit and thin groups, placing those with poorer condition on better quality grass. But Ms Stubbings warns that as each score equates to about 10% of body weight, it takes 6-8 weeks on good grazing for a ewe to gain one condition score.

“It is important to bear in mind the time taken to put on condition, particularly when feed costs are high, but there is no substitute for body condition,” she adds.

“Ovulation and conception rates are severely affected by poor condition, as ewes need body reserves to see them through pregnancy. Equally, fat ewes can also see poorer conception rates, but, more importantly, lambing difficulties and twin-lamb disease as a result.”

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And because of some good grass growth, there are a lot of ewes with higher condition than expected: “These are the ewes needing tighter grazing and need holding back.”

But ADAS sheep consultant Kate Philips says some of the leaner ewes may be losing condition due to wet grass, as dry matter intake has been down.

“Whole cereals may be the most cost-efficient feeding method to get condition scores up, although high quantities must not be fed due to the risk of acidosis. Concentrates can lift conception rates, but correct amounts must be fed,” she says.

“It is important the same principles are also applied to rams eight weeks prior to tupping. Rams should be at condition score 3.5-4, with ram fertility also affected by condition,” she says.

Case study, John Parry

  • Shropshire farmer John Parry aims for a condition score of 3.5-4 before tupping and manages this by splitting ewes into condition groups post-weaning. “Weaning at the beginning of August is the most critical time, when older, thinner ewes are culled and fit ewes with good condition are put on to poorer grass, while those with poorer condition are put on to better quality grass to put on condition. “Last year during the foot-and-mouth and bluetongue movement restrictions some ewes became trapped in fields with poorer grass, which led to pregnancy rates being down 22% and ewes scanning at an average of 181% compared with 200-205% in previous years.