There is an old expression in farming circles when something is looking really well, that it would “plaise a cryin’ child”.
My lambs, by contrast, would please no one, and least of all me. All year they have been a bit slow at reaching slaughter weight, but never enough to trigger any sort of major soul searching to identify underlying health issues.
I don’t think I was guilty of making up excuses, but sometimes the default setting in these situations makes us latch on to false reasons for poor performance.
So, firstly I used the dry weather as a legitimate explanation for 20 lambs being ready, instead of 30. Next, the lack of vigour in some of the aftergrass swards due to little or no applied fertiliser seemed like another perfectly sound justification. And then holiday time came along, and lamb thoughts were banished for a couple of weeks.
However, the issue really hit home when early September weighings revealed a lack of thrive (I had expected 50 or 60 lambs to be ready), allied to poor handling lambs, as well as far too many dirty back ends. My worst fears were confirmed when I sent a load of 40 lambs away and two of them graded fat class 1. That has never happened before.
I started concentrate feeding, but a couple of weeks in, running my hand along their backs at the trough made me suspicious that it wasn’t turning the ship around, or indeed having any positive effect.
The next action was to ring the vet and he told me to take dung samples as they had been seeing all sorts of high faecal egg counts, as well as lots of coccidiosis.
The dung samples showed stomach worms and fluke weren’t the problem, but coccidiosis levels varied from double the threshold (200epg) to a high-scoring 1,000epg in the case of a batch of vulnerable pets and triplets.
The vet prescribed Tolracol (Toltrazuril), which I dosed them with immediately. This took place on 11 October, so the plan is to give them three or four weeks to respond to treatment before weighing in the first half of November.
Initial signs look encouraging, because most damp lambs dried up in 24 hours, some persistent offenders took forty-eight hours, and one or two of the worst continued to scour for three or four days. However, not one lamb had a wet tail after a week.
The £2 per head cost of dosing is absolutely nothing when weighed against the irritation of having to look daily at fields of lambs that are putting on no weight.
To confound the situation, a pile of dirty hindquarters only adds to the frustration, and riding through your lambs on the quad bike on an autumn morning should be one of those life-affirming aspects of our job that we can rightly boast about to the entire world. But not if our stock aren’t thriving – it just ruins the whole thing.
With the benefit of hindsight, I should give myself a good hiding for being stupid. I used to routinely dose all young lambs for cocci. Then I realised it wasn’t always needed, so it was tailored towards vulnerable batches (lambs that didn’t get off to a healthy start).
More recently, some dry springs have resulted in no medication at all, and coccidiosis appeared to have gone away.
This is despite me being a rearer of pullets, where coccidiosis is ever present and a persistent threat to the lifetime performance of laying hens. The sensible plan for next year has to revolve around the submission of dung samples sometime during May – I don’t want to get caught out again.
All is not lost for this year either. My calculations tell me that a longer keep before lambs are factory-fit will cost me £11 per head in meal feeding fees, £2 treatment cost, plus a bit of extra grazing expense.
All this is easily recoverable, just as long as lamb prices hit £6/kg. It’s certain to happen soon, isn’t it?