A common theme raised by many farmers visiting the Irish Farmers Journal stand at Tullamore Show concerned the poor performance of stock in recent months. The consequences of persistent inclement weather are becoming increasingly evident with procurement agents highlighting poor kill-out in lambs and beef cattle while animals traded live are showing the effects of harsh weather.
The reduced performance in lambs is evident for many flocks in lower daily liveweight gains, a much lower fat cover and poor kill-out. Central to poor performance is the low dry matter content of grazed grass.
The levels currently seen are akin to levels normally seen in September and October.
The risk at this stage of the year is that the feeding quality of grass will be slow to recover as the year progresses.
The drafting progress in many flocks is coming under pressure and if this situation deteriorates then the knock-on consequences for building autumn grass supplies and allocating sufficient grass for ewes pre- and post-mating are significant.
The starting point is to take stock and assess the current position. Targets advised by Teagasc for a mid-season flock lambing from the start to middle of March are to have at least 45% of lambs drafted for sale by mid-August, rising to 70% by mid-September.
This figure includes ewe lambs identified as replacements.
The next task is to assess lambs remaining on farm. Where lambs are on target and performing satisfactorily then there may not need to be any significant changes made.
However, if lambs are falling well behind target then action needs to be taken – and the sooner the better – in terms of keeping autumn grazing targets on track.
There are two solutions available – supplement lambs to underpin performance or consider the live trade. The greatest challenge reported at present is with March-born ram lambs – such sheep are developing a frame but lacking flesh cover.
The latter option is more attractive with wether or ewe lambs with strong ram lambs lacking flesh a difficult trade.
If grass is in abundant supply and fresh grazing is readily available then feeding 0.3kg to 0.5kg concentrates may suffice. Implementing a number of finishing groups whereby light lambs are grazed on and forward lambs weighing upwards of 38kg to 40kg are supplemented is generally the best option.
Where lambs are lacking significant flesh and delaying finishing will lead to lambs going overweight, then there may be merit in increasing feeding levels to 0.8kg to 1kg per day.
This will represent a significant cost but may be the most feasible option for a small cohort of lambs to get drafting back on track.
There is also no need for expensive cooked or crunch concentrate feeds or rations. A high-energy cereal-based ration or nut will work perfectly at this stage of the year.
Finishing options for hill lambs
Similar to lowland flocks, the main concern on hill flocks should be to ensure sufficient grass is available for the ewe flock with any surplus grass utilised in an optimum manner for adding value to lambs.
The starting point in this practice is weighing lambs and grouping them by weight. This will also help to assess flock performance.
Grouping lambs into four weight categories – less than 25kg, 25kg to 30kg, 30kg to 35kg and greater than 35kg – will be sufficient for most flocks.
For flocks on farms with a high percentage of improved or green grazing, and possibly utilising crossbreeding in a percentage of the flock, then the target should be to have in excess of 80% of lambs weighing in excess of 25kg.
On harder hills where ewes with a lower mature weight are running there could be in the region of 30% to 40% of lambs weighing less than 25kg.
The weight category into which lambs fall will influence the options available;
Less than 25kg: Such lambs are typically a longer-term prospect. Ideally these lambs need to be grazed on until late in the year or early 2024 and allowed to develop a frame before finishing, that is provided the growth potential is present to do so.
25kg to 30kg: The economics of this route are also typically based on allowing lambs to develop a frame. The cost of concentrates prohibits transferring lambs on to an intensive finishing period at too light a weight unless targeting a short finishing period and a light lamb market is available
30kg to 35kg: Again a shorter period at grass would pay dividends in lowering finishing costs. It is also a good option to introduce supplementation at grass where the ultimate plan is to finish lambs indoors.
35kg upwards: This group of lambs possibly has the best array of options with a better live trade for heavier stores. They can be supplemented at grass to aid performance and finished off grass-concentrates or transferred on to a more intensive finishing diet.
In all cases it is worth completing a finishing budget to see what the best options are. The Teagasc store lamb calculator which can be found at www.teagasc.ie/animals/sheep/financial-management/ will provide a good blueprint.