Assisting lambs at birth can hinder commercial flock potential

As many pedigree flocks gear up for lambing in the next month or so, breeders are being urged to consider their commercial customers’ needs above their own when assisting ewes or suckling lambs.

Commercial farmers need lambs which are born with little or no assistance and which thrive from the minute they hit the ground. However, this hasn’t always been the case and many believe pedigree breeders have exacerbated the problem by selling breeding rams which themselves required excessive levels of assistance at or immediately after birth.

But while lambing ease may be top of the hit-list for many breeders, it is the lack of lamb vigour which is most costly, says SAC sheep specialist John Vipond.

“When you think of the time some shepherds spend suckling lambs it is clear there is a lot of money being spent ensuring lambs have sufficient colostrum.

“And this trait is reasonably heritable, so not retaining breeding stock, either for home use or for sale, which have needed assistance at birth will have a considerable effect on future generations of the flock.”

Recording difficulties

Breeders should, says Dr Vipond, take time to record lambing difficulties and ensure sheep which needed assistance at lambing are identified and culled. “Using a simple recording system, such as the easier care selection box, can help, as it allows ewes and lambs to be rated according to lambing ease, mothering ability and lamb vigour.”

On the lambing ease front, Dr Vipond believes many people are unaware of how little intervention is needed in a true easier care system. “In the best flocks shepherds could be handling as few as five ewes in every 1000 for some form of assistance at lambing.

“And while in many traditional systems lambing ewes are shepherded more intensively during poor weather, it can be better to visit them less, as ewes will find their own shelter and look after lambs better when they are disturbed less frequently.”

But beyond reduced intervention, a change of lambing system for pedigree flocks could also benefit many commercial ram buyers if breeders moved to later, outside lambing to match peak grass growth.

Reducing labour needs 

“Lambing ewes outside could reduce labour need from one man to 250 ewes to one man to 600 ewes, saving about £3 a ewe on shepherding costs and would also cut feed costs by about £5 a ewe.

“Bearing in mind that using high index sires could add about £2-£3 a head to lamb values, these are serious savings which can be achieved by making simple changes to flock management. However, while easier lambing sires can reduce costs, care must be taken to ensure lamb values are maintained through good conformation.”

Additionally, Dr Vipond says pedigree breeders investing in performance recording should be cautious of feeding high levels of concentrates, as he suggests this could lead to rams which sire lambs less able to thrive off grass. “Most commercial lambs are finished solely off grass, so assessing potential breeding rams’ performance when they have been fed large amounts of high protein diets could lead to misleading selections.”

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