Best-practice guidelines for beef and sheep farmers during the month of May have been released by the Department of Agriculture, Enterprise and Rural Affairs (DAERA), of Northern Ireland.

On behalf of the department, Darryl Boyd of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) has issued the following tips for these sectors.

Sheep management tips

Growth is the key focus - now that lambing is out of the way - in order to get a good percentage of lambs to finish off grass. There is an opportunity cost for every day that lambs spend on the farm and, every day they remain, they further contaminate pastures for lambs next year.

According to Boyd, actions taken now will have a major effect on performance further down the line in the summer and so need to be handled carefully.

Sheep checklist for the month of May:

  • Maintain high stocking rates to ensure quality grass for July and August.
  • Address soil nutrient and physical status to produce a leafy, quality sward.
  • Maintain short, leafy swards (4-6cm) with high-intake characteristics.
  • Control scald or any other setbacks which may affect growth rates.
  • Reduce the worm challenge, monitor Faecal Egg Counts and, where necessary, use long-acting products on ewes and treat lambs with a high count.
  • Avoid weaning stress.

There is a severe drop-off in live-weight gain from lambs after weaning. This can go from 300g or more, in gains per day prior to weaning, all the way down to 180g per day post-weaning in some cases.

It is essential to weigh and record on a regular basis in order to keep an eye on performance. It will also bring to light individual issues with ewes and lambs such as insufficient milk production.

With the unsettled weather that has predominated over the spring, conditions are fitting for ewes 'on their backs'. This is as a result of rain followed by sunshine on a full fleece, which causes ewes to sweat and become itchy.

Boyd provided the following tips to avoid this.

Methods to help prevent sheep getting stuck ‘on their backs’ include:

  • Strategically placing ‘scratching poles’ in fields.
  • Checking sheep twice per day.
  • Putting ewes (breeds) prone to the problem in fields with a slope.
  • Clipping sheep as early as the weather allows.
  • Evaluating treatment with an ectoparasite to prevent itchiness caused by mites, if shearing is delayed.

Weed control

Large amounts of weeds in grass swards both reduce the nutritional value and restrict grazing areas. Ragwort, thistles and nettles hinder grazing and can make silage and hay unpalatable.

A number of weeds, such as ragwort, are classed as noxious and have to be controlled if they pose a threat to agricultural land. Use the right spray for the weed and apply it at the appropriate time and rate. Wipe out the weeds when they are actively growing and prior to seeding.

Suckler cows

During breeding season, a lot of decisions are made which will impact on the farm for the rest of the year and for years to come.

There has been a noticeable move towards the traditional breeds for replacements in recent times. In spite of this, of the top ten bulls on ICBF's beef replacement list six are continental.

While there is no 'ideal' breed of cow, it is important to know the importance of hybrid vigour as well as the need to use top genetics in order to improve.


Synchronisation could be the way to go for some farmers. This minimises labour at AI and calving by allowing several females to be inseminated at once.

As well as this, when using fixed-time insemination, it reduces the need for heat detection while also providing the opportunity to market groups of calves of similar weights and ages.

A disadvantage is the additional cost. However, this may be offset by savings in labour and having uniform batches of calves. The need to handle livestock several times may be difficult on some farms.

A recent trial on Northern Ireland farms found diverse conception rates to first service; typically between 45% and 75% while the cost ranged between £15 and £25 excluding AI. The minimal handling protocols generally resulted in poorer conception rates.

Boyd again outlined some key elements to keep in mind:

Things to watch out for in May

  • Watch out for outbreaks of coccidiosis and nematodirosis. Follow the information at about predicted hatches along with keeping a close eye on your own sheep.
  • Keep on top of grass quality as we enter what is usually a peak month for grass growth.
  • Mineral supplementation for cattle at grass may be needed. Use pooled blood samples from groups of animals to identify needs.