Late winter and abortions put lambing at risk

What the Smith brothers feared most has happened.

“We’ve not had a fine day since you were here last,” says Graeme.

Mild weather, right through the winter months, has come to an abrupt, cold and wet end – just as the Mule and Cheviot flocks are getting ready to lamb.

“March has brought nothing but snow, frost and rain.”

So much so, that Graeme has bought a caravan to provide some respite when he’s up on the hill ground lambing the farm’s Cheviot flock, due to start in May.

Lambing is under way in the Mule flock, but the weather has already seen a few lambs perish.

“The ewes have lost a lot of condition this month – it’s just melted off them.

They’re getting 1.5lb of 18% protein roll a day, but with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I’d given them more earlier.”

The only respite the weather has offered is a thaw.

“For the first two weeks of March everything was white with snow or frost.

The ewes just sat by the feeders all day, and snow was so deep we had to clear swathes with a snow plough because the feed was getting buried and they couldn’t find the rolls.”

But now the white blanket has gone from the fields, there’s no spring grass for the ewes to find either.

“It’s just grey. We need heat, and sunshine, and we need it now.”

The forage situation isn’t desperate – yet.

But if the spring growth doesn’t get going soon the brothers know they are going to be facing some uncomfortable extra costs.

“Straw is now up to £7 a bale, so with £2.50 on top of that for haulage there’s not much change from £10,” says Colin.

“At least silage remains reasonable at £6-£7 a bale.”

As if the severe weather conditions for lambing and the lack of grass weren’t enough, the brothers fear they could be facing a greater threat.

“I’ve taken the few dead lambs we’ve had to the vets for post-mortem examination.

There’s a chance there could be enzootic abortion among the Mules,” Graeme says.

The virus, most common in north-east England and south-east Scotland, last reared its head at Towiemore in 1999.

“I vaccinated the flock in 2000 and since then have bought only accredited ewe lambs.

The most likely cause is transmission from an infected flock, by birds.”

The fear that while some ewes may abort this year and develop immunity, others could carry the infection and abort the following season.

Intervet estimates the cost of abortion between £60-£100 a ewe.

There’s a lot at stake.

Scanning results show the Mules should perform well, with mostly twins and triplets, but ewes will need the spring grass to sustain them.

Graeme is particularly pleased with the results from the hardier Cheviot flock.

“Out of 729 that went to the ram, there were 26 empty.

They were sold at Thainstone auction mart last week, just managing to catch the peak of the trade at £38 a head.”

Of the remainder, 309 are carrying twins and 391 singles, giving a lambing percentage of 142%.

“That’s about what we want; not too many for going up on those hills.

I was aiming for 130-140%, which is plenty for that type of ground. “

Ewes with twins will be kept separate from those with single lambs at foot, and will continue to receive a supplementary ration.

“But the singles should manage OK up there.”

Even with the caravan offering a bit more shelter, there’s still more than enough work for Colin and Graeme.

So Hugh Christie, a semi-retired neighbour, will help the brothers out for a few hours each day in the coming months.

Calving is also under way, with about 55 heifers and 10 cows calved.

“We’ve had three sets of twins this year, which is unusual.

At least my sons Ryan and Lewis will enjoy bottle-feeding them.”

But as Graeme knows, farm staff management is more of an art than a science.

“But what if I have to foster them onto other cows?

The boys won’t like that.”

With a difficult lambing season ahead, at least the market is showing more promise.

Finished hogget values have rocketed in recent weeks, from the doldrums of £1/kg seen for most of the season up to 130p/kg in Scotland.

“And not before time.

Hopefully some of the folk selling hoggets now will be prepared to pay more for their stores in the autumn.”