Lamb losses scalping industry of $205m a year

by Rebecca Rawlings
Livestock Countryman
January 31 2008

Lamb deaths cost the Australian industry $250 million a year, according to the Department of Agriculture and Food. Of the 10 million lamb deaths across the country each year, about 2 million occur in WA. The survival of lambs in WA varies each year, depending on factors such as seasonal conditions and the number of ewes that produce more than one lamb.

The average lamb survival rate is about 80 to 85 per cent. The Department of Agriculture and Food says the major causes of the deaths is starvation, "miss mothering" and exposure, which are responsible for up to 50 per cent of deaths. Dystocia, birth difficulties and predators are also factors.

To improve the survival of Merino lambs, the department said farmers should focus on a range of management strategies. Ensuring birth weights were the optimum for the breed was important, as well as ensuring birth difficulties were minimised. Lambs should be protected from th cold, and affective contact between the ewe and its lambs in the first 12 hours after birth was recommended.

Department research officer Keith Croker said joining sheep would be at the forefront of thinking on farms at this time of year. But it also meant that farmers had five months to think about reducing lamb mortality. "Some farmers haven't put their rams out yet for joining" he said. "However, the issue of ewe nutrition must be considered throughout the year as it is very important."

"Ewes being grazed on stubbles must be monitored constantly, since after three to four weeks of putting sheep into that paddock there is not much nutrition available, and ewes will then require supplementary feeding. Farmers need to be aware that cereal stubbles don't have much nutritional value, and also it is important to maintain a certain amount of ground cover to avoid erosion."

Mr Croker said the use of cereal grains as feed was unlikely this year because of the high price of grain. He said lupins were still considered the safest and best feed available for ewes, and feeding a little, early on, was a good idea to keep ewes in a good condition for joining.

Feeding out to ewes early in the season was considered a big contributor to lamb deaths in WA, but as yet no answer had been found to the problem of hungry ewes deserting their lambs. Spinning out grain was one option because it meant farmers did not have to feed as often. Ewes could be held in smaller paddocks so they did not run and leave lambs behind when chasing the feeder.

One suggestion made to avoid this problem was to trail grain out at night away from sheep camping areas. But this idea had yet to be tested and there was no evidence of its effectiveness. Mr Croker said sheep nutrition should be kept in mind regardless of the time of year. It was never too early to think about reducing lamb mortality, he said.




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