Lambing round-up – miserable weather and difficult conditions with the cold weather resulting in a shortfall of feed for a May lambing flock reliant on grass.

We’ve had a handful of mastitis cases and I think that every one indicates that we should have re-started feeding towards the end of lambing when things were at their tightest. Too late now and so far it seems like it wouldn’t be justified.

I remember writing that it had rained every day when the tups were out for this season’s lamb crop, and I think it has rained every day of lambing too.

I went to a seminar on business planning a few years back and part of the advice was to get yourself a mentor. I have a few mentors. One of them is Alf, a Brahman breeder from Queensland that I spent 10 days with about 25 years ago. I’ve not seen him since, although we have occasionally been in touch, it is not as often as I would like to remember.

Alf told me that the two most important skills for a cattleman were pregnancy testing and spread sheeting. As I couldn’t do either, he made me cancel a scuba-diving course on the Great Barrier Reef and gave me some practice PD-ing Brahman cows.

As a mentor, Alf often pops up in the yards. ‘What would Alf do with that cow? …oh, that’s right – he’d have culled her mother 10 years ago’! ‘What are we going to do with this ram now? …well, Alf wouldn’t have bought that one in the first place’! He’s not always helpful, but I do enjoy ‘his’ opinion.

I remember studying economics at school and learning about some fella’s ‘Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns’. The economics teacher liked graphs, and he had one that basically showed that to squeeze the last drop of milk out of a cow wasn’t worth the effort and you’d be better to have stopped as soon as the bucket stopped filling quickly.

We lost more lambs than we should have done this lambing time. With a bit more help, we could have saved more; the traditional view of ‘good welfare’ would be improved; and I’d maybe have slept better. We might have made more money too, at the end of the day – judged by the ‘Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns’, especially with lamb prices where they are.

Alf came on the phone during a bad storm at lambing time a few years ago. He said ‘don’t worry, the right ones will be there at weaning time’. In his mind you don’t miss the ones that don’t make it, genetically, at the end of the day – and that in turn improves the welfare of the herd (or flock).

As we round up lambing 2021, my mentor’s imaginary advice is instead of getting more help, just put on another 1000 ewes and assist even less. We’ll still end up with more lambs to sell. We’d either be better-off financially, genetically or maybe even both – and, depending on your viewpoint, perhaps even in terms of animal welfare too.

I’m not going to take the advice of my ‘imaginary’ mentor. I don’t think it is exactly what they meant at the business planning seminar in any case.

In the sheep genetics arena, we should be working on a 10-20-year planning horizon. Our flock is reaping the benefits now of culling and selection decisions made 10-20 years ago on mothering ability, lamb vigour and sensible outdoor lambing behaviour. Looking forward over the next 20 years, I think it is unwise to get carried away with any sort of economics graph using current market values.

Calving is rounded up, bar the last two which are imminent. The two-year-old heifers had a particularly good go this year. In all, 29 went to a low birth-weight Angus bull for six weeks of which three identified themselves unfit to keep for various reasons by the end of the summer (one structurally, one took pneumonia during what turned out to be a lungworm challenge and didn’t fully recover and the other met with a bad accident).

It wasn’t the best of starts, although when you are bulling yearlings, you haven’t invested much in them by that stage and they are (usually), growing into money over their first breeding season.

Of the 26 scanned there were 24 in calf. We now have all 24 calves skipping about and off to a good start. Their calves averaged 34kg at birth including one outlier at 46kg. It was one of three that needed a pull along with a further three that got a bit of assistance to calf. That whole group is quite a feather in the cap for Jim the cattleman who has watched and helped exceptionally patiently and diligently.

The wee ‘traditional'-type bull (whose heritage includes German, Australian, US and Scots) has been the sire of these calves for the last three years has grown too heavy for little Luing yearlings and he is now with an outdoor May-calving herd in a bid to reduce cow-size. I hope we are not missing him too much this time next year.

He has been replaced by one of four Angus yearlings that my sister, Clare, has bred. Her small herd has been focussing on low birth weight, short gestation and easy calving for the surprisingly few generations that have fitted in over the last 20 years. There is a reasonable selection of AI sires with good reliability for these traits, and in the most part they are not at the exclusion of a bit of growth and carcase performance too. Graeme the vet made the final selection under the microscope with a semen test this time.

There has been a big effort over the last week to get the Luing cows drawn for bulls. We try to pick the half that have the best chance of taking the herd in the right direction for one of two Luing bulls this year. Information going into decisions include teat and udder score at calving, no consistent assists, weaning percentage of the last few calves, calving interval, the calf at foot, cow size and condition and most importantly, structure and temperament. The result of the work now is that we are happy to keep daughters from any of them – so selection of bulling heifers is left pretty much up to the bull.

The kids have been busy with exams and what has turned into a month of serious studying following a very mixed-up year of schooling. In addition to some Highers and ‘Nat 5’s’ (whatever they might be), they deserve an exceptional PASS at ‘standing in the right place while moving stock’ and ‘dealing with Dad while drawing cows’!

In recognition of their extra effort we are heading to Benbecula to a friend’s holiday house this week. They are looking forward to a sheep-free few days and have booked a day kayaking in nearby Barra. What they don’t remember is that we sold a ram to Barra last year and I’m going to try and track him down. Well, a family holiday is for everyone!