19 January 2001

Producers pay £90m/year bill for lost lambs

Tagging, the fishmeal ban and the

implications of the wettest autumn on record

mean sheep producers have plenty to think

about this lambing time. But this special,

edited by Marianne Curtis, aims to give

you a few useful pointers. Shelley Wright

kicks off with a look at the worrying

conclusions from a recent lambing survey

UNPRODUCTIVE ewes are costing UK sheep farmers about £90m/year in lamb losses, according to results from one of the biggest lambing surveys in recent times.

Early last year, Edinburghs Moredun Research Institute conducted the survey on unproductivity in the UK sheep flock, with more than 300 producers across the country completing a questionnaire to identify lamb losses and unproductive ewes on their farm during the 2000 lambing period.

The results showed that, on average, unproductive ewes account for as many as 15 fewer lambs being produced for every 100 ewes put to the tup. Using an average lamb price, this equates to a loss of potential income of more than £400/100 ewes each year.

On a national scale, Colin Macaldowie, a veterinary surgeon working in the clinical division at Moredun, says this equates to three million lambs lost annually, worth in the region of £90m.

He adds that the results also suggest that producers are underestimating the numbers of unproductive ewes on their farms.

The 315 farmers who responded had a mean flock size of 292 breeding ewes, giving a total of more than 92,000 ewes in the study. With an average of 1.64 live lambs produced by each productive ewe, the sheep involved in the survey produced a total of 133,554 lambs that survived for more than a week.

Producers taking part were first asked to estimate their numbers of unproductive ewes, and this indicated that 6290 ewes or 6.8%, were believed to fall into this category.

But, when the figures were actually recorded during the 2000 lambing season, the number of unproductive ewes turned out to be 8107, 8.8% of the total number of breeding ewes in the study.

"So we found an extra 1817 unproductive ewes, showing that farmers are underestimating the numbers," Mr Macaldowie says.

The main reason for unproductive ewes was that they were empty or barren. This was picked up at scanning or lambing time, accounting for 46% of the total.

"The second highest, at 19%, was neonatal losses, where lambs died before one week of age. This equates to 15m lambs dying in the UK each year and indicates a significant welfare problem," he adds.

Mr Macaldowie says reasons why ewes are found to be barren are many and varied, but include fertility problems, age, inadequate nutrition and abortion.

"Abortion in early pregnancy is quite often missed," he says. For an average flock of 300 breeding ewes, the survey indicates that 25.7 ewes will be unproductive.

"The mean figure of 1.64 live lambs produced a ewe, equates to a loss of 42.1 extra lambs from these unproductive ewes.

"Working on a figure of £29/lamb, the cost of those lost lambs in a 300-strong breeding flock is £1222. And the losses could be higher because that figure accounts only for lamb losses, not the cost associated with keeping that ewe through the winter."

Mr Macaldowie says.

There is anecdotal evidence that, because of the economic difficulties in farming at the moment, vaccines and preventative treatments are no longer being used routinely.

But this could be false economy because, as Mr Macaldowie points out: "The £1222 thats being lost would pay for a lot of vaccines."


&#8226 Annual lamb losses worth £90m.

Unproductive ewes, 8.8%.

Abortion often missed.


&#8226 Annual lamb losses worth £90m.

&#8226 Unproductive ewes, 8.8%.

&#8226 Abortion often missed.

Loads of lambs…but many flocks are less lucky with nearly 9% of ewes failing to lamb, according to a recent survey.