Andrews children Sam (11) and Olivia (13) with the hospital pen lambs.

Triplet transfer triumph

Cheyenne Nicholson

As ewe fertility has increased over the years so too has the number of triplets being born across New Zealand. The trick to cashing in on these extra lambs is getting them to survive and thrive. Six years ago Andrew Freeman embarked on a venture to do just that. Through Beef + Lamb NZ’s innovation farm programme, in 2011 Andrew came up with a plan to increase triplet survival.

When Country-Wide spoke to him in 2012 (see 2012 Heartland Sheep) the project was just getting on its feet. Today the triple transfer system is a different beast. It’s become a more systemised programme that is highly repeatable and is pumping out the revenue.

Andrew’s triplet transfer system is well-planned where single-scanning ewes mother-on pairs of single lambs or pairs of triplet lambs on to single mums, more evenly sharing the responsibility of raising at-risk triplet lambs across the ewe flock.

“We’ve gone from a very experimental and quite edgy kind of approach that always felt a little like it could fall over to ones that’s repeatable year-on-year and very adaptable.”

One year could see 200 families go through the transfer system, and the next 400.

Tweaks to the system

Andrew has worked hard on making the system simpler and stripped away the bits that were fiddly and didn’t add any value as well as making an effort to get back to grass roots shepherding and working more with the sheep.

The start of the project saw every single ewe and every triplet put through the transfer system to give the numbers to prove the concept. Now they are more selective. Only medium condition single ewes with a decent sized frame and no obvious faults are chosen. Out of 350 scanned single ewes this year, 250 have been chosen for the transfer.

Their management of singles has changed too. An increase in over-fat ewes and a few bearings in singles has seen them hold back on feed until August then feeding well in the lead-up to lambing and steadily ramping up the feed plane once they leave the shed with their adopted twins.

Tony Siva’s full time job over lambing is to mother up ewes and lambs.

For triplets, only lambs from at-risk families are plucked out for mothering-on transfer. Any triplet family that looks good and healthy is left alone but monitored and if one falls off the perch a bit, it’s picked up with a couple of milk feeds and put into the transfer system.

Andrew has slowed the chain of events in the programme by adding an extra day.

“We’ve added an extra day so the lambs are on average 12-24 hours older, it means they can handle the transfer a bit better and we aren’t pushing the lambs that aren’t ready.

“There were a few things we thought were really important that in the end was just adding to our workload for no real benefit.”

They have also cut out the tricky process they had in place, which was designed to ensure a ewe never got put back with her own lamb.

“It became evident after about three years when I was training new staff to do the shed job of sorting and bonding. It was hard going teaching them that process.”

They then decided to see if the sheep would know their lamb after a night apart. They trialled it by letting a ewe into the pen of lambs. The result was one ewe walking endlessly around the ewes trying to find her lamb but coming up blank.

‘The system needs to be set up properly. You have to take it on intentionally, save a decent number of lambs and make a profit, otherwise it’s an exercise in frustration.’

“If you’re going to ask someone to do that kind of job that requires a really high level of shepherding you either need a high-level shepherd or I needed to be there overseeing it. It chained me to the project. While it’s great for me to innovate these things I need to be able to step back and have a shearer or enthusiastic person on around $20/hour doing this, not me as the business manager. If I’m doing it then the costs of it all becomes questionable.”

The key to the project is based around big scale, low cost and high repeatability. They have managed to shift away from a lamb-rearing system that runs at $40-$60 a head.

“We are aiming for $10-$20 a head and then put the onus on the mums to finish the job for us.”

Cost benefits justify feeding

The extra and good-quality feed required for the ewes in the programme ends up being a net gain for Andrew and justifies feeding that ewe far more.

“All ewes are trading ewes so by late November they are all off to the works anyway. The net gain made in turning the ewe from a 24kg carcase to a 28-30kg carcase fully offsets the extra feed given to the ewe. Then there’s the net production gain on the lambs.”

