Sheep focus: Data recording driving flock performance in Co. Limerick

Since joining Sheep Ireland as a full performance recording flock, the performance of the flock in Salesian Agricultural College at Pallaskenry has greatly improved due to data recording.

AgriLand caught up with the college’s Sheep Enterprise teacher – David Coen – late last week on the Co. Limerick farm.

He said: “The college’s flock has been breeding sheep for over 60 years. This year, there are 210 ewes lambing down in four weeks, from the middle of March with the aim to breed a highly-prolific flock of 5-star replacement index ewes.”

Back in October 2016, all ewes were artificially inseminated to Central Progeny Test (CPT) rams to assess ewe genetics against other flocks.

The aim of this was to find out the best and worst performing ewes in the flock.

“This provided a platform to assess ewe genetics against other flocks and improved the accuracy of the data,” he added.

Recording data

Continuing, he said: “The Sheep Ireland App makes recording data much easier and more efficient. There is loads of new technologies available now that make data recording easier, such as Electronic Identification (EID) weight recording.”

David sees the enforcement of EID tagging as an opportunity to increase data recording in flocks and ultimately improve flock performance.

Preparing for lambing

In addition to the flock due to commence lambing in March, all of the ewes were winter sheared on January 10 and are due to be pregnancy scanned on January 21.

As a management practice, all ewes are housed in the run up to lambing in straw-bedded pens in groups 20-25 ewes.

“The ewes are penned according to their expected lambing date. This allows for the different allocation of meal to ewes according to their stage in late-pregnancy.”

In order to be able to do this, the ram team were raddled to help identify when each ewe was mated.

“The rams were raddled – during the breeding season – and the raddle colour changed to a different colour every week starting with yellow the first week. This was followed by red, green and then blue. So, we have a good idea when they will lamb down.”

A noteworthy idea that the farm is using is that they placed boards over each pen of ewes. This displays essential details, including: how many ewes are in that particular pen; the date which they are due to lamb; dietary requirements; and any necessary additional details.

Currently, ewes are on good-quality, 72% DMD (dry matter digestibility) grass silage ad-lib and will receive concentrate supplementation for the last eight weeks of pregnancy.

Selecting replacements

Touching on replacements, David highlighted: “Replacement females are chosen on the basis of having a replacement index higher than mature ewes in order to keep the genetic gain in the flock increasing.

“In 2018, the replacement index was €0.195 and this is predicted to increase to €0.915 in 2019.

“A lot of ewe lambs were kept this year – 88 in total. They were bred to a Charollais ram and due to lamb down with the main flock. So, many ewe lambs were kept because we are trying to build flock numbers,” he added.

“These are high replacement index females and will be the foundation of the flock for a number of years.”

Analysing the data is not the only technique used to select replacements; this is used in combination with examining physical characteristics.

“They must – on average – weigh 50kg or over and have a body condition score (BCS) of 3.5-4.5. They must also have good legs; feet; teeth; teats; and no signs of ill health.”

Since 2015, the flock has gained €1.79 on the replacement index and €0.97 on the terminal index. This has been done by using 5-star rams to mate the flock.

In addition, lamb mortality has reduced from 13% in 2016 to 9.5% in 2018 and David is confident this will reduce further in 2019.

Grazing

Touching on the grazing system implemented on the farm, he said: “The lambs creep graze ahead of the ewes and then the ewes follow on to clean out paddocks.

“90% of the lambs were finished off grass in 2018 and the remainder got meal. Even during 2018, the grass growth on the sheep block was good, so lamb growth rates didn’t suffer that badly compared to some of the other farmers around the country.”

He added: “The grazing block is located around the college; they might be in a paddock grazing for two or three days and then they are moved onto a new paddock.

“The aim is to have all the lambs finished off grass before the rams go out again for the start of the breeding season in October; a date that has not been hit yet, but is getting closer each year.

“Grass measuring is done on a weekly bases and this ensures correct grazing decisions are being made. Sheep typically enter a paddock at a cover of 1,000kg of DM / ha.

“This leafy grass insures that the ewes will have adequate milk production, as well as good growth rates in lambs post weaning,” he explained.

Lamb performance

Speaking about how the lambs performed in 2018, he said: “We saw a much higher weaning percentage – up 0.4 of a lamb more in 2018 than 2017.

“We found that our ewes who were of higher genetic merit for milk had lambs nearly 7kg heavier – on average – at weaning compared to 1-star counterparts.

“Also, the ewes that were 5-star for days-to-slaughter were getting lambs to the factory nearly three weeks earlier than the ewes that were 1-star,” he concluded.