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Beyond the Bale : September 2015
THE FIRST THREE DAYS OF LIFE • AWI-supported Nuffield scholar and woolgrower Matthew Ipsen from Victoria has presented the results from his research into world's best practice in lamb survival. • The key recommendation from his report is to improve ewe nutrition which will increase lamb birth weight (the most important factor contributing to lamb survival when conception rates are high) and give the ewe sufficient body reserves to have a quick delivery and provide satisfactory care to her lamb. • Other practices considered in the report include genetics and gene technology, physiology and maternal behaviour, and sheep management during pregnancy and birth. Through an AWI-funded Nuffield scholarship, woolgrower Matthew Ipsen from Wareek in central Victoria has travelled across the globe investigating world's best practice in lamb survival, particularly in the first three days of life. As well as being a woolgrower and prime lamb producer, Matthew also operates a business in sheep artificial insemination and ultrasound pregnancy scanning -- which is where the idea for his 2013 Nuffield scholarship came from. "My clients are keen to improve lamb survival and I really wanted to investigate best practice so we can be better at what we do on-farm -- really it all relates back to both profits and welfare," Matthew explained. "Across the Australian industry, while survival of lambs from birth to marking can vary considerably, rates rarely exceed 90 per cent in single born lambs and 80 per cent in twin born lambs. The majority of lamb loss occurs within the first three days of postnatal life." One of the best ways to increase profitability on-farm is by increasing yields, and that generally means more lambs being born and surviving. So Matthew set about investigating how other major sheep producing nations approach lamb survival. "I travelled to Scotland, France, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay and New Zealand to investigate what research and management practices are being utilised in those countries. I examined the effects on lamb survival of several factors including nutrition, selection and genetics, and housing of sheep during pregnancy and birth." NUTRITION IS VITAL Overall the key learning for Matthew was about improving nutrition, with the theme being repeated often on his visits. "We already know the importance of nutrition from the Lifetime Ewe Management program, but it just kept being reinforced everywhere I went -- you've really got to set that up, as that's where you'll get your biggest return on investment," Matthew said. "Improving the nutrition of pregnant ewes will increase lamb birth weights, which is the most important factor contributing to lamb survival. It will also ensure the ewe will have sufficient body reserves at birth to facilitate a quick delivery, begin lactation with an adequate amount of colostrum, and provide satisfactory maternal care to her lamb. The lamb will benefit by having a greater amount of body reserves, particularly brown adipose fat to metabolise post birth, will stand and suckle quicker, and lose less heat after birth. "Nutrition also affects maternal behavior. Ewes that are undernourished will show impairments which can affect the quality of the maternal relationship with their lambs. Undernourished ewes are generally more aggressive, spend less time grooming and more time eating after the lamb's birth and are more likely to desert their lamb." GENETICS AND SELECTION Matthew said selecting sheep with a genetic propensity for lamb survival is a beneficial and desirable option. "Despite very low heritability estimates for lamb survival, and some researchers around the world suggesting genetic improvement will be ineffective, modest genetic gains appear to be possible. Failure to include it as a trait in breeding objectives could result in a genetic decline over time." Matthew recommends selecting replacement rams on Australian Sheep Breeding Values for total weaning weight, and selecting replacement ewes on maternal rearing ability as he says fertility at an early age is an indicator of rearing ability in later life. EWE AND LAMB MANAGEMENT The provision of a suitable lambing environment in the paddock that encourages ewes to choose a sensible birth site and remain there for at least six hours is likely to improve the chance of lambs surviving their first week of life. Matthew said the method of housing pregnant ewes, as used in many other sheep producing countries, could improve lamb survival rates by approximately nine per cent. This is achieved through better protection from hypothermia and predation, prompt identification of ill health and disease, and reduced lamb abandonment. "The high cost of infrastructure and labour in Australia will lead many Australian producers to disregard the concept. But in both South Africa and New Zealand it has been shown to be an economically viable option, particularly when targeting specific mobs such as lightweight twin-bearing ewes or triplet-bearing ewes." SCOPE FOR INDUSTRY ADOPTION Matthew added that he hoped his Nuffield research results will not only improve the profitability of his own farm and business clients' farms, but also the whole industry. "There is still considerable scope for the industry to adopt practices to further improve lamb survival. Improving the reproductive performance of the Australian Merino is an important pathway to maintaining a sustainable and viable sheep industry that will also result in improvements in profitability for sheep enterprises." MORE INFORMATION Matthew's Nuffield report and a 17-minute video of him presenting his results are available via www.wool.com/nuffield LAMB SURVIVAL: Matthew Ipsen discussing pastures and lambing systems in Argentina.