‘Flock recording will deliver huge benefits’

With the lambing season approaching for many mid-season flocks, AgriLand spoke to Eamon Wall of Sheep Ireland about the simple things farmers can do this lambing season in terms of performance recording and the benefits it can offer to your farm.

Here’s what he had to say: Lambing time is the peak labour period on sheep farms annually. As a result, the recording of animal information at this time is often sacrificed in place of routine daily tasks.

Capturing data of any kind requires some planning and organisation, but there are many levels of data capture that can be employed. The best advice for any farmer that has never captured data within their flock is to begin with a simple system.

For those with a history of collecting some information on their sheep, full flock recording of each individual sheep might be attractive and with full EID in place across the Irish industry now, a move to this level of recording is less of a task as it might have been in previous years.

Collecting any information on your flock will help you to make more informed breeding and culling decisions into the future, with huge potential to improve output, reduce labour and ultimately increase profitability.

Maximising improvement in your flock

Capturing performance records of any kind within your flock will greatly help to improve productivity from within the pool of animals currently on the farm. However, the future trajectory of the flock will be dictated by the ram purchases you make.

If retaining replacements from within the flock, sire choice is critically important. The data collected by Sheep Ireland since its foundation in 2009 shows that there is a huge variation across all key traits within every sheep breed.

Ram selection based on breed alone will not guarantee to bring your flock in a particular direction. Ram selection on physical appearance is very important to ensure physical correctness but is no guarantee of future genetic potential.

Using the €uroStar genetic indexes when selecting rams for purchase is critical for farmers wishing to make progress in the right direction. Sheep Ireland’s advice to all sheep farmers is to first ensure a potential ram purchase is physically correct in every way and then to use the €uroStar indexes to identify 4 and 5-star rams which will take your flock in a positive direction.

Combining good ram purchasing decisions with some level of data recording within the flock can deliver big gains to your sheep enterprise.

Entry-level data capture

For flocks with no history of collecting information on their sheep, here is the place to start. Permanently identifying problem ewes at lambing time with a view to culling them in the future will deliver a lot of benefit.

It is critical that the lambs born to these problem ewes are permanently identified also. These should not be retained as replacements where possible as they are likely to carry the problematic issues (genes) of their mothers.

Ewes with issues such as prolapse, mastitis, poor mothering ability, poor milk and lambing difficulty add a huge labour requirement at lambing time. Issues particularly problematic in an individual flock can be prioritised. By reducing the incidence of these issues for the future, labour efficiency will be maximised. Options to identify these animals can include ear notching or using management tags.

Management tags can be printed with any text of the farmers choice, different colour tags can also be used to identify different issues. Tag markers can also be used to write on these management tags. Some farmers employ a ‘three-strikes’ policy when identifying issues in this way.

A decision on whether to cull will need to take other factors into account, such as lamb rearing ability, age, replacements available to come into the flock etc. Raddle marks are a useful short-term identifier on sheep, but do not serve as a good long-term solution to marking animals for culling – shearing and fading of raddle marks render this method of limited value.

Of course, farmers can also promote high performing sheep using notches and management tags also. For example, if particular sheep do a great job at lambing, the female progeny of these ewes should be retained where possible and ear notching or using particular management tags can help to make sure these animals are not drafted for sale during the year.

Next-level data capture

The benefit of ear notching or using management tags to identify issues is that they are very visual when handling sheep in the yard during the year. However, now that full EID is compulsory on all Irish sheep farms, the use of EID readers to capture information is an excellent option for farmers.

There are a wide range of readers and associated software systems currently available to Irish sheep farmers. Farmers interested in purchasing this equipment should do plenty of research in advance of making a final purchasing decision. The reader and software required will depend on what the individual farmer wishes to record.

The various levels of EID recording could be summarised as follows:

  • Simply reading a group of animals with EID tags: A basic EID reader will carry out this task. Most readers come with basic software which allows for a list of numbers to be extracted onto a laptop for printing or other uses. Many of these basic readers can also link to a small mobile printer that can print lists of tags.
  • Recording lists of tags and ‘comments’ on individual sheep: Readers that allow comments to be recorded on individual animals are a step up from level 1 readers. These readers generally contain several useful features. A very useful feature to look out for is an ability to set ‘alerts’ for individual animals that have been identified for particular issues throughout the year. This ‘alerts’ function is extremely useful when checking through ewes after weaning or in advance of breeding. Ewes that have been identified as issues during the year can be drafted out from the flock at this point and assessed for possible culling.
  • Full flock performance recording: Capturing individual records on each individual sheep in the flock, including tagging lambs at birth. At this level of recording, an EID reader will need to supported by a software package that can interpret and generate useful reports using the data recorded across the flock. While tagging lambs at birth does add labour at an already busy time of year, the opportunities it opens for flock improvement are considerable. Legislation now requires all lambs to be EID tagged leaving the farm now, so putting this tag into the lamb earlier in life should be considered by farmers given the data recording options that it offers.

Our advice on assessing the right EID reader and/or software package for any flock is to talk to farmers using this equipment already. Companies selling readers and software packages should be more than happy to link interested farmers to existing customers. We are also here for farmers that have any queries. 

TAMS funding available for sheep EID readers and software

Farmers should be aware that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) continue to offer TAMS funding for the purchase of EID readers and associated software.

A 40% grant is available for this equipment through the scheme (60% for young, qualified farmers).

Conclusion

Combining flock data collection of some level and purchasing high €uroStar index rams has the potential to significantly improve productivity in any commercial sheep flock.

Regular index validation work carried out by Sheep Ireland and Teagasc show very positive differences between high and low €uroStar sheep across all the key economic performance traits and this should be exploited by all Irish sheep farmers by purchasing 4 and 5 €uroStar rams.