The mothering up yards where ewes are bonded to their new twin lambs.

Andrew says one thing they have found clearly through the study is that even if all the triplets survived, 2+2 is more weight than 3+1 because twins are better able to express their genetic potential than triplets. Further, the mothering-on system brings into play the untapped production potential of the single ewes already on farm.

All materials used in the shed are recyclable. The hay bales used to create the holding pens for bonding are fed out to the bulls. The docking yards are put back and used later.

“The labour cost in it is directly proportionate to the volume of lambs we put through the system. It breaks even at about three to four lambs a day, beyond that it’s all profit.”

It runs at about a $50-$60 margin per family they work with providing a really strong cost benefit. They have now started buying in triplets which is arguably the end of point of the game to fit with their trading system.

The cost benefit analysis varies now only on flow rate for lambs. Costs in general are low. Andrew is on track this year to do around 200 families.

After the first week Andrew noted they were getting really good survival in triplets outside despite the bad weather.

“We will keep on supporting the lambs and mums that need us. We still have a 100% survival record in the shed and on their new “twin” families but it is only one week in with peak lambing to come. We should give 250% in triplets a good nudge this year and 165% for whole-farm lambing, weather gods permitting.”

Despite the obvious cost benefit involved and the on-going success of the programme, Andrew says other farmers struggle with the concept.

“Lots of farmers have really negative experiences with how difficult it can be to feed heaps of orphan lambs or mother lambs on to new mums. We did too until we took the job seriously and made it someone’s specific job during lambing. The system needs to be set up properly. You have to take it on intentionally, save a decent number of lambs and make a profit, otherwise it’s an exercise in frustration.”

Ticking off success

Success will be:

  • Triplet survival of 230-250% in the triplet-scanned mobs over the medium terms but ultimately 250% plus  at 230%, now tracking for 250%+.
  • A 10-15% increase in overall docking percent: About 155% survival to sale. The main thing frustrating this is each of the last three years there has been a large mid-lambing storm.
  • Ewe breeding efficiency greater than 0.70.
  • Lamb growth rate to weaning of greater than 275g per day – steady at around 300g per day.
  • Adjusted 90-day weaning weight of at least 30kg –this project runs at 33-34kg.
  • Increased sheep feed conversion efficiency, cents per kg of drymatter eaten if you tracked just the triplet transfer ewes they run at 35-40 cent conversion. All other spring trades we would enter now are around 20cents. It’s double anything else available by focusing on reducing lamb wastage and getting the most out of single ewe mothering potential.
  • Lambing survival from mothered-on “twins “consistently exceeding 85% – 90+%.

Positive animal welfare story

With public interest in animal welfare, the programme tells a great animal welfare story.

Andrew says from experience that third lamb on a triplet ewe will usually die in a standard set-stocked environment

“What we are doing is really dealing with what would otherwise be wastage and ensuring much-higher weaning weights as most of our lambs are “twins”. We also keep a strict 2x a day lambing beat rolling around the triplets to minimise ewe deaths and help out where needed.”

Now they can genuinely say anything that survives the birth process and is on its feet has a really good chance of surviving long term and thriving.

A triplet lamb being picked up to be mothered onto a new ewe.

Andrew’s children love being part of this process as do their friends and business partners’ children. Visitors really enjoy being part of our lambing experience as it fits with the degree of care that they would hope is happening out there.

Any lambs that are picked up that are less than sprightly are taken to a special ‘hospital’ pen in the yards where they are put under heaters and milk-fed for a day or so until they are ready to be put on to new mums.

“It’s a really good feeling as well to know we don’t have to feel helpless watching predictable lamb wastage. Instead we pick the lambs up early and a robust system in place to save those lambs. We are massively ticking the animal welfare box.

“We give heaps of support to vulnerable families for one or two days, get them set up to succeed and then leave it to the sheep with a doable job ahead of them in new twin families back out in the paddock. It’s full-on here at lambing but it feels good and financially it really stacks up.”