The weather implications of the summer and autumn must not be underestimated in flocks carrying more ewes – with foot care and nutrition two management hot spots requiring careful watching.
Sheep producers who have increased the size of their flock must be fully aware of the “domino effect” on ewe health and lamb viability next spring if winter management falls short.
And while extra help at lambing time may seem like the only obvious need, flocks carrying more ewes cannot assume that previous management protocols will be sufficient.
In a year when breeding ewes have had to cope with extreme weather conditions, the winter has brought a new set of nutritional issues that could have serious implications if the current management programme is found to be lacking.
Midlands-based sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings says sheep producers who have taken on extra ewes this year must not assume they can continue with the same level of management and shepherding.
“This year the weather and the grass situation is putting all sheep producers under pressure, so for those flocks carrying even more ewes it’s vital to sit down and look at precisely where more shepherding is needed,” she says. All flocks have areas of management that could be improved and most know where those improvements need to be made.
“If there are more ewes in the flock this year those areas where there’s a management shortfall are going to be even more costly in terms of lost production if they are not tackled and improved upon.
“The sole purpose of increasing the size of the flock is to increase the income from sheep, but that won’t happen if extra ewes are expected to be absorbed into an unchanged management structure.
“Existing weak spots will cause even more problems than before so, for instance, if lameness has always been an issue it will become even more so and ultimately take an even greater toll on output if no effort is made to counter it,” says Mrs Stubbings.
Avoiding the cumulative adverse effect at lambing time of shepherding shortfalls in the coming months can be as simple as just making sure enough time is allocated for routine flock tasks – and foot care is a prime example.
Cumbria sheep vet Matt Colston from Frame Swift and Partners, Penrith, says sheep producers with more ewes this season must take careful note of all problems and losses – particularly at lambing time – as the most effective way of highlighting management weak spots.
“At least they can be addressed more specifically as the future management strategy is planned for an expanding flock, but even at this stage of the season it’s essential not to let things slip,” he says.
“If you are overstocked for the number of staff you’ve got you won’t get on top of foot problems. If foot problems go untreated they will have a knock-on effect on ewe fitness and ultimately on lamb birthweight and of course on colostrum quality, so lambs will be more vulnerable.
“It’s a domino effect that could have been stopped if the management had been adequate way before lambing-time,” says Mr Colston.
Vets are keen to highlight the “very fine line” between assuming that an existing management strategy can cope with more ewes and the tipping point at which it starts to be inadequate with inevitable consequences.
Sheep producers who are carrying more ewes should look back at how many lambs they actually sold this year. Those running Mule ewes should have a “lambs sold” figure of about 170%. Where this target performance isn’t being achieved and yet more ewes have been added to the flock, it’s important to try and identify the problem areas and focus management accordingly.
“An increase in the lameness rate in the flock from 10% to 20% means almost a quarter of the flock is underperforming as a consequence. The feed intake of lame ewes is reduced, so their lambs will be smaller, colostrum will be poorer and lambs more likely to suffer problems such as E coli – so from one element of bad management comes a raft of costly problems,” says Mr Colston.
And he urges all flockmasters carrying more ewes this winter not to overestimate the value of winter grass and to be diligent about how much supplementary feed is offered.
“Grass is stemmy and full of water in many areas with low feed value and it means a lot of ewes are already light in condition. We could be looking at a bit of a time-bomb in terms of how ewes cope with this winter, which makes it even more important to know precisely how much feed is being given to in-lamb ewes. This isn’t the winter for guesswork when it comes to feeding ewes.”