Feeding the dry dairy cow for optimum performance can be difficult depending on the breed and production figures expected and it’s a similar situation for lambing ewes of all breeds and in all situations.

With the number of lambs carried varying between flocks and within flocks depending on the condition of the ewe at tupping time, management and the weather until scanning, ensuring such ewes are able to hold onto 100% of those lambs and produce sufficient milk can prove problematic.

Donald Barrie, farm manager at the James Hutton’s hill farm unit at Glensaugh, Laurencekirk, and his able shepherd, Jim Scott, have nevertheless produced some pretty impressive results from their first year in the SRUC’s Live Lambs project.

This three-year government funded scheme which includes five farmers with different systems and in different areas, is aimed at increasing lamb survivability by 5%. Launched in 2016, first year results saw the Aberdeenshire-based research farm at Glensaugh produce the highest percentage of live lambs born and weaned against initial pregnancy scanning figures.

Weather can cause huge problems at lambing time mostly for outdoor systems, however Mr Barrie’s mixed indoor and outdoor enterprises produced the highest percentage of reared lambs in both – a point he believes is mostly down to pre-lambing nutrition and the quantity and quality of colostrum produced.

Donald is also convinced that one of the main reasons a lamb draws it’s last breath later in life for no reason, is because it did not receive sufficient colostrum in its first few hours. It can also be the reason why individual lambs fail to thrive the same as others even though they have been vaccinated and dosed for everything, he said.

Hence, feeding the ewe the right type of diet in the last few weeks of pregnancy is key to producing that quality colostrum, which on the farm’s 2137acres of hill ground unit saw 340 Blackface ewes yield a scanned lambing percentage of 123%.

Ideally, this should have produced 420 live lambs but in turn resulted in 408 lambs born of which 373 were weaned. This represents a 97% success rate at birth and 89% at weaning compared to initial scanning figures.

Notably, these sheep all lambed outside in outdoor parks and were only looked once or twice a day.

Such ewes were tupped in parks and kept on the heather hill ground which rises to 1500ft above sea-level, all winter with concentrate feeding introduced only to twin-bearing ewes after scanning. No feed blocks are provided to avoid the spread of disease.

Hill lambs lost between scanning and lambing date in the hill flock were mostly due to abortions, however, Donald has been able to pinpoint the reasons behind the five Blackface lambs lost within a week of birth.

“These lambs were all twin-born, born in the same field and on the day we were badly hit by snow, which could point to more stress on the ewe, miss mothering and probably lack of sufficient colostrum in the first few hours.”

Results further down the hill for the 483 lowground Blackies and Mules that graze the 365acres of rotational and permanent pasture and are lambed indoors under the watchful eye of Jim Scott and two vet students, were also pretty impressive.

The 406 Mule ewes that were tupped either with a Texel or a Hybrid ram, produced scanning percentages of 201%, which ideally should have produced 819 lambs but instead saw 804 born alive, or 98% of initial scanning results. The 41 still born lambs were mostly from triplet rearing ewes. A further 18 lambs died between birth and weaning.

This compares to the 77 lowground Blackface ewes which also lamb inside and last year produced scanning figures of 155%, or potentially 120 live lambs. Instead, these girls produced 110 live lambs of which six were still-born, with two dying within a week and a further two at between a week old and weaning.

“One of the reasons we have such good figures is down to our shepherd Jim Scott who is meticulous for attention to detail at lambing time,” said Donald.

“Jim is in charge of all lambing in the shed, ensuring all lambs get sufficient colostrum early enough and making sure the navals of each lamb are dipped in iodine before being putting into individual pens with their mothers.”

Newly born lambs are also given a scour-halt dose and tagged at one to two days of age, with care being taken to spray iodine at the point of incision in the ear to avoid infection.

Most years the Mules, which are bought in as enzootic accredited gimmers, receive good quality pit silage from the middle of December through until lambing. Concentrate feed is introduced after scanning when they are then divided between those carrying singles, twins and triplets.

By producing the best quality silage possible, Donald has been able to reduce the amount of concentrates used, but he stressed that this can only be safely achieved by having your silage analysed to allow diets to be tweaked according to forage quality. Concentrate costs were further reduced last year by including protected soya in the ration, which this year is being provided by East Coast Viners.

“Soya is expensive, but you only need a small amount – 200g per lamb – so it can significantly reduce your feed costs, but you do have to have high quality silage to meet energy demand,” said Donald.

All lowland ewes are vaccinated with Heptavac P, and come in to lamb in straw bedded courts, roughly a day before they are due. Inside they receive ad-lib haylage and concentrate fed in troughs. Lambed ewes and their offspring are transferred to individual pens as they are born and are then shipped outside as soon as possible, with pens disinfected with powder and rebedded after each ewe.

• The SRUC’s ‘Live Lambs’ project brings together five sheep farmers; advisers, researchers, and members of the supply chain to tackle the causes, monitor on-farm performance and introduce improvements to reduce lamb losses. Other Live Lambs Focus farmers include: Duncan McEwan, Arnprior near Stirling; Andrew Baillie of Carstairs Mains, Carstairs, both previously QMS Monitor Farmers. They are joined by Aaron Byrnes, originally from Australia but now farming near New Deer in Aberdeenshire; Donald Barrie, Farms Manager at the James Hutton Institute hill farm at Glensaugh and Lothians Farm Manager Peter Eccles from Saughland Farm, Pathhead.