Sheep management was the theme of the recent organic monitor farm meeting, organised by the Scottish Organic Producers Association (SOPA) and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS).
Hot topics at the meeting included the benefits of early diagnosis and targeted worm treatment of individual lambs and electronic identification (EID).
The current organic monitor farm is Mains of Thornton, run by the Cooper family, near Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. The recent meeting gave farmers a chance to view and learn from another unit near Lauder in the Scottish Borders, hosted by organic farmer Jim Sutherland.
Fiona Kenyon, a Research Scientist in the Parasitology Division of Moredun Research Institute, reminded the meeting of the losses to the Scottish sheep industry caused by the numerous types of parasitic worms which can infest sheep. Ms Kenyon also explained that significant worm resistance to anthelmintics is widespread.
“Overall wormer usage can be minimised, and the development of drug resistance slowed, by identifying individual animals that require treatment, instead of treating all animals in a group simultaneously,” said Ms Kenyon.
Moredun research over the last few years has demonstrated that by regularly weighing lambs to determine whether or not they achieve live weight gain targets, it has been possible to identify animals which actually need treatment.
“Lamb live weight gain over a specified period of time is predicted,” explained Ms Kenyon. “Any in the group which do not reach their target weight are deemed to need treatment.”
This work has shown that considerable savings can be made on wormers, without any reduction in performance or anthelmintic efficacy.
An additional benefit has been the early indication of a worm problem, triggering treatment before the animal’s performance is badly affected.
At the meeting SOPA Scheme Manager Jane Ellis agreed that targeted selective treatment is something that organic farms could be considering in their parasite control strategies.
Moredun has demonstrated that lambs will start to lose weight before other signs of infestation - scouring and faecal egg counts – are observed, said Ms Ellis. TST can help organic farms treat specific animals sooner, thus further reducing anthelmintic use and cost and improving flock health. "If the organic farmer can demonstrate they are regularly monitoring lamb weights then SOPA would accept this as evidence to use a yellow or white wormer on specific animals," she added.
Accurate individual weight gain information has been crucial in this trial work. Moredun has used electronically tagged lambs and an automatic weighing facility with an EID reader, similar to the handling equipment demonstrated at the meeting.
Mr Sutherland pointed out the requirement to have EID was generally regarded as “a really annoying and costly piece of Brussels legislation”. But, he maintained, it could prove beneficial to sheep farmers in the longer-term.
“If we approach it positively, I’m sure there are advantages in having computerised, individual sheep records. EID will in the long term, offer considerable potential to commercial farmers. What we need to do is decide just how much, or type of data we need, which will help us improve the returns from our sheep enterprises.”
Mr Sutherland farms a total of 3,600 acres, including an owned 1,500 acre unit, Hillhouse, with the remainder farmed under contract farming agreements. He runs a total of approximately 3,500 breeding ewes, which form a traditional stratified system based on Scottish Blackfaces, with only tups bought in. Texels are used as terminal sires and all lambs, other than retained females, are finished. He is increasing the area he farms to 4,000 acres to carry 4,000 ewes - a flock of 400 Scottish Blackface pure breds, plus over 3,500 white-faced ewes, to be developed from the current flocks of Greyfaces and crosses.
Day-to-day management of the sheep is dealt with by sheep manager Andrew Bell. Shepherd Stuart McFayden and Jim Sutherland’s son David (on a part-time basis), complete the sheep team.
Tagmaster of Hawick demonstrated some of the range of available sheep EID equipment including a walk-through handling system, incorporating weigh scales, plus an EID reader linked to the farm’s computer database containing individual sheep information. Selection can be pre-set to whatever criteria required, e.g. weight, sex, age or breed, with the end of race drafting gate channelling individual sheep into the appropriate pens.
“The aim is to develop a totally closed flock, not of a specific breed but a “type” comprised of five families, with home-bred tups rotating around the families to avoid in-breeding,” explained Mr Sutherland.
“Annually we will select breeding sheep on functional maternal traits, including fertility, ease of management, particularly lambing, prolificacy and productivity. We will still pay attention to looks - Scottish draft ewe buyers are not yet totally ready for the concept of easy care sheep!” said Mr Sutherland.
“The Moredun’s work on the early identification of individual lambs with a worm infestation, is exciting. Most farmers can easily spot the really good performing and the obviously non-thriving sheep in a group, but it’s much more difficult to pick out the individual poor doers amongst the “middle” sheep in the bunch,” added Mr Sutherland.
“Specifically targeted treatment would not only enable us to speedily treat individual lambs before they lose much ground, but would also help to determine the identity of the ones not affected, suggesting a possible natural worm resistance, a valuable trait for replacement selection criteria.”
The next Organic Monitor Farm meeting will be on 3rd November, at Mains of Thornton, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, AB51 0JX.
For further information, please contact either of the joint facilitators, Maggie Magee tel 01835 822049 or email Maggie.email@example.com or Deborah Roberts tel 07733 228701 email Deborah.Roberts@sfqc.co.uk
General information on monitor farms, plus detailed reports of meetings, can be found on www.qmscotland.co.uk/monitorfarms