Recording basic information at lambing time is the first stage to improving flock performance. Chloe Palmer speaks to vet, Shona Mouncey.
Taking the time out to note down losses at lambing and recording simple statistics will pay dividends with future flock management.
Shona Mouncey, a senior vet and practice principal at Westpoint Farm Vets, believes there is a need for sheep farmers to put systems in place for recording key information at lambing time to reduce future mortality levels.
She says: “We need to be better at this because we know lambing losses are common and around half happen within the first 48 hours after birth. If farmers do not know when and where their losses are occurring, it is unlikely they will be able to do anything about them.
“Knowing how many ewes were put to the ram, the number of lambs at scanning and the number of lambs born alive is a good starting point. This will enable farmers to identify the number of barren ewes, the number of abortions and still births.
“I would encourage farmers to keep a simple tally of lambs born alive and dead. Even this can be a challenge in the midst of lambing when there is so much going on and farmers are exhausted.”
Finding the right system for recording will depend on if farmers are lambing indoors or outdoors and whether they are lambing alone and whether they have staff.
Mrs Mouncey says: “Recording inaccurate data is not useful to anyone. Using EID recorders, boards on the wall or a pen and paper are all fine but the main thing is to be consistent.
“Lambing staff can present another difficulty as each person must record the results in the same way for the information is to be valid. Agreeing definitions with the team at the beginning is vital, such as clarifying what should be defined as a still birth.”
Counting the number of lambs turned out is also a useful statistic and should be relatively easy to do, Mrs Mouncey adds.
“When turning out lambs, usually they are numbered, so it is not difficult to make a note of how many are put out to grass. This will provide a figure for how many lambs have been lost between birth, or scanning, if birth figures are unknown, and turnout.”
“As most farmers will know how many lambs they sell, it is straight forward to calculate how many are lost between turnout and sale.”
Mrs Mouncey believes even simple records will enable farmers to consider the nature of the problems they are encountering, when they are occurring and therefore ‘which bit of the system is not working or could be improved’.
“Once farmers are happy with keeping a born alive and dead tally, we encourage them to record the reason for losses where possible. To make this quick and easy, it might be helpful to create a key so each different cause of mortality is given a number,” she says.
Ensuring information is recorded in a clear manner is essential because otherwise it will be impossible to interpret it several months later. Comparing records from one year to the next can help to identify whether any action taken has had a positive or negative effect.
“Once it is possible to use the information recorded to figure out why losses might be occurring, farmers can then focus on the actions which should deliver the biggest reduction in mortality at lambing.
“I would recommend only making one or two changes to the system in a single season otherwise it will be difficult to identify which factors have had a positive impact,” Mrs Mouncey advises.
She says detailed lambing data is useful for farmers who are breeding their own replacements and can help with decision making. “These breeders often make detailed notes on lambing vigour, milkiness and mothering ability of the ewe, ease of lambing and need for assistance because this can help decide which ewes will produce the best flock replacements. Data can highlight ewes with less impressive maternal attributes and these can be bred to produce meat lambs instead.”
As farmers become more comfortable with recording lambing performance, they can choose to benchmark their results to industry targets, says Mrs Mouncey.
“AHDB Beef and Lamb produces a ‘Stocktake’ report each year and the data in this enables producers to benchmark their figures against industry averages and targets.
“We would urge farmers to contact their vet if they encounter particular issues such as if more than 5 per cent of ewes are empty. These ‘trigger points’ indicate it is necessary to undertake further investigation to identify the problem.”
Mrs Mouncey encourages all farmers to start recording lambing figures this spring. She says: “It is the initial engagement in the process of recording which can be challenging. Being honest and consistent is fundamental to generating good data but once farmers see the benefits of using the information, they will run with it.”