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Increased ewe housing capacity with no extra investment in buildings

January 10, 2022

With growing flock size and improving efficiency often comes the challenge of finding enough space at lambing. One County Down farmer is hoping to overcome this by shearing his ewes at housing in the winter.

Jayme Carvill farms in partnership with his brother and father outside Hilltown, Co.Down. The farm carries a total of 450 lambing ewes, 300 ewe lambs and 120 bullocks over 220 acres of which over 50% is classified as severely disadvantaged area (SDA). 

For the last six years, Jayme has been a member of his local sheep Business Development Group (BDG) led by specialist technical facilitator Adam Jones. He has also been an AFBI GrassCheck farmer for the past five years.

Through membership of his local BDG, Jayme has made improvements to grassland management and flock health. He now completes regular soil analysis, measures grass weekly and breeds all his own replacements. These improvements in efficiency have allowed Jayme to increase the number of Texel Blue-Leicester cross ewes from 250 six years ago to the current 450 today.

Jayme is hoping to increase flock size further despite ewe numbers approaching the stocking capacity for the buildings available. He also has problems with ewes becoming stuck on their backs whenever they are heavy in lamb and full fleeced.

Jayme added, “We have increased ewe numbers gradually over the last few years. Genetics have improved and so has my grass management. We’re at a stage now where we could push ewe numbers on, but housing is becoming the limiting factor”.

With a few options considered, Jayme has decided to look at the possibility of shearing his ewes at housing in late December when scanning is complete. Ewes are normally housed for 10 weeks before lambing starts in early March.

It is recommended that unshorn ewes housed on straw bedding or slats have a minimum space allowance of 1.2m2 at 70kg and 1.4 m2 at 90Kg. For shorn ewes this can be reduced by a maximum of 10% allowing more ewes to be housed per pen.

Recent research by Teagasc has shown that lamb birth weights are 0.6Kg heavier and weaning weights are increased by 1.9Kg compared to un-shorn ewes. This is due to ewes having higher feed intakes and lambs being born later as they are not as susceptible to heat stress. Mortality is also reduced as ewes that are shorn are more likely to seek out shelter and take their lambs with them.

There are some important management issues that need to be considered. Only ewes with a body condition score of 2.5 and above should have their fleeces removed. It is also important to ensure ewes are only sheared at housing and should be housed for a minimum of eight weeks to allow for optimal wool regrowth. Fleece length should be at least 12mm (0.5 inches) at turnout.  Even though re-growth will occur it is still important to consider shelter at turnout which can include natural barriers such as slopes and hedgerows to protect ewes and lambs from the worst weather events.  

Winter shearing provides a means of increasing the stocking density in available housing without any significant investment or change of system.

The BDG scheme is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development.