The first three days of life are critical to lamb survival, with 43% of lamb mortality occurring at birth, 58% of mortality occurring in the first 24 hours after birth and 74% in the first 72 hours.

These stark figures were delivered by Teagasc's Dwayne Shiels at part two of its lowland sheep conference on Thursday evening.

Dwayne told farmers that infection and dystocia are the two major factors contributing to mortality and together account for 52% of mortality.

He said that as the two of these causes are potentially preventable, there is huge scope on farms to reduce mortality and in turn increase output.

It would also deliver major benefits across the industry, with a 3% reduction in mortality highlighted as having the potential to deliver 100,000 more lambs worth in the region of €10m to the sector.

Cause of mortality

Delving deeper into causes of mortality, infection was listed as the main one, accounting for 32% of all lamb mortality, while dystocia, or hard lambings, was the second main cause of death at 20%.

Within the infection category, 23% occurred before or at day zero, caused in most situations by abortion-causing agents.

Eleven percent occurred between zero and 24 hours, 18% between day one and three and 10% between days four and seven.

It is not surprising that 80% of dystocia occurred at birth

Ensuring lambs get sufficient colostrum immediately after birth and that lambs are born into a hygenic environment is vital in reducing the risk of infection.

It is not surprising that 80% of dystocia occurred at birth. A further 14% occurred within the first 24 hours of life and a further 5% within the first three days of life.

Dwayne explained that the latter cases were related to lambs being injured during lambing and ailments such as broken ribs.

Preventable

Both of these factors are potentially preventable with good management practices and careful breeding decisions.

The cause of death was not identified by post-mortem for 19% of lamb deaths, while hypothermia and starvation accounted for 14% of mortality. Again, these are preventable with good management practices.

There was also 5% of mortality related to accidents and this, according to Dwayne, is linked in many cases to insufficient facilities and lambs getting hurt.

Reducing mortality

Dwayne outlined that lamb mortality is lower on farms that used stomach tubes, a heat box, iodine, hospital pens and individual pens compared with farms that did not implement all those practices.

Identifying the level of mortality and its cause is central to being able to put preventative plans in place.

Dwayne said that 70% of farmers do not record mortality and hence they may not be aware of significant issues.

He advised that simple steps, such as putting up a white board in a shed where mortality can be recorded easily and instantly, will encourage higher levels of recording.