Many farms will be gearing up for lambing and an influx of family, friends, students and helpers for one of the busiest times of year on-farm. Throw in calving and spring field work and it can be difficult to ensure everyone is on top of their game when there’s so much to do.

For Banff and Buchan Monitor Farm host Bruce Irvine, a pre-lambing visit and team discussion from SRUC’s vet specialist Tim Geraghty, along with farm vet Alison Taylor of Buchan Vets, made a huge difference to flock performance, and it’s something he’s planning to repeat this spring. Lambing losses fell significantly, from the Scottish average of about 15% to less than 10%, and better lamb health meant they finished earlier, as well as requiring about 10t less feed to do so – saving more than £1600.

The farm’s 470 mainly Highlander ewes lamb outside during the day, coming in at night. With lambing and calving of the 110 predominantly Stabiliser sucklers happening at the same time at Bruce’s 650-acre unit at Sauchentree near New Aberdour on the north east coast, he usually employs vet students in their Easter break, as well as being assisted by family and some regular lambing helpers. While there is a temptation to think everyone, and especially vet or agri students, will be familiar with lambing and tasks such as stomach tubing, it’s not always the case, says Tim.

“It’s dangerous to assume everyone will know. You need to make it easy for people to say they are not 100% sure, and that they won’t be judged for saying that. Part of our time on the visit was spent ensuring everyone was confident about tasks such as stomach tubing, and to make it the default that everyone did it in the same way.”

Colostrum was a key focus of the discussion, with quantity, quality and quickness being the watchwords. Alison spent time with every team member making sure they could tube a lamb successfully, as it can be a difficult task to be confident about, she says.

“People are often very worried about it going down the wrong way, but we were able to get everyone to do it, and to realise how they could tell it was in the correct place.”

She also talked to the team about colostrum and ensuring that every lamb had received enough, preferably within two hours of birth.

“Where there is a team of lambers working, it can often be a good idea to have one person in charge for the day. They are the one who takes the responsibility of going round the shed ensuring all lambs have drunk and are well.”

Tim adds: “We also talked about maternal care – how quickly the ewe needs to eat and drink after lambing, which is a stressful process. They then have a serious job to do producing colostrum and milk for their lambs so they can’t be waiting for water and feed. They will be at risk of negative energy balance, and that will offset their capacity to look after their lambs.

“If they’re lambing inside, they are totally reliant on us for the first 48 hours to provide their feed and water, and they should have fresh, well-presented feed and water almost immediately after lambing. It’s something dairy farmers are very good at but at lambing, it’s easy to get distracted by the next job. The ewe has to have fresh water and food as soon as possible.”

Ewes that have had a stressful lambing might also benefit from an anti-inflammatory, he adds.

Biosecurity and personal hygiene were key topics for discussion and can make the biggest difference to lambing success, says Tim.

The Scottish Farmer: SRUC vet specialist Tim Geraghty SRUC vet specialist Tim Geraghty

“It’s normal that on a mixed farm your wellies and leggings or overalls might be a bit dirty or muddy, but in the four to five-week window of lambing you are dealing with very high-risk baby lambs that are trying to develop their immunity in a very busy area.

“Having clean hands, using gloves and having clean leggings can make a massive difference – set the bar that the lambing shed will be a clean place. If you set out with clean leggings, you are likely to wash them down if you get some lamb skitter on them, but if you start with dirty leggings they usually just get dirtier and you are less likely to notice, and can pose a huge infection risk.”

Managing infection risk should be given consideration. One of the keys is removing poorly lambs from the lambing shed and keeping them in a separate building well away from the healthy ewes and lambs, he says. “These poorly lambs will be excreting millions of bugs, and when you are nursing them, you have to be very aware of that, as you can very easily spread it. Your responsibility is to the whole flock, so even if you save one lamb, if you infect another 20 or 30 that is not a gain.”

The Scottish Farmer: How clean are your wellies and leggings?How clean are your wellies and leggings?

When it comes to managing sick lambs, think about the risk of disease transfer, he warns.

“Every time you kneel down in the sick lamb pen you will pick up their bugs, and can potentially carry them back to the main, healthy flock. It’s worth raising the awareness of how dangerous the sick and pet pens can be to other lambs.”

Biosecurity and cleanliness between the main flock and these pens is critical, so think about a different set of leggings and wellies for the two areas. “If the team understand the risk, they can usually work out the best solution for the farm.”

For Bruce, the vet discussion was a chance to make sure everyone understood the potential issues and could decide what to do about sick lambs. “Last year, they ended up going into my office – it turned into a lamb creche!

“Taking out the sick lambs stopped them spreading bugs across the lambing shed – it made it a much healthier place. In the past, we have had issues with coccidiosis and cryptosporidiosis, but we had far fewer issues this year as lambs had less bacteria to fight to start with.”

As the farm was previously organic, it couldn’t use disinfectant but now Bruce has reverted to conventional production being able to use it will make a big difference, he says.

While grass growth was better last summer and autumn, Bruce says the focus on making lambing healthier has had a big positive impact on the business. “We lost far fewer lambs – only about 10% – they finished earlier, and on far less feed. We only had about 30 left at the end of January this year compared with about 200 at the same point the previous year. Better management at lambing really helped.”

The Scottish Farmer: Alison Taylor, Buchan VetsAlison Taylor, Buchan Vets

Students are also well treated at Sauchentree and even if they have done a lambing course before arriving, Bruce is keen to make sure they are competent.

“They’re here to learn, so we are happy if they want to ask lots of questions. We don’t put them on nightshift, and they eat with us, and stay either in the house or in a caravan in the shed.”

Usually at least one of the vet students returns, allowing some continuity, but this year university holidays are only a fortnight, so Bruce plans to have four students – two for the first fortnight and two for the second couple of weeks. This means the vet meeting will need to be repeated, but Bruce believes its positive impact means it is well worth it.

Lambing is usually over six to eight weeks at Sauchentree, and scanning results mean it will be a busy time – the ewes scanned at 207% and the ewe hoggs at 160%. To ensure the ewes have enough quality colostrum and milk, they will be fed a TMR based on the farm’s high-quality silage.

Setting the ewes up for a good lambing and another vet team discussion planned for this year means the focus on ewe and lamb nutrition, biosecurity and cleanliness should drive another good performance at Sauchentree. “These multiple things all add up,” says Bruce.

Pre-lambing visit

The pre-lambing vet visit came about because Bruce Irvine is involved in the Monitor Farm Scotland programme, but it was such a success that he is going to run it again this year, especially with some new students coming to help.

Tim Geraghty says spending time with your vet on a proactive approach – rather than dealing with problems once they’ve occurred – can help focus on what can be done to improve things now.

“There is a danger if you always review last year and have limited time with your vet that you might miss things that could be changed now. Last year can’t be influenced, but we can look at what is immediately within our control in the next few weeks or months.

“There’s only so much we can keep in mind, and a pre-lambing discussion like this, which is just focused entirely on lambing, can really help with the right advice at the right time.

“This was about focusing on the next four to five weeks, making sure the whole team understands the risks and can agree solutions so you maximise lambing health and success.”

While many vets run pre-lambing courses, they will also be happy to take a more proactive and one-to-one approach such as this if clients demand it. “This team training conversation can have a huge impact on lambing success. Think about how many more lambs will be sold for the time spent.”

“Don’t be complacent – just because you have got it right one year doesn’t mean it will always be like that. The risk profile is dynamic and does change. Keep being disciplined, looking for your weak spots and where things go wrong – a fresh set of eyes or an outside voice such as your vet can be really helpful.”