Early lambers see disappointing results after 2018 drought

Scanning results have been hugely variable this winter following a tough spring, a dry summer and tight grazing on many farms, with some scanning results back 20-40%.

Many early lambers that tupped close to the drought or during the drought have been left with disappointing scanning results. 

Dry summer blamed for low scan rate

Initial scanning rates suggest a 30% drop in lamb numbers for Rutland farmer Tom Scott and his 1,200 Texel-cross flock.

He is blaming his disappointing early December scanning of 170% on the prolonged hot, dry summer and the low nutritional value of grass. Mr Scott’s sheep normally scan at 200%.

 See also: How a sheep farmer has increased output by £10 a ewe

Barren ewes were up, triplets down 30% and there are far more singles than triplets this year, he says.

“We’re on ironstone ground and it does dry up quickly,” says Tom, who farms a mixed sheep and arable farm with father Charlie (left).

The ewes were tupped in September, and, although they looked in reasonable condition, Tom believes they might have been short of quality grass for flushing after being fed haylage and a high-energy mineral lick from July after grass growth stopped.

Ewes then strip-grazed oily radish into early winter before being housed to lamb indoors. He is currently supplementing the February lambing ewes with a high-energy and protein concentrate.

“The ewes were a bit leaner that we’d have liked at scanning so this season we’ll be a bit more generous with concentrate rates,” Tom adds.

What can we learn from early lambers?

Sheep and beef consultant Dr Liz Genever says there are important lessons to learn from the 2018 drought.

And while thin sheep could be a problem this year, she points to emerging research finding ovary development is happening earlier than the industry previously thought – as early as eight weeks into lactation.

She says that, in some cases, sheep were stressed through the summer and leaner than normal. She gives advice on what to do in late gestation following a poor scanning result.

Scanning considerations

  • Analyse your scanning result. Are there more barren and is this a sign of being stressed by the dry summer?
  • Research shows that ovary development starts when the ewes are around eight weeks into lactation. Difficult conditions in mid-summer 2018 could have influenced some poor fertility rates.
  • Look at your barren rate – don’t just blame the year – talk to your vet about checking for abortion, fluke or ram failure
  • How many twins do you have and is this normal? Lowland breeds like Lleyns and mules typically see 65% of ewes having twins, with singles and triplets increasing according to environmental and health factors.

Empty ewe considerations

  • Potentially there could be a large number of empty ewes – holding on to or selling barren ewes is a matter of personal choice
  • The reason for being empty, amount of feed available and the need to keep systems simple should be taken into consideration.

 Nutritional considerations

  • Use body condition score and scan results to plan rations
  • Lower scanning means lower output is likely, so look to save on input costs if possible
  • If more ewes have singles, additional supplementary feed requirement should be lower. With good forage access singles should need minimal supplementary feeding until a couple of weeks pre-lambing 
  • Consider the need to supplement at turnout. For twin-bearing ewes, it is cost effective to supplement at turnout if grass is less than 4 cm.
  • Move thin ewes up a group i.e. feed a thin sheep scanned with a single as a twin and feed a thin sheep scanned with twins as a triplet
  • It’s always important to monitor forage access and trough space. Younger sheep can be shy feeders and they may need it the most 
  • Never feed more than 500g per feed, and if you need to feed more then split into two feeds.

Sheep scanners see disappointing results in early lambers

David Evans, Montgomeryshire, Wales

Scanning from Staffordshire and Shropshire across mid-Wales to the west coast.

“Earlier February lambers could be the worst affected, with many flocks down 10-20%. Some flocks didn’t recover from the tough spring and others were short of feed during tupping after the drought.

“One farm tried flushing their sheep through tupping but ran out of grass, so they were on a falling place of nutrition. After expecting 150% they were disappointed with 120%.

“However, some lower scannings are due to triplets dropping from 20-25% to only 10%, so it’s not necessarily bad news.”

Glyn Davies, Woodbridge, Suffolk

Scanning across East Anglia, the East Midlands, into Wales and across southern England.

“Results are very variable. A dry summer has kept fluke issues at bay for some and supplementary feeding has kept some sheep in good order.

“Some farms are pleased, some are down 5%, some down 20-30% and there are some shockingly low results.”

“People on heavy land, like Thrapston and Peterborough, found that once the land eventually dried and cracked it couldn’t hold the rain when it did come.

Adrian Bell, Nateby, Cumbria

Scanning across Cumbria, Lancashire and across the Pennines into County Durham and North Yorkshire.

“It’s difficult to generalise. Soil type and crop availability are big factors, although this year the tables might have turned slightly.

“Usually the trend is more farms in the West are plagued by liver fluke and the drier farms in Durham and North Yorkshire to scan better. This year the dry summer has alleviated fluke in the West and they had more grass.”