Your Flock - The Cycle of Life
The end of life for some, and new beginnings for others
As summer turns to autumn, we reach the end of one and the start of another shepherd’s year, when all sheep farmers will be reviewing the highs and lows of the past year and planning the next year’s crop of lambs.
With the grass-growing season coming to an end and the need to free up the best grazing for ‘flushing’ the ewes to enhance their fertility before they join the ram, as well as resting some of the lamb paddocks over winter, any extra mouths left on the farm now will put considerable pressure on the diminishing grazing available.
Taking Stock - Lambs
It’s time to take stock of how well this year’s breeding season has gone: are all the fat lambs (the ones intended for slaughter) finished and off the farm? Or are there some stragglers left behind? Lambs that haven’t reached a target weight or condition for slaughter can be a real headache for smallholders as grass quality rapidly diminishes with the shortening days.
If you find yourself in this situation, there are a number of options open to you:
- Cut your losses and sell the lambs at market as store lambs (‘stores’) – they’ll be bought by farmers who will fatten them on cereals or root crops, or finish them slowly on grass for later markets, or perhaps cross-graze with other stock, such as cattle, to clean up the pasture.
- Another alternative, but an expensive option, is to finish them on a forage (hay, haylage or silage) and cereal diet. By housing them at the same time, you’ll be able to both closely monitor their feed intake as well as sheltering them from bad weather, which would otherwise further compromise their growth. If you do house the lambs, make sure they have access to clean drinking water at all times.
- On the other hand, if you have sufficient land, keep the lambs on a forage diet over winter and market them next spring as ‘hogget’ – a female sheep or castrated male, between 1-2 years of age.
Taking Stock - Ewes
Having dealt appropriately with this year’s lambs, it’s time to assess the ewe flock, and select which ewes will be put to the ram this year. Inevitably, in most years, this means that some of the older ewes, and those that had lambing problems or proved to be poor mothers this year, will have to be retired from the flock. For many sheep keepers, especially those with smaller flocks where long-serving ewes often have their own nicknames, this is one of the hardest jobs of all – but don’t shirk from the task; if you retain and breed from ewes that are faulty in any way, you will be storing up trouble for next year’s lambing season.
- Condition – a ewe must be in optimum condition before she joins the ram for breeding, otherwise she may fail to conceive, or is likely to have small, weak lambs and a poor milk supply; it will take 6-8 weeks to gain or lose a single condition score (on a scale of 1-5), so reject any that are excessively thin or fat – aim for a score of 3-3.5 at tupping.
- Teeth – Firstly check the incisor teeth on the lower jaw, which should ‘bite’ against the pad on the upper jaw; then carefully check the molars) by feeling firstly against the cheeks and then around the jaw line – feeling for pain, swelling or abnormalities such as missing or lose teeth – never put your fingers inside the ewe’s mouth as the cheek teeth, which are used for cudding, are extremely sharp.
- Feet & Legs – Look for two good ‘pairs’ of feet, sound and with no heat, nasty smell or soreness: then check the ewe’s movement; she should stand square with a leg at each corner, with ‘springy’ pasterns and good hocks – not straight, which would indicate weakness. Feel for any swellings or heat, which may be a sign of infection, or arthritis in older sheep.
- Udder – Tip the ewe so you can examine her udder: feel both sides (called ‘quarters’) which should be soft and free of lumps; then feel each teat – checking for any sign of what feels like a fibrous cord running through it as this is a sign of previous infection which will result in a non-functional teat and hungry lambs. Occasionally, you will find a ewe with 3 or 4 teats: the extra teats are rarely functional.
- Vaccinations – check the vaccination status of all ewes you intend to breed from; at the very least they should be vaccinated against Clostridial diseases (2 injections, 4-6 weeks apart), and if you have had abortion problems in your flock talk to your vet about vaccinating against the causes of this. Your vet will also be able to advise you of the status of any current disease threats, such as Schmallenberg.
If you find ewes that have any of the faults described, they should be removed from the breeding flock, as they are unlikely to be able to successfully rear lambs, and any fault in the ewe may be magnified in her offspring. There are several options for what are generally described as ‘cull ewes’, the most straightforward being to sell at your local market where you will find a keen trade and generally good prices. Lean, older ewes are especially favoured by buyers for the Halal market, which may mean they will be despatched by a non-stun method, believed by some authorities to be less humane. Alternatively, if you feel strongly about ensuring the least stressful end for your old girls, or if your sheep are organic, you can bypass the market and take them directly to a Soil Association approved abattoir (www.soilassociation.org).
Hogget and mutton (a female sheep over 2 years old, especially from the slower-growing hill and mountain breeds) are much-underrated products of sheep farming, but are increasingly finding favour with trendy chefs and a discerning public! It goes without saying thatall sheep reared for the table must be of the highest quality with just the right amount of ‘finish’, or fat cover, and judging this is a vital skill to learn if you want to sell your lamb, hogget and mutton to the public.
