Triple the success

The Dawkins family are Beef + Lamb New Zealand Innovation Farmers who are striving to maximise triplet lamb survival by developing an indoor lambing system. Now in their third year of the programme, the family are refining a system that has unexpectedly benefited the whole farm system while significantly reducing lamb losses.
Monday, 24 June 2019

In part one of this two-part series, we look at how the indoor system works.

A recipe for maximising triplet lamb survival is like the holy grail of sheep farming but the Dawkins family from Blenheim are getting closer to finding it.

Chris and Julia Dawkins and their son Richard, who farm The Pyramid, a 645ha down and hill country sheep and beef farm, are in the third year of a Beef + Lamb New Zealand Innovation Farm programme looking to maximise triplet lamb performance through an indoor lambing system.

They have drawn on the findings of previous projects to develop a system that will maximise survivability and profitability in their high-performing composite ewe flock which last year scanned 192 per cent (mixed-age and two-tooths).

Out of their 1400 ewes, 232 (16.6%) were carrying triplets (a mix of maternal and terminal lambs) which highlights the opportunity triplet lambs present.

In the first year of the Innovation Farm programme, the family set up a carefully managed system of feeding the triplet-bearing ewes supplement for three weeks before taking them indoors to lamb. The ewes and lambs were then gradually taken back out – via bonding pens and a holding area – onto high quality forages.

The system was deemed a success, but they were able to identify areas that needed refinement that would further benefit the bottom line.

One of the problem points was when the ewes and lambs returned to the paddock. Chris says they found they had to watch the lambs closely for at least seven days after leaving the shed. Even after one week of close scrutiny, they will still go around these lambs once a day, as 41 per cent of the orphan lambs were picked up after leaving the indoor system.

Chris says 60 years of historic data shows that the average lamb wastage across their farm has been 24 per cent. Over the years, they have been unable to identify a single cause of lamb losses.

At a value of $148/lamb, this represents a significant amount of money being lost every year – let alone the implications around animal welfare and consumer perception.

In the first year they reduced lamb losses to 15 per cent and in the second year it dropped to 14 per cent.

One of the biggest gains in their system is a reduction in the deaths of triplet-bearing ewes and these have gone from 10 per cent of triplet-scanned ewes to just 3 per cent. Richard described this as a

significant gain, as they view the triplet-bearing ewes as being the most valuable and potentially most profitable.

The family focus on lambing is constant and year-round. They use ram harnesses at mating with a crayon-change every six days and believe this is critical to the success of their system as it enables them to strategically manage ewes according to their lambing date. It also ensures the ewes are indoors for just a short time.

In 2017, the family set up a system that they considered “by the book” good-practice. This included feeding the triplet-bearing ewes supplement three weeks out from lambing, changing the straw in the lambing shed daily, using disinfectant and iodine and continuing to feed supplement one week after lambing. This was to allow a smooth transition back onto pasture.

Last year they refined the system and only fed the ewes supplement five days out from lambing and fed peas and lucerne hay instead of more expensive nuts. They put fresh straw on top of the old straw and stopped using disinfectant and iodine. They didn’t feed supplements to the ewes after lambing.

These “shortcuts” saved time and money without compromising the health or survival rate of the ewes and lambs.

The family stress that these shortcuts worked well in their warm, dry environment and may not be so successful in other regions.