Managing Surplus Lambs in 2017

With this year’s lambing season just around the corner, we look at the best way to manage your surplus lambs in 2017. Exploring environmental and economic factors that could provide you with the advice you need to make the most of this year’s lamb crop. 

The recent fall in the value of Sterling against the Euro may have brought back memories of the 2008 financial crash, but the downward exchange rate movement precipitated by Britain’s choice to leave the EU could be good news for UK sheep producers. However, UK sheep farmers are right to see a window of opportunity in 2017. With tighter supplies of New Zealand lamb forecast later this year, producers should be able capitalise on the situation if finished lamb numbers are boosted. Lamb prices could also remain strong, particularly if sterling continues its relative weakness against the Euro, which will boost demand from mainland Europe.

Given this, industry experts are urging farmers to put a sound system in place to be able to produce as many saleable lambs as possible from the 2017 crop.

“With the Eurozone accounting for 19 in every 20 sheep meat exports, a relatively strong Euro should ensure decent demand for British lamb next year. It may be short term, but it’s the flipside of recent years when we have had a relatively strong pound and other adverse market conditions working together to depress our export trade.

“As a result, we can only hope that UK producers will be able to cash in for once, but will do so only if they have high numbers of healthy lambs to sell,” says independent sheep consultant Kate Phillips.

Options for Surplus Lambs

Every sheep producer has to cope with surplus lambs to a certain extent, whether it be through losses or due to a large number of ewes bringing more than two lambs. When prices for our lamb are weak, the motivation for producers to be as productive as possible may not be there. However, it should be now given the positive outlook for UK sheep producers.

Ms Phillips says that it makes good sense to plan ahead and re-examine current surplus lamb rearing practices. You have three options come lambing time:

  • Sell them to someone else to rear
  • Foster surplus lambs onto a single-bearing ewe, or
  • Artificially rear them on milk replacer

“If you intend to rear as many as you can to maximise your finished lamb sales, it’s good practice to take any third and fourth lambs off their mothers. This will help boost lamb survival rates and performance, and take the pressure off ewes trying to rear multiples. This is particularly important for young mothers and will help her keep growing and producing enough milk for the lambs she has left.”

When deciding which lamb to remove from a triplet-bearing ewe, Ms Phillips advises removing either the smallest or the largest one to leave a balanced pair. “Whichever lamb is chosen it must be sucking well, been with its mother for 24 hours after birth and have received a good supply of colostrum, particularly in the first six hours of life.”

Only a third of producers choose the odd one out in a group of three, which is what we would recommend. It’s always best to leave a balanced pair of lambs on the mother. Everyone else is employing a mix of criteria to make the choice, with the most favoured approach being removal of the weakest lamb (19.44% of units). Other norms include always taking the strongest lamb (17.33%), or the smallest (15.46%). Just under 5% of farmers say they typically select the largest triplet, a similar proportion said they tend to remove a male lamb with just under 4% saying they generally take a female.

Interestingly, more than 70% of farmers would also consider removing a lamb from a twin-bearing ewe lamb to take the pressure off and allow her to keep milking and growing.

Artificial Rearing

If intending to follow artificial rearing practices, bear in mind that automated machine feeding is now becoming more popular and offers many advantages over traditional restricted feeding with a bottle or teated bucket. Wynnstay can offer a number of different automated feeders such as the Heatwave Milk Warmer® , Ewe 2 Feeder or Ewe 2 Plus Feeder, please contact your local store or representative for further information.

“Surplus lambs can now be reared very efficiently artificially and without the problems associated with fostering onto an unwilling ewe. With good husbandry, sound organisation and the right milk replacer there’s no doubt you can produce good quality lambs, as well as save yourself hours of effort and hassle,” Ms Phillips says.

It does seem that more UK sheep producers are starting to appreciate the benefits of machine-rearing lambs, and to be as accepting as professional calf rearers about the latest technology available to them.

“We saw a 135% increase in sales of our automated lamb milk feeders for the 2016 lambing season and expect this trend to continue into 2017, particularly if the pound stays weak against the Euro,” reports Jackie Bradley from young animal nutrition specialists Volac.

“Farmers are undoubtedly attracted by the labour-saving benefits and the fact that machine-rearing frees up time to focus on other important jobs. But they also report faster growth rates because there is no limit to how much or when the lambs can drink. Producers also say they see fewer digestive upsets.

“Most significantly, though, users also report a decent margin over feed of anywhere between £15 and £25 per lamb. This margin could be even healthier in 2017 if lamb price and demand remains buoyant,” she says.

Machines are available to buy or rent, but Ms Bradley stresses that they are not a substitute for good husbandry. “Sound hygiene is crucial and lamb pens must be draught-free, well drained and bedded to keep lambs as warm and dry as possible. Clean, fresh water also needs to be available along with creep feed (18% crude protein) offered ad lib to encourage early intake. Lambs should be weaned abruptly at no less than five weeks of age when they are two and half times birthweight and eating an average of 0.25kg of creep a day over three days,” she says.

When to Wean Lambs

Studies show that British sheep producers are using a variety of criteria for weaning their surplus lambs, but it is great to see that a majority (65%) using a mix of age, daily food consumption, appearance and weight to make the decision (figure 2). However, this still leaves about a third of farmers using single measures such as simply age or appearance to trigger weaning.

The timing of weaning should not be controlled solely by a lamb’s age or weight, but also with consideration to the diet that is fed and the physical and chemical processes associated with its digestion.

Need more lambing advice? Download the Handy Lambing Guide by Volac for handy information to get you through the lambing season, including useful information on managing your surplus lambs.

Information provided by Volac

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