With on-farm events not likely to be a runner for quite some time due to coronavirus restrictions, the Northern Ireland Sheep Programme has planned a number of virtual events for the first half of 2021.

The first of these took place last Thursday evening with James McCay from Drumquin in Co Tyrone hosting the event.

James farms full-time with help from his father John and other family members during peak labour-input periods and is currently putting the final preparations in place for the start of lambing in crossbred ewes.

Lambing is due to commence in the first 150 Texel-cross ewes on 10 March, with the remaining 150 Perth-type Scottish Blackface ewes due to start lambing around 5 April. Texel-cross ewes are bred to Texel and Charollais rams, with a small number bred to a Bluefaced Leicester ram as an experiment this year.

One-hundred of the 150 Perth ewes are bred pure to produce flock replacements, with the remaining 50 traditionally bred to Texel rams to supply replacements to the upland flock.

This year, 25 ewes were joined to Texel rams, with the other 25 to Bluefaced Leicester rams. James is also experimenting with the option of producing Mule lambs for sale.

The farm extends to 20ha of lowland/upland grassland located at about 250ft above sea level and rises steadily across 40ha of semi-improved grazing.

It reaches a height of 850ft above sea level at its highest point across 70ha of rough or hard hill grazing.

Lambing preparations

A main focus running through the event was putting plans in place for lambing, with an emphasis on curtailing health issues, limiting mortality and reducing the volume of antibiotics used.

A key focus for James in recent years has been investing in infrastructure to improve labour efficiency, allow targeted feeding of ewes and maintain high standards of hygiene during lambing.

Ewes are batched on litter size, with the standard feeding regime in place including introducing concentrate supplementation seven weeks out from lambing at a rate of 0.2kg/head, building up to 0.7kg to 0.8kg in the final week of gestation.

Ewes carrying triplets are an area where an added emphasis is placed on ensuring ewes lamb down with three adequately-sized lambs and have sufficient colostrum.

Triplets receive a flat feeding rate of 1kg/head for the final five to six weeks of gestation and James says this is working well in recent years.

Any ewe that lambs down with three lambs is milked and her colostrum is divided across the three lambs.

This approach means that if the ewe has insufficient colostrum, at least each lamb will have received some ewe colostrum, which is the optimum in terms of fighting off diseases.

James also started to use a refractometer in spring 2020 to keep an eye on the quality of colostrum produced and finds that this gives him reassurance that late-pregnancy nutrition and healthcare is up to scratch.

An area which was raised as possibly contributing to sub-optimum colostrum on other farms is a high liver fluke burden.

James’s vet Noel Doyle from Three Valleys Veterinary practice says the threat is particularly high this year, but points out the McCays are well accustomed to these threats, having identified issues with trichlabendazole resistance and putting a programme in place to use products strategically to target liver fluke parasites at different stages of its life cycle.

High standards of hygiene

The investment in infrastructure is paying for itself in terms of being able to maintain high standards of hygiene.

James installed a sink unit (pictured below) a couple of years ago and says it is one of the best investments made.

This sink unit located in the lambing shed encourages better hygiene due to ease of use.

“If you have to go in to the house to wash stomach tube syringes, bottles or the like, you definitely won’t do it as often. It is a simple unit and having hot water in place (simple electrical hot water unit) means you are more inclined to wash equipment or importantly wash your hands before and after handling a ewe. There is also a small fridge, which will hold any spare colostrum or vaccinations.”

The setup for individual lambing pens is highly impressive. James made the penning himself and used Stokbord on the sides instead of rails.

“The Scotch ewes are very protective of their lambs and each year I had a few cases of ewes protecting their own lambs and attacking others in adjoining pens that stuck their heads through the rails or even their own by mistake. The boarded sides allow the ewe to settle better.”

Penning was made with stokbord on the side to prevent injuries to lambs from over protective ewes.

The sheeted sides are also easily washed down with a power hose. The focus is to get ewes and lambs turned outdoors within 24 to 36 hours, but given the elevation of the farm and risk of inclement weather, there is additional housing present that can be used to hold ewes and lambs indoors for longer if required.

Addressing barren rates in Scottish Blackface ewes

One of the biggest challenges identified in the three-year farm plan is addressing a high barren rate in hill ewes.

This has proven a tricky issue on the farm in recent years and, as detailed in Table 1, hit 15% for the 2020-2021 season.

This was also one of the key issues focused on when drawing up the farm’s animal health plan in tandem with Noel Doyle.

A suite of measures was put in place in the health plan, but, unfortunately, these have been complicated in the current season by possible fertility issues in one ram.

There is a significant issues with barren rates in the Scottish Blackface ewes which James is trying to get on top of.

The measures were introduced in the preceding year following a similarly high barren rate identified in hill ewes at scanning.

Blood-sampling of barren ewes showed up high levels of toxoplasmosis. As it was too late to administer a vaccine, a decision was taken to feed Deccox.

The product is primarily targeted at controlling coccidiosis, but it also has a claim on its summary of product characteristics licenced through the Veterinary Medicines Dicectorate (VMD) in Northern Ireland and Britain as an aid in the prevention of abortions and perinatal losses.

The product is administered via medication of the ewe feed (pregnant ewes receive 2mg/kg body weight daily during the final 14 weeks of gestation).

James says it appeared to work in terms of reducing further losses due to toxoplasmosis, but that it was quite labour-intensive and a more expensive option than vaccinating.

The farm took the step of vaccinating all breeding sheep for both toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion ahead of last season’s breeding.

“I never had an issue with enzootic abortion and run a closed flock with the exception of rams and was advised that with so much of it around it was the perfect time to do it before it gets in and leads to real problems. It was a big hit in cost, but is a good insurance policy to have.”

Further analysis

Noel highlighted four key areas that, in his opinion, can contribute to higher barren rates either independently or combined. These are mineral status, toxoplasmosis, ewe maturity and nutrition.

Toxoplasmosis has already been covered in detail and Noel says he is interested in getting the samples back to see if there are any abnormally high readings for toxoplasmosis.

In terms of mineral status, recent blood samples have also been sent for mineral analysis and while this is not suspected as being an underlying cause, Noel wants to cover all the bases.

Noel is also a Scottish Blackface breeder, so is keen to get to the bottom of issues, as it is frequently highlighted on farms in his practice.

A significant contributor to higher barren rates that he sees crop up quite often is a higher barren rate in two-tooth hoggets and young ewes.

A questionnaire has been sent to upwards of 40 hill sheep farmers in the Castlewellan Blackface Sheep Breeders group with a view to exploring what the average level of barrenness is and also what farmers think are the underlying factors.

With James adopting performance recording via electronic identification, it will now be possible to easily assess ewe liveweight and body condition and track this against performance.

The final area Noel highlighted was nutrition and this is an area where a number of questions were raised following the presentations. James says the farm struggles with grass utilisation late in the year due to high rainfall volumes.

There was a concern that inadequate condition could be contributing to early embryo loss, so feed buckets were introduced this year, along with tracking ewe condition and forage quality.

There was also a query whether it could be related to genetics. While this is a possibility, the fact that high barren rates are not following through in the crossbred ewes dispels this theory on the farm. The challenge of addressing barren rates is one that will be followed closely, with updates published as available throughout the year.