Ewe bearings, low growth rates a challenge for sheep farmers

Waikato sheep farmers are battling a lift in bearings in ewes and lower lamb growth rates because of poor quality grass.
DAVID WALKER/STUFF

Waikato sheep farmers are battling a lift in bearings in ewes and lower lamb growth rates because of poor quality grass.

The late autumn grass growth on many Waikato sheep farms is thought to be the cause of a spike in ewes suffering from "bearings" while giving birth to lambs.

Ewes suffering from bearings - a prolapsed uterus or vagina - is thought to affect fewer than one per cent of flocks on farms, but numbers are up.

Waikato Federated Farmers meat and fibre chairman Chris Irons said it was a big issue throughout the region this year.

"It was because feed was so plentiful during the autumn and ewes didn't have to work for their feed over winter.

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"It didn't matter what breed of sheep it was, everyone had an increase. It's really disheartening when you see it," Irons said.

When spotted, farmers could attempt to put the organs back into sheep, but that risked killing lambs they were carrying. If a farmer could not catch the ewes and they fled, there was a high risk that the uterus would burst, leaving the farmer no option but to euthanise the sheep, he said.

The federation's national meat and fibre chairman Miles Anderson said more bearings had appeared throughout the country.

"It seems to be everywhere. I've talked to people in Bay of Plenty, Coromandel, Waikato, Manawatu, Canterbury, Otago. It seems to be unusually widespread."

Anderson said he was lucky this season with only one ewe suffering from bearings.

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Beef+Lamb New Zealand mid-northern North Island Farmer Council chairwoman Robyn Williamson said the condition was difficult to manage because there was little scientific evidence to show what triggered the condition.

About 2-3 per cent of ewe flocks around her district on the south western coast had bearings, she said

"It's heart breaking."

Te Kuiti-based VetEnt veterinarian Will Cuttance said a more accurate assessment would be known after docking. He estimated that bearing rates were about the same as last year.

Some of his clients have had major headaches with bearings, while others have had much better results than last year.

"It's what we see in most years, it's good in some places and bad on others."

Cuttance said the wet weather had been challenging for ewes to maintain condition and lactation.  Feed quality rather than quantity was the issue for farmers. The high water content of pastures were low in drymatter, he said.

"There's no guts in the grass. It's over 85 per cent water when in a better spring it would be under that and with every bite this spring, they are getting more in than the nutrients out of the pasture."

Williamson said the wet weather and lack of sunshine meant there was less nutritional value in early spring pastures.

"It's not great feed value compared with a normal spring. People are saying that they think lamb growth rates have been held up."

That could mean it took longer for lambs to reach their finishing weights and affect the ability of farmers to cash in on premiums for getting them to the Northern Hemisphere market for the Christmas holiday season.

Or there could be a a spell of warm weather in October-November that allowed pastures to take off and the sheep to catch up to their target weights, she said.

"We do need to get a good patch of fine weather now to turn things around. That could happen and lets hope that it does." 

Williamson said It was too early to know what lambing numbers were like because farmers were only starting to dock their lambs now.

"Anecdotally, farmers are reporting seeing good numbers of lambs with ewes as they go around their farms. They think it's looking quite reasonable"

The conditions had also delayed the grass market for cattle where farmers traditionally buy in store cattle and fatten then over spring.

"People don't have the feed available yet to buy large quantities of store cattle to bring onto their farms, which they would normally be doing by now."

 - Stuff

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