Sheep producers who joined a pilot program aimed at turning reproductive potential into reality have successfully lifted their lamb survival rates despite tough seasonal conditions.
Sheep consultant Jason Trompf launched the Lambs Alive program in February this year and had 125 sheep enterprises join from NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.
The participants included both Merino breeders and meat sheep producers with a total of 300,000 ewes, with 200,000 Merinos and over 100,000 crossbreds, represented.
Some producers were facing very severe drought conditions while others were enjoying strong seasons.
The farmers were coached over the year through a series of live online education sessions, a closed Facebook group and an online library of practical information that can be accessed anytime.
Mr Trompf, who is best known for his work as a co-developer and educator of the Lifetime Ewe Management and Bred Well Fed Well programs, said the aim of Lambs Alive was to keep producers focused on optimising the performance of their ewes and lambs through the entire reproductive cycle.
He said the program was launched at a critical time for the Australian sheep industry which is facing record-low flock numbers and surging demand for lamb and mutton.
"With ewe numbers as low as they are and such an insatiable appetite for our lamb and mutton products we have a real challenge nationally to fulfill markets and sustain our flock," he said.
"We are eroding our natural capital in the sheep industry as every day goes past.
"We have to, as an industry, perfect the task of producing more from less because of where our national flock is at.
"Improving lamb survival takes the handbrake off production, lifts profits and improves welfare outcomes.
How the first year went
Participants in Lambs Alive began by submitting their 2018 scanning and marking rates. These were then compared to the 2019 figures, submitted throughout the year as producers tried to implement what they had learned.
"Overall, for the 300,000 Merino and crossbred ewes we started with a 135pc scanning rate in 2018," Mr Trompf said.
"Of that, the producers marked 104pc which represented a lamb survival of 77pc.
"In 2019, they scanned 132pc and marked 108pc, representing an 82pc lamb survival rate."
Mr Trompf said it was notable that they'd been able to improve lamb survival by 5pc in spite of the drought conditions many faced.
"That was a great result," he said.
"We are trying to encourage the producers to have a more repeatable outcome regardless of the season by proactively allocating resources to drive ewe performance."
Program participants were left in no doubt that ewe condition was critical to lamb survival rates.
Mr Trompf said achieving optimal body condition score not only set the ewe up well for conception and pregnancy, but it also correlated to optimal birth weights and ultimately lamb survival.
The first step in controlling the condition of the ewes was to pregnancy scan for multiples to determine what each ewe was carrying and how much she needed to be fed, he said.
"To this day, nationally only about 25 to 30pc of producers scan for multiples," he said.
"Scanning allows you to determine if a ewe is empty or carrying a single lamb or twins or triplets which means we can then tailor the nutrition to suit."
Mr Trompf said producers should ultimately aim for the following body condition scores:
- Merino ewe with single - 3, Merino ewe with twins - 3.3
- Crossbred ewe with single - 2.8, Crossbred ewe with twins - 3.3
There was a risk, Mr Trompf said, that some crossbred ewes whose nutrition was not managed correctly, would produce very large lambs which could also impact lamb survival rates, particularly with singles.
Producers who scan also have the advantage of being able to prioritise their best lambing environments for the twin bearing ewes.
The lambing environment encompasses a range of factors including feed quality and quantity, shelter and privacy.
Mr Trompf said smaller mob sizes for twin bearing ewes reduced losses due to miss-mothering.
He also said ewes that felt 'content' were more likely to stay with and raise a lamb - a factor that was especially important when producers were feeding.
"One thing that helps ewes settle under grain rations is to provide adequate amounts of high quality hay during lambing," he said.
"If she feels content she is more likely to stay with her lamb rather than run to the feed trail or a self-feeder but it won't work with low quality hay."
Producers had to closely watch the behavior of ewes at lambing to optimise their marking rates, Mr Trompf said.
"Anything that congregates a mob, like water or feed points, compromises privacy for the ewes," he said.
"Producers must do their best to naturally disperse the mob during lambing."
Early weaning options
Early weaning is another tactic that producers could consider in order to improve ewe condition for the next reproductive cycle.
Mr Trompf said it was possible to wean lambs as young as seven to eight weeks rather than the traditional 12 to 14 weeks but he warned that decisions needed to be "informed by a range of factors".
Planning was critical so that producers had time to imprint feed lambs prior to early removal from their mothers, he said.
"I am not saying everyone should early wean - it is a tactical decision that must be based on a range of variables but once a lamb gets to 10 weeks of age, it is getting more than 80pc of its nutrition from sources other than its mother," he said.
The Maguire family
One family that has gained plenty out of the program is the Maguires, who farm on the 2760ha Coo-ee, 60km southwest of Forbes, NSW.
Kevin and Sharon Maguire operate in conjunction with their three sons, Luke, Ben and Tom, and their families, and are currently facing very tough drought conditions.
The family have cut their cattle numbers back from 100 breeders to just 20 cows and are focusing much of their energy and resources on their 3500 breeding Merino ewes.
Mr Maguire said being part of the Lambs Alive program had given them exposure to plenty of new ideas, especially when it comes to maintaining the performance of their flock during a drought.
"We thought it would be great to pool lots of minds together and we've been able to pick up some really good ideas through other people," he said.
"We've learned a lot of about drought feeding, drought lots, condition scoring and early weaning.
"It has been a real eye-opener to see what different ideas they have and what they are doing with conditions the way they are."
The Maguire's ewes are due to start lambing in early May 2020 but as there isn't a "blade of grass on the place" all stock are now being intensively fed to ensure they are in good condition come lambing.
The Maguires have been feeding on the ground but spent last weekend building new troughs for their drought lots.
"We have bought a feed mixer with scales on it so we know exactly how much each mob is going to get," Mr Maguire said.
The Maguires are also hoping some of their management changes will help them maintain or improve upon their 2019 lambing results.
A second generation Forbes district woolgrower, Mr Maguire said they had scanned the ewes at about 70 per cent and sold off any of the dry ewes so they could focus on those in lamb.
"When the ewes lambed we managed to mark 90pc of the lambs that were born so that part went well," he said.
"The ones that landed on the ground - we managed to keep most of them."
Mr Maguire believes condition scoring the ewes and a well-timed storm helped deliver that result.
"We had some paddocks we had saved up and once they started lambing we just left them alone. The weather was also pretty good and they lambed down well."
In addition to the physical results that Lambs Alive had delivered on-farm, Sharon Maguire said being part of the program had helped the family to re-focus on their business together.
"We have made the time to have a family dinner before the meetings and each night after the call it has generated discussion between our sons and ourselves about what we are doing and how we can do it better," she said.
"I have really enjoyed working with my family and seeing improvements within our business, despite very difficult and trying conditions."
Mr Trompf has been so encouraged by the results of the pilot Lambs Alive project that he's expanding nationally in 2020 with the next intake of enterprises joining in February.
He's had positive feedback from participants, particularly about the benefits of linking with a network of like-minded producers.
These include the 'champion' farmers who Mr Trompf said consistently achieve lamb survival rates of 85 to 90pc, while driving high production per hectare.
"To put that into context, in the UK where they are lambing in sheds, they get 90 to 91pc lamb survival so to get that in a paddock situation is pretty awesome," he said.
"These guys act as motivation for the rest of the farmers and have really helped coach them along in what they are implementing."
Mr Trompf has a resource available for sheep farmers that shares five key areas to improve lamb survival rates. Visit www.jasontrompf.com to access the information.