The two main production factors that have a major bearing on potential profit from a sheep enterprise are ewe output and stocking rate.

Ewe output, or the number of lambs produced per ewe joined to the ram, has the greatest potential as there is no extra costs from additional ewes.

At last week’s Northern Ireland Sheep Programme webinar, CAFRE sheep and beef specialist Brian Hanthorn outlined that at current lamb prices each additional 0.2 lambs reared per ewe joined is currently worth £25 extra output per ewe.

For a 200-ewe flock, this has the potential to increase output value by up to £5,000.

This figure is significant and saving every extra lamb possible has the potential in the current climate to mitigate some of the increased costs facing farmers.

Breed obviously has a major influence on ewe output, as does body condition score and nutritional intake before, during and after mating.

The window for influencing these factors has passed for most, with the exception of later-lambing flocks.

For these flocks, there is still an opportunity to ensure ewes remain on a good plane of nutrition for the first month post conception to reduce embryo loss.

Nutrition is key

The next time frame that has the greatest influence on lamb output is mortality pre- and post-lambing. Here, nutrition has a key role to play and much of Brian’s presentation focused on this area.

He said there is a risk with concentrate prices increasing of farmers holding back on required feeding levels which is a false economy as underfeeding is directly linked to low lamb birth weight, reduced vigour and survivability, poor colostrum quality and quantity (and subsequent milk yield), reduced maternal bonding and slower growing lambs.

He presented the research outlined in the graphic below, which shows the detrimental effect of malnutrition in Blackface ewes on both yield of colostrum and milk.

High-feed-value silage can greatly cut down on concentrate requirements but Brian outlined that for most sheep farmers silage is seldom of good enough quality to satisfy the nutritional requirements of ewes.

Brian outlined a number of practical areas as follows where small changes can have a major positive influence on reducing lamb and ewe mortality.

If the feed value of silage is not known, then it will be impossible to develop a late pregnancy feeding programme that you can accurately tell is satisfying ewe requirements.

Given the increase in feed ingredients and fluctuations in variability, it is likely that the formulation of many feeds may be significantly different than in previous years.

Brian said the same principles should still apply and farmers should be mindful to check that high-energy cereals such as barley, wheat and maize make up the foundation of the feed.

Soya bean meal should be the primary protein source, while a small percentage of rapeseed is fine. It is beneficial, he said, to have more bypass proteins or protected soya in flocks with a high lambing percentage.

Fibre sources such as soya hulls, sugar beet pulp and citrus pulp should ideally be confined to inclusion rates of 15% with feeds. Inclusion of ingredients such as oatfeed, sunflower and cocoa at significant levels should be avoided.

There is some merit in protected fats being included while minerals and vitamins are essential. Care should be given to the inclusion of selenium, with many areas in Northern Ireland deficient in selenium.

Brian outlined two simple rations, detailed in the graphic below, which CAFRE has formulated for farmers to get feed merchants to provide.

With regards feeding whole barley to sheep, he said its digestion will be enhanced by feeding a high dry matter diet compared to low dry matter silage.

The data contained in the table below shows the positive influence of feeding precision-chop silage of excellent quality compared to poor-quality silage or big bale silage that has not been chopped.

Concentrate requirements are halved with precision-chop silage, with ewes capable of eating significantly higher quantities.

The graphic below illustrates the influence of the variance in silage quality on concentrate costs. Despite concentrates costs increasing significantly, it does not have a major influence on increasing concentrates costs on a per ewe or per flock basis.

Therefore, there are relatively small savings to be made from skimping on meals, reinforcing the importance of satisfying nutritional requirements.

In contrast, there are significant savings to be made in terms of prioritising silage quality and this is an area Brian said more farmers should be concentrating on for 2022.

Brian said a big issue in the sheep sector is underestimating ewe weight and size, with much of the industry recommendations relevant to a ewe with a mature weight of 75kg to 80kg when a significant percentage of ewes weigh in excess of 95kg. He encouraged farmers to get a better handle on the weight of their ewes and to tweak feeding levels as required and to also pay heed to recommended trough space.

He used an example of ewes being stocked in a pen with insufficient feeding space. In such a scenario, 60% of ewes received the correct volume of feed, 20% (shy feeders) received too little and 20% (aggressive feeders) received too much.