There is tremendous scope to increase both lamb output and overall sheep performance efficiency, according to Teagasc’s Dr Tim Keady.

“We are just about to complete a major trial on ewe lifetime performance, the results of which will throw new light on how best to increase the performance levels achieved by Ireland’s lowland sheep sector,” the Athenry-based research scientist commented.

“Fundamentally, there are a number of key factors which impact on flock output. These include ewe prolificacy and longevity, nutrition of the pregnant ewe, grassland management, shearing ewes at housing and rearing male lambs entire.

“But the scope to improve sheep meat output is already obvious. Currently, performance figures from the National Farm Survey for Irish lowland sheep farms confirm a weaning rate of 1.25 lambs per ewe joined.”

One of the most interesting trends identified by the current Teagasc project is the ability and necessity for triplet bearing ewes to rear all of their own lambs.

“This can be achieved by offering additional concentrates to these ewes and providing all lambs born to these animals with creep,” Keady commented.

“Our work has confirmed that feeding an additional 80 kilos to a triplet bearing ewe and her progeny, pre-birth and up to weaning, will produce three weaned lambs with a weaning  weight approximately 1 kilo heavier than twins reared by a ewe that received no concentrate at all. This means that that the extra lamb is weaned for a cost of approximately €20 to €25.”

Keady also pointed out that feeding pregnant ewes properly is not code for simply offering more meals.

“The trick is to match concentrate feeding rates to forage quality. And, of course, this highlights the importance of providing ewes with good grass and silage in the run up to and post lambing. At Athenry no concentrate has been offered to ewes post lambing in the research flock for the last nine years, even though there has been major  variability in grass availability from year to year.”

Ewe prolificacy is inherently linked to the breed make-up of the animal. And, in this context, the current Teagasc research work has confirmed the relevance of Belclare breeding stock.

“One of the Belclare sheep greatest attributes is the ability to produce and rear higher litter sizes successfully,” Keady said.

“Our current work is confirming that when Belclare ewe lambs are lambed as yearlings they will wean 1. 3 lambs per ewe lamb joined.  This is on a par with the results being achieved,  across the board, by lowland flocks in Ireland.

“When lambed as hoggets Belclare wean an extra 0.4 lambs per ewe joined, compared to ewes which are predominantly Suffolk. Currently, about 75% of the ewes in the national flock have either Suffolk or Texel breeding.”

The sheep scientist also pointed out that it is a mistake to cull ewes on the basis of age only.

“Yes, ewes must be culled if they have bad udders, mouths or some other intrinsic problem. However, our work has confirmed that older ewes have inherently a better mothering ability and have the wherewithal to produce and wean larger numbers of heavier lambs,” he said.