Tips for the smallholder for tupping sheep

First published in News by

THE dark months of the year are usually a fairly quiet time for the flock which should be safely in-lamb, but this doesn’t mean you can shut the gate and forget about it.

Just what you should be doing and when depends very much on when the first lambs are due to arrive. For many smallholders this is likely to be March/April or even a little later.

If you are lambing in the spring then by Christmas your ewes will be in the early stages of pregnancy and hopefully all should be progressing well. To ensure this happy state of affairs continues it makes sense to keep a few points in mind.

■Keep handling down to a minimum.

Stress of any sort in the early stages of pregnancy can cause the developing embryo to abort or be re-absorbed. Obviously any sign of injury or illness cannot be neglected, but, if possible, avoid tipping the ewe onto her rear end which is often done to treat conditions such as footrot.

Instead, either have someone hold the animal’s head or tie the ewe up. Pick up the affected hoof as you would a horse and treat in the normal way.

This method isn’t as easy for the shepherd, but is less stressful for the patient.

The good thing about smallholders flocks, is that numbers tend to be small and ewes are tamer and more used to human contact, so less liable to react to alarming situations.

■Avoid moving the flock into fields where footpaths cross. Your ewes may happily tolerate your dog, but strange dogs with owners on morning walks will rouse suspicions and there is always the risk of an irresponsible owner allowing his pet to run rampant amongst your ewes.

The excuse, ‘he’s only playing,’ isn’t much consolation when three weeks later you suddenly notice half the flock are being tupped again.

■Ensure you have wormed well before tupping and don’t do it again until at least a month after and only if it is necessary. (Read the manufacturer’s instructions as there may be some issues re pregnant ewes).

■Most shepherds will have probably saved some good gazing for ‘flushing’ when the ram was introduced. This is to help maximise fertility which will hopefully result in twins.

Ideally, this level of nutrition should be maintained for the next few weeks. Grass quality obviously declines with the diminishing daylight and colder weather, so if grazing is looking poor, introduce some good quality hay or silage. You shouldn’t really need to feed cake at this stage as the ewes should have been in good condition before tupping. You don’t want them to get too fat as being over weight can also reduce lambing percentages.

■April lambing means introducing the ram at the beginning of November. Keep an eye on how many ewes have been tupped. Using raddle, which is just a coloured crayon strapped to the ram’s chest will help you do this.

Ewes come into season every 13 to 19 days with the average being 17 days so you need to change the ram’s raddle colour every ten to 14 days. The usual order is, red, blue, yellow, green.

During the fuss and excitement of Christmas and the majority of your ewes sporting red or blue patches on their backsides, it is easy to over look the odd one or two that is being marked yellow or green. What this means is the ewe has gone through three or even four cycles without holding to service.

If these ewes eventually do become pregnant then you will be faced with lambing one or two ewes several weeks after the main flock has finished lambing. You may be quite happy with this, but when we kept our pedigree Suffolks, the odd late lamber was always more trouble than it was worth. The resulting lambs nearly always had to be sold either as fat lambs or run on for another year and sold as shearlings.

Either way, they never justified their costs.

If you think a late lamber will cause you problems, then you would be best to cull these ewes at the first opportunity. It goes without saying, you should definitely out any that don’t get pregnant at all.

Breeders of pedigree sheep will be at a completely different stage of their enterprise.

They will be looking to exhibit at the summer agricultural shows and sell their stock at the autumn sheep fairs. They need to be lambing in January/February with some breeds now allowing December lambing.

For many, December is when flocks are scanned. The results will confirm not only pregnancy, but lambing numbers. This is important as twin bearing ewes need to be adequately fed to avoid ‘twin lamb’ disease.

In fact, all ewes need some supplementary feeding during the last six weeks of pregnancy.

This is known as ‘steaming up’ and is done by increasing the protein content of a ewe’s diet, usually be feeding ewe nuts or a ewe mix.

Knowing whether the ewe is carrying one or two lambs can help cut costs as a ewe carrying a singleton will not need as much cake as one carrying twins.

How much to feed depends on the protein content of the feed and the size of the ewe.

Suffolks are big sheep so we would feed up to 1.5 kg of concentrates at 18 per cent per ewe, but don’t do this in one step. Begin about six weeks before lambing with a small feed once a day. Once you get up to about .5 kg, split this into two feeds. The work load increases, but it does allow close inspection of the flock.

For many, December is when flocks are scanned. The results will confirm not only pregnancy, but lambing numbers Sheep are greedy eaters so ensure you have adequate trough space. There should be a minimum of 20” of trough per ewe although ewe lambs and small sheep may be able to get away with 15”.

Don’t forget though, that if your sheep have horns, they will need more. If you can set up a system whereby you can place food in the troughs from outside the pen you will find it much easier to feed and less of a risk of being flattened.

Vaccinating against the clostridial diseases is also done during the last few weeks of lambing.

These diseases afflict young lambs and can cause heavy losses. By vaccinating your ewes, lambs will absorb some immunity from their mothers’ milk.

Vaccine is readily available and can be obtained from your vet. Two injections are given at least four to six weeks apart. Booster injections need administering every 12 months.

Breeding ewes should be vaccinated four weeks before lambing to ensure their colostrum contains high levels of antibodies to protect the newborn lamb. Keep a look out for late lambers as you may have to re-do the vaccination to be certain of protection.

Lastly, as with the newly pregnant ewe, keep handling to a minimum, but don’t worry too much. Many housed flocks are sheared prior to lambing without mishap and most will have the wool dagged from around the vent and udder

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