Queensland sheep producers should aim for a condition score of at least 2.7 in their ewes if they are to have any chance of bearing lambs this coming autumn/spring says industry specialist Geoff Duddy.
Mr Duddy, from Sheep Solutions, Oman Ama, said despite some horrendous scanning results coming out of the central western region of NSW due to the disastrous impact of the big dry, there are tools to help lift conception rates and lambing percentages.
"There is a general rule to try and get ewes in as high a condition score as possible - at least 2.7, but target 3," Mr Duddy said.
"If ewes aren't in optimal condition leading into joining, I suggest 'flushing' them and then try and do what ever you can up to the point of scanning.
"If you flush the ewe with good quality feed at least a week to 10 days before joining it can actually improve ovulation rates even if the ewe's condition isn't that good."
He said the pick of the grains to flush ewes with would be corn, or any pulses such as peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils or lupins.
"It comes down to what you can get, and being able to have ewes on a rising nutrition plane while minimising acidosis risk. Producers could even consider using energy and protein rich oilseed meals like cottonseed or soyabean," he said.
Mr Duddy suggests looking at quantities of about 300 to 500 grams a day for seven to 10 days prior to joining.
"It's a reasonable amount of feed, but you may pick up another 10 to 20 per cent more lambs at the end if it works," Mr Duddy said.
According to Mr Duddy, if producers choose not to scan, it's like playing Russian Roulette, particularly in light of the poor scanning results of late.
And going the extra step of separating twins and singles is crucial when preparing feed rations, especially in a year where scanning results have showed a lower rate of twins than expected.
"If you don't scan and you're feeding your entire mob, you may be over feeding your singles hence running the risk of the singles putting all that energy into the lamb and having big lambs and birthing problems," Mr Duddy said.
Twins, he said, must be put on the best possible feed.
"In the last three weeks of the ewes pregnancy, fetal growth is about 70pc, which makes it virtually impossible to feed a twin bearing ewe enough feed even if it's just straight grain," he said.
"So she needs to be in good order, hopefully between a 3 to 3.5 body condition score a month out from lambing.
"By condition scoring, scanning and segregating your ewes you will end up saving yourself a lot on feed costs and hopefully the flow on effect will be better lamb and ewe survival, improved ewe and lamb lifetime wool production and quality and a slight improvement in flock fertility through retention of twin born lambs."
Merino sheep producer Nigel Brumpton runs 6000 ewes plus their progeny on his 40,568 hectare property at Cunnamulla.
He aims to maintain a base condition score of 2 in his flock before he takes feeding up another notch prior to joining.
"The ewes have been on feed for two and a half years non-stop, mostly due to the drought, just to try and maintain that condition score," Mr Brumpton said.
"Last year I weaned the lambs off them early when they were four-months-old.
"Previous years to that, I try to give them a break of three months between joining and weaning and joining again."
Ewes are joined in the months of March and April, and with minimal rain falling over the last few years, Mr Brumpton said the country is as bare as a highway.
"In a drought situation like this I will flush out ewes a month to six weeks before joining, increasing their feed consumption," he said.
"I would like to get them to a condition score of 2.5 to 3, but it is very hard in the drought and the price of fodder is really hurting at the moment."
Last year Mr Brumpton said last year he fed his ewes for $50 per head and this year it is going to cost about $120 per head.
At present he is feeding out lupins sourced from Western Australia, using rations of 600g a day.
A couple of week before joining he drops teasers out with the ewes to get them cycling. Rams are then run with the ewes for an eight-week joining period.
Last year every ewe that scanned dry was sold and twins and singles were separated and fed accordingly.
Twinning ewes received 800g lupins and singles 600g with hay fed at lambing time.
Shooting blanks or simply too hot?
The exact reasons behind infertility in summer-joined flocks after the heatwaves are hard to pin down without knowing the precise condition and sheep management details of individual flocks.
But Mr Duddy said it is generally the ram that is the problem.
"Above 35 degrees, it will start to affect sperm production," he said.
"And with a run of 40 degree days the rams just don't want to work."
He said abortions due to the high heat are fairly extreme cases, and usually occur at the point of conception or in the first week or two of implantation.
"If you are getting exceptionally high temperatures in the third week on joining, when most ewes are starting to join, you could have an issue then," Mr Duddy said.
When talking about a standard six-week joining period, Mr Duddy suggests sticking to that, if the ewes are in reasonable condition and not experiencing extreme temperatures.
"But it may well pay to extend the joining period another two weeks, just in case there is a chance of the ewes not conceiving in the third of forth week of joining when the majority of ewes are cycling and fall pregnant," he said.