Sheep farmers can reduce mortality rates in lambs by regulating controllable issues and knowing what their own losses are to become more efficient.

Nutrition, genetics and colostrum in a flock were just a few of the key findings from the three-year project on Graham Lofthouse's Bankhouse Farm. The former ‘AgriScot Sheep Farmer of the Year 2016’ also has a self-set target of ‘zero mortality scan to sale’ and believes this ‘unachievable’ target motivates him to work harder to find better ways of farming to get as close to that goal possible.

He was speaking at the ‘Live Lambs’ focus farms conference, which was supported by Kirsten Williams, Poppy Frater (sheep consultants from SRUC), Professor Cathy Dwyer (SRUC welfare expert), Donald Barrie (focus farmer) and Dr Alexander Corbishley (from Edinburgh University).

The project, a three-year scheme delivered by SAC Consulting, aims to understand and overcome the challenges of lamb mortality on Scottish farms. The project team worked with six focus farms around the main sheep areas of Scotland, plus one in the North of England.

The farmers (Ann McLaren, SRUC Hill and Mountain Research Centre, Crianlarich; Aaron Byrnes, Aberdeenshire; Mark Gray, Durham; Donald Barrie, Aberdeenshire; Peter Eccles, Mid-Lothian; Andrew Baillie, Lanarkshire; Duncan McEwen, Stirlingshire) had the challenge of recording their own data whilst focusing on lamb survival and improving rearing percentages.

The project had five key focus areas:

Body condition;

Nutrition in late pregnancy;

Lambing management to reduce stress;

Proactive abortion control

Recording causes of lambs’ losses.

These were used to identify each farm’s weaknesses and how they could improve their lambing percentages.

Kirsten Williams said: “Maximising the number of saleable lambs from the potential lamb crop is vital to running a high welfare and profitable sheep enterprise.”

The impact of the weather was clear in the findings. Typified by comparing this year with last, being two extremes. The ‘Beast from the East’ last year had an extensive effect on lambing percentages and mortality, whereas this year’s lambing saw better weather and lower mortality.

Taking the weather aside, the average figure of mortality percentages for the overall project from scanning through to the sale of the lambs has decreased over the period of the trial.

“With 50% of mortality occurring on the birth day of the lamb, it is seen to be the crucial time of the life of every lamb,” pointed out Professor Dwyer.

The research showed that maternal behaviour was a key topic, though there is no simple solution. However, it highlighted the fact that it was essential that the lamb suckles as quickly as possible.

This is for a number of reasons – sufficient nutrition to prevent starvation and hypothermia, passive transfer of immunoglobulin and to help reduce the risk of infectious disease, as well as promoting the ewe-lamb bond to prevent miss-mothering after birth.

Lambs must get adequate colostrum soon after birth for survival and if they do not suckle on their own, then intervention is necessary within two hours after birth. Ms Frater emphasised the need for colostrum in those vital two hours, to also prevent joint ill disease, identifying the ‘3Qs’ approach of ‘quality’, ‘quantity’ and ‘quickly’.

The quality is related to the immunoglobulin concentration that the mother provides, whilst the quantity adequate for each lamb should be between 210-290 ml/kg – with 50ml/kg in the first two hours and the remainder within the first 24 hours of birth.

During the trials, colostrum was tested through a Brix refractometer to discover if it had the necessary nutrients required for new-born lambs.

As a trial farmer, one of Mr Lofthouse’s key messages was to look for a body score of three throughout the full year to aim for 100% ewe efficiency. His sheep were in groups allocated by body score, rather than age, to help with feeding regimes and put less stress on sheep.

The majority of his lambing is indoors to control feed more readily as, in his opinion some sheep can become overweight outdoors if grazing conditions are good, resulting in lambing difficulties. Also, mortality rates can be higher outside.

His biggest reason for loss of lambs during the trial was that some lambs were too big, causing them to be stuck at birth and in need of assistance. A future goal to reduce that would be to concentrate on the genetics of his flock, both from producing females in a closed flock and for sires.

Key points from the group were to make sure colostrum was given as soon as possible and that if flockowners wanted to reduce mortality, then they need to keep an honest record of losses and the reasons why.