On sheep farms with mid-season lambing flocks, October will see rams being turned out to ewes to start breeding. Ewes successfully mated in mid-October will lamb down around the second week of March.
On the programme farms, the focus is currently on making the final preparations before rams go out to ewes.
Included within such preparations are tasks such as internal and external parasite control, footbathing and crutching ewes where appropriate.
A number of the programme farmers are also using flock performance records to group breeding females to suit certain rams in terms of maternal and terminal traits.
With the onset of breeding fast approaching for March lambing flocks, outlined are some tips to managing ewes over the next two months.
By this stage of the year, ewes with persistent feet problems should have been culled. But if there are some ewes that have developed mild feet problems, then address immediately.
Footbathing is recommended and in some instances, the use of antibiotics may be necessary but flocks are trying to limit their use and some are vaccinating.
Paring feet so close to breeding should be a last resort. If feet are being pared, then it should be a light trim confined to affected areas.
Make sure feet are sprayed with an anti-bacterial product afterwards and, ideally, ewes should be on a clean stand during and after trimming.
The ram’s feet should have been sorted long ago. Be wary of trimming ram’s feet within a few weeks of breeding or any ailments which can raise temperature and affect semen quality/ram fertility.
Handle mature ewes and rams along the loin and ribs to check body condition. On lowland farms, ewes should have a condition score around 3.5 as breeding starts.
This means the rib cage and spine are hard to feel by hand without applying pressure. Upland and hill ewes should have a condition score around 3.0 to 3.5.
Ewes that maintain a steady body condition score throughout the breeding season tend to have higher scanning rates in spring compared to animals that gain and lose flesh.
Some farmers find they have a handful of ewes every year that struggle to regain body condition in time for breeding.
Older ewes, ewe lambs and hoggets often fall in to this category, either through poor management, a lack of grass, weaning too late or a heavy parasite burden.
In some cases, it may be worth keeping these animals separate from the main ewe flock and delaying turning them out to the ram until late October. This gives a few extra weeks to address body condition.
Delaying breeding by a couple of weeks will mean these ewes are lambing down closer to the start of the grazing season next spring, allowing turnout to grass immediately.
Ewe lambs are still growing. The demands of pregnancy and rearing lambs puts such animals under physical and nutritional stress.
Run all ewe lambs that have been retained for breeding over the weighbridge to check their liveweight before they go to the ram.
Lambs should weigh at least 60% of the mature ewe weight when bred.
If mature ewes weigh 80kg, then ewe lambs should weigh around 50kg, but the stronger the lamb the better.
Breeding replacements that are below this threshold will be more prone to problems at lambing time, as well as struggling to produce enough milk to rear their offspring.
All ewes and flock sires should be free of internal and external parasites before breeding starts. Bought-in replacements should have been quarantined before joining the main flock.
During this time, bought-in animals should have been brought up to speed with the flock’s fluke and worming programme, as well as any vaccines for diseases such as enzootic abortion.
Mineral supplementation will have a bearing on ewe fertility. Forage will supply trace elements, but as grass dry matter falls in autumn, mineral intakes can be reduced leaving ewes deficient. Do not solely rely on a forage diet to meet mineral requirements, particularly if animals move to winter grazing.
Mineral supplementation can be offered in various forms from a bolus, lick buckets and oral drenches.
Mature rams in fit condition can cover anywhere from 80 to 100 ewes. But if the aim is to lamb ewes in a tight four to five week window next spring, larger mating groups will put rams under serious pressure.
Reducing ewe numbers to between 50 and 60 head is more likely to deliver a compact lambing block next spring.
Smaller groups of ewes are also recommended when using single-sire mating, along with switching rams between groups to lessen the potential impact of a sub-fertile or infertile ram.
With a ram lamb or a shearling in its first breeding season, limit ewe numbers to between 25 and 40 animals.
As these rams are unproven, limiting group size at the outlined levels will take the pressure off young flock sires to cover breeding females.
To safeguard against an infertile or sub-fertile ram, raddling sires is recommended.
Make sure the harness is properly fitted. Check after 24 hours of fitting and adjust straps, as necessary.
If handling facilities and land blocks allow, rotating rams mid-way through breeding can prevent a high empty rate where flock sires have fertility issues.
Handling ewes too soon after breeding will have a negative effect on conception rates. The same goes with changing the diet and environment too soon after service.
Such actions create stresses on ewes and increase the risk of early embryonic loss whereby ewes reabsorb embryos. Where possible, avoid handling ewes for at least five to six weeks after breeding.