Stress is a major killer of both lambs and farm profits says leading NSW livestock producer, Nigel Kerin.
He says the penny dropped about the impact of stress on sheep after a decision to wean very young Merino lambs in response to worsening drought on his Yeoval district properties near Dubbo in 2018.
Yeoval was hit by three years of drought during which its annual rainfall of 650mm was cut by an average 52 per cent.
Mr Kerin told a feeding sheep for profit field day at the Boyd family's Canimbla lamb feedlot near Cowra that he returned from holidays to find his ewes were coping well with the help of trail-fed grain but their young lambs looked like "crap".
"No matter how much grain we poured into those ewes, the lambs kept going backwards."
He knew if he didn't act he would end up with a crop of "poddy-gutted" lambs stunted for life.
Stored in the back of his mind from 21 years earlier was a presentation by David Ginter, from Animal Logic Group, about the merits of early weaning of lambs.
Although he could hear his late father telling him he didn't have a brain in his head Mr Kerin decided to adopt early weaning using a "stupidly simple" process where stress was minimised every step of the way.
Two weeks before they were weaned (at 40 days of age) the lambs were given their first inoculations and sent back to their paddocks where self-feeders had been installed.
During the next 14 days their mothers taught the lambs how to use the self feeders while also putting on extra weight themselves which set them up for their next joining or added much-needed condition to any ewes which were sold later.
A few days before weaning Beachport Green Cap liquid, which helps calm livestock, was added to the water troughs.
On the day of weaning the lambs were brought into the yards, drafted off their mums into "tops and tails" and walked to the feedlot.
Mr Kerin said the lambs only spent about two hours walking the fences searching for their mothers and by 2pm were "as calm as hell and all asleep".
They had already been inducted to both the feeders and their feed ration of barley, lupins and VitaMinBuf pellets (at $400 a tonne in 2018).
Beachport Green Cap was also added to their water for the first seven days.
Two weeks after weaning the lambs were marked and received their second inoculations.
"One of the major things we are stuffing up with in lamb production is stress," Mr Kerin said.
"And you don't know what stress you are creating until you stop creating stress and go 'holy hell'.
"For animals to learn how to handle stress you have got to put pressure on and then release the pressure in small amounts on and off.
"If you think of a lamb, the first time it is ever handled you chase it into the yards, you draft it off mum, it gets picked up, chucked in a cradle, gets a heap of punch holes put in it with needles, it gets a ring put on, it may be mulesed, it gets kicked out of the cradle onto the ground and you say to that lamb, 'you make sure you find your mum before dark tonight'.
"If you don't you are going to be a poddy for the rest of your life. That's the first time a lamb encounters a human being. I reckon that has a pretty big effect on them."
The first batch of lambs In 2018 were in the feedlot for 110 days before enough rain fell for them to go back into the paddocks.
The 7072 early-weaned lambs suffered a mortality rate of just 0.0003 per cent (24) and had an average daily weight gain of 320 grams, Mr Kerin said.
He said 60 days post-weaning the lambs were "sloppy fat" and had put on 19 kg.
"Why did the lambs have so small (a number of) mortalities? We only changed one thing - stress."
The ewe lambs were joined at seven months with an average body weight of 58kg and went on to wean 112pc of lambs.
Mr Kerin, whose farm enterprise mix across 3950ha includes the Kerin Poll Merino stud, has been joining his ewe lambs for 12 years and says the practice offers growers the quickest way to rebuild their flocks.
"In the Merino game one of things you have got to look at with early weaning is that it's going to pay you heaps in the future in follicle development, you set them up for life in wool production."
Mr Kerin said feeding early-weaned lambs was cheap because they didn't eat much and had conversion rates of around four to one.
He also put his ewes into containment areas and fed them 4.2kg of barley a week to protect his country from degradation and 70pc of his total feed bills were paid by the sale of surplus ewes.
"So I am thinking what we are doing now is the normal standard thing, no matter how good the season.
"What I see what we are doing here now is a really cheap way of adjusting stocking rate to carrying capacity in really expensive country."
Mr Kerin said another "crazy part" about the Australian sheep industry was the lack of management of multiple-bearing ewes.
He said the rewards from getting more of those fetuses to lambs on the ground was a "free lunch".
With current red-hot prices in the sheep industry he said applying better management to breeding flocks gave producers the chance to get a "seven-course degustation meal for the price of a happy meal".
The story Want to make a bigger killing from lambs? Reduce the stress! first appeared on Farm Online.