As some of the older ewes reach the end of their productive lives, you will hopefully have identified some outstanding ewe lambs to retain as breeding stock for the future. These lambs should both conform closely to your breed standard (if you keep a pedigree flock), as well as having good all-round health and higher than average growth rates, which may also indicate that they have an inherited, or acquired, resistance to internal parasites as well as an enhanced ability to convert feed to muscle. These are precisely the type of genetic attributes that you need to build a ‘high health status’ flock that will not only be more productive, but also be more resilient to disease challenges.
One advantage of breeding your own replacement ewes, as opposed to buying-in stock from other sources, is that you will know their breeding history, their health status and what treatments, such as vaccinations, they’ve received since birth. You’ll also avoid the trouble of quarantining bought-in stock, which will put yet more pressure on your space and grazing!
The next question is whether to breed from the ewe lambs in their first year, or allow them to grow and mature, and mate them as shearlings? Ewe lambs generally make excellent mothers, but rearing a lamb (and they must only be allowed to rear one lamb, which will mean fostering, or hand-rearing any twins) will affect their eventual mature weight. Ewe lambs will need a bit more TLC and careful feeding during their pregnancy as they are still growing themselves, and they also tend to have more lambing problems than a mature ewe.
If you buy or hire in a ram for the tupping season, in addition to the important business of quarantine, it is of course very important to apply these same “benchmarks” to that process – after all, “a ram is half the flock”, as the old saying goes!
Taking stock: the value of keeping records
With any kind of farming or livestock enterprise, it’s important to look both backwards, and forwards, and by keeping meticulous records of key events in the flock’s year, you’ll be able to make year-on year comparisons; knowing the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, as well as their resilience to disease and parasites. For example, most shepherds are aware that some lambs are ‘clean’ throughout their lives, which others are repeatedly ‘daggy’, indicating that they have poor resistance to internal parasites. These lambs will also be slower growing than their flock-mates, so will be slower to reach slaughter weight, will spend longer on the farm and consume more precious grass and resources. By scoring the lambs regularly for this trait on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being clean as a whistle and 5 being a filth-bag, you’ll be able to make informed decisions about which to keep for breeding, and which to sell on. This information will also relate to their dams; a ewe will pass on both good and bad traits to her offspring, and keeping records over a period of time will inform you which are your best ewes and which are perhaps not paying their way.
Another trait, or KPI (Key Performance Indicator), that is important to record is the ewe’s ‘Lambing Ability’, which is highly hereditable. Again, on a score of 1-5, record ewes that lambed with no assistance, milked well and raised a pair of good twins as a ‘1’. On the other hand, if a ewe needed the vet’s help at lambing, or had a poor milk supply resulting in small lambs that didn’t thrive, give her a score of ‘5’ and on this basis, she should leave the flock, or at least not be used for breeding again. You know the traits that are important to you in your flock, so by scoring and recording the individual ewes, you’ll be able to make informed breeding decisions, and will be well on the way to creating a high performing, high health status flock.
Taking stock: Pasture Management
Now is also the time to think about reviewing your pasture management, especially if the grass has been poor during the past growing season and especially if you have noticed a year-on-year deterioration. It’s unlikely that you will need to replace what you have with a total re-seed; there are many ways of improving existing pastures at a reasonable cost.
If you’ve taken an annual crop of hay from any of your fields it will have depleted a lot of the nutrients, so before you do anything in haste, get a soil analysis carried out, and ask your advisor for a plan for remedial action – it may just need an application of lime (which can release ‘locked-up’ nutrients), and nitrogen to bring it back to life. A bit of attention to your grassland will produce a fast response in the growth rates of your lambs – so look on it as an opportunity to improve your overall flock health and performance!
Think also about your grazing rotations – were your stock chest high in grass, or were the paddocks bare? An increasingly popular solution for either scenario is to set up a ‘paddock-grazing’ system – the agricultural answer to industrial ‘Just in Time’ production! You will need to invest in a good-quality portable electric fencing system so that you can confine the flock to a carefully measured area of grass that will feed them for a set number of days. Once they have depleted this area, you move them onto the next area of fresh grass, enabling the previous paddock to recover. Commercial sheep enterprises use a variety of techniques to calculate the flock’s daily grazing requirement, but equally you can manage your grazing visually, gaining experience as you go.
By proactively managing your flock throughout the year, ideally with the help of your vet who will help you create a customised ‘Flock Health Plan’ based on its history and your ambitions, you’ll be doing both your best to promote good health in the flock, as well as doing everything to avoid unforeseen problems.
This article was originally written by Carole Youngs for
Practical Sheep, Goats & Alpacas Magazine.