A three-year collaboration between six EU countries and Turkey has showcased its findings about key issues affecting the sheep industry.
SheepNet was designed not to be a science-led, top-down project but rather one in which researchers and sheep keepers worked together to come up with practical ways to solve problems.
Dr Claire Morgan-Davies, livestock systems specialist with Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) said the project had looked at the beginning of the sheep breeding cycle from conception to weaning and paid particular attention to losses.
She said: “Lamb mortality has averaged 15 per cent for 15 years with little change. We have gained lots of knowledge but it has not translated into improvements. All farms are different but the focus in this project has been on poor ewe fertility, embryo loss and high lamb mortality.”
Dr Kim Hamer of University of Glasgow Veterinary Department demonstrated an app which had been developed as part of the SheepNet project. A step by step procedure takes producers through a menu of causes, effects and preventions related to embryo loss and abortion.
The aim is to increase knowledge and speed identification of problems.
Dr Hamer said: “Typically losses of embryos are 15 per cent to 20 per cent between scanning and weaning. About 25 per cent of these losses can be due to abortion. You should investigate of over 2 per cent of ewes abort or if there are clusters of abortions.”
Cathy Dwyer, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Welfare at SRUC quoted data from Teagasc, the Irish advisory service showing that for each 0.5kg of lamb birthweight increased weaning weight by 1.7kg.
She said: “That has to be balanced of course by better lamb survival at optimum birth weight. A good target is 6kgfor a single, 5.6 kg for a twin and 4.7kg for a triplet.
“Much depends on the weight and age of the ewe and its nutrition. Management right through pregnancy is important. If the placenta grows early all should be well but if it doesn’t it cannot transfer sufficient nutrition to the lamb.”
Immediately after the lamb is born colostrum supply becomes vitally important and it is not just a case of quantity according to SRUC sheep geneticist Dr Nicola Lambe. Using a simple and cheap refractor to measure brix levels, this should confirm sugar content at over 20 per cent and as high as 26 per cent in good colostrum.
This compares with 13.4 per cent in Gold Top cows’ milk but there can be fast reduction with ewe colostrum losing 30 per cent of its quality in only six hours.
One of the features of SheepNet has been the accumulation of technical tips from all round Europe. There are 72 in all and one involves the speedy collection of colostrum. Milking a ewe by hand is hard work but a French farmer has used a human milk pump very effectively to fill a bottle within minutes without spillage.
The SheepNet project had also considered udder morphology and produced a technical note on the subject. The shape, size and efficiency of udders is important in dairy and meat sheep but it is rarely scored or used as a selection criteria in the same way as it is in dairy cattle.
SRUC sheep geneticist Dr Anne McLaren said: “The suggestion is that flockmasters use a scoring system based on udder depth, teat placement and udder attachment. These are very important factors for machine milked dairy sheep but no less so for lamb growth in meat sheep.
An important aspect of SheepNet has been the gathering of low-tech practical ideas from around the world including from Australia and New Zealand. Many of these are simple such as installing a metal rod across a sheep race at height of about six inches. Sheep step across it without seemingly noticing but will generally not reverse across it thus helping forward flow through the handling system.
Another , this time from Spain, is to snip off one corner of a ewe’s management tag if the ewe has problem such as difficult lambing. A second corner is cut off if there is another problem, say recurring foot health.
“It is a case of two strikes, and then out,” said Prof Dwyer.
The SheepNet project may be at an end but a new programme to be known as EuroSheep begins in January with the focus this time on animal health, nutrition and sustainable and viable farming systems. Romania has dropped out of the partnership to be replaced by Hungary and Greece.