Tuesday evening saw the the Tullamore Farm virtual series kick off with the sheep enterprise webinar. On the night, farm manager Shaun Diver alongside sheep specialist Darren Carty spoke to Irish Farmers Journal editor Justin McCarthy, discussing all aspects of the sheep system on Tullamore Farm. The webinar can be viewed in full below, however here are 10 take-home messages from the evening.

1. Experience of mule ewes

The mule ewes which have been used over the past number of years continues to deliver a high level of prolificacy, with typical scanning rates in recent years ranging from 2.16 to 2.26 lambs per ewe joined. Shaun finds them excellent to work with as they have a good mothering ability, with a high milk yield driving liveweight gain in lambs. However, longevity of the ewe seems to be an issue with some types.

2. Lamb quality

Around 15% of the lambs from the mule ewes achieve a U grade, with the remainder grading out at R. Many farmers have queried if the Texel cross off the mule ewe that is being produced on farm could offer an improvement on this, albeit at a lower prolificacy rate.

To answer this question, over the last two years, ewe lambs have been retained for breeding. Once this year’s lamb crop passes through the system, there will be sufficient data to compare the ewe type as the Texel crosses settle into a more mature cohort of ewes.

3. Lamb price in 2020

Last year the average lamb sales price on farm was €111, up €11/head on 2019 figures.

Shaun typically drafts ewe lambs at between 42kg and 45kg, while ram lambs are being selected anywhere from 45kg to 50kg for the later drafted animals.

Over the last three years the farm has seen over 97% of lambs drafted at a fat score of three.

4. Breeding issues in 2020

Over the past few years a typical barren rate of between 2% and 3% has been recorded on the farm, so it came a quite a shock to see this increase to 10.4% this year. Seventeen out of 165 mature ewes were empty at scanning.

Unfortunately, the root of the problem has not yet been identified, with nothing showing up from blood samples taken from barren ewes. Scanning results do not indicate any issues with ram.

5. Overcoming output issues due to higher empty rate

The farm sold some ewe lambs for breeding last autumn and as it happened, the farmer that purchased the lambs decided to sell them. Shaun bought them back as he knew their breeding and the farmer had been running the batch on their own so it reduced some of the disease risks associated with purchasing in breeding stock.

The downside to this means that of the 230 ewes lambing this spring, over 80 are ewe lambs which will require additional labour.

6. Labour around lambing

Lambing 230 ewes is no easy task, especially as calving on the farm also continues. In order to manage this labour requirement, Shaun has two students on placement on the farm at the moment. Seamus O’Meara and Oliver Gill have been a huge help over the past few weeks and will continue to be throughout lambing.

Shaun also avails of a night lamber one or two nights a week to avoid him becoming over tired or burned out. It is important that this is considered on all farms as these are the times when accidents become more likely to occur.

This year there is the added task of managing COVID-19 restrictions. Shaun has to carefully plan every aspect of the daily routine for everyone on farm in order to adhere to the guidelines.

Everyone is required to disinfect their hands multiple times a day and maintain social distancing where possible. For some tasks where this is not possible, face coverings are worn and the time spent in close contact is kept to an absolute minimum. Tea breaks and lunch times are also staggered so that everyone eats individually.

7. Dealing with grass tetany

Grass tetany has been an issue in early lactation for the last few years on Tullamore Farm. The reasons behind this are more than likely related to a ewe with high output grazing lush swards in early spring. Add to this the fact that much of the ground has been reseeded in recent years as well as higher applications of both P and K being applied in order to correct soil nutrient deficiencies on farm.

To overcome these issues this year, all ewes will receive concentrate for the first 10 days post-turnout. After this, a magnesium bolus will be given to ewes which will cover them for a further three week duration, at which point the highest risk period for tetany should have passed.

8. Winter shearing

This year the ewes were shorn in early-January at housing. Shaun said this is delivering many benefits including: allowing the stocking rate of the shed to be increased, ewes being cleaner and easier access to teats for lambs. Research would also suggest that winter shearing leads to higher birth weights in lambs.

9. Use of individual pens

Post-lambing, all ewes and lambs are moved to individual pens. This allows the ewe time to bond with her lambs away from the rest of the flock. The pens are 5ft by 5ft and are freshly bedded between each lambing. Lime is also spread on the ground prior to bedding in order to kill bacteria.

Once moved to the individual pen, the ewe is checked to see that she has milk, the lambs are given a suck so that they receive adequate levels of colostrum and the lambing details are recorded on a whiteboard attached to the gate of the pen for performance records.

Where weather allows, ewes and lambs are turned out to grass within 24 hours of birth.

10. Cross fostering

More single-bearing ewes this year means that there is more opportunity to cross foster lambs on to singles. While this is a tricky operation to get right, Shaun has a protocol that he finds works the majority of the time.

He says that first of all you need to be with the ewe lambing the single in order for it to work. Select a foster lamb that is going to be a match for the single lamb in terms of size. Wet the foster lamb completely with warm water. Restrain the foster lamb’s legs so that he stays at the back end of the ewe as she lambs. Collect as much fluid from the lambing ewe as possible in a basin or empty meal bag. Once the ewe has lambed, soak the foster lamb in the fluids as much as possible.

Allow the ewe to bond with foster lamb first. While doing so, get her own lamb to suck as that lamb needs the feed of colostrum. Once it has sucked, allow the ewe to bond with her own lambs and let the foster lamb have a suck.

It is important to increase the concentrate feeding rate to the ewe over following days to increase milk yield.


The Tullamore Farm virtual series is brought to you by the Irish Farmers Journal and is supported by AXA Insurance, ESB Networks and MSD Animal Health. Still to come in the series:

• 6 April: suckler breeding

• 27 April: suckler grassland management

• 4 May: next steps and finance