Sheep Summer Tour 2014

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IGA Sheep Summer Tour

The Irish Grassland Association held two farm walks in Co. Sligo and in Co. Louth.

This year, instead of the traditional Sheep conference and farm walk, the Irish Grassland Association held two farm walks in Co. Sligo and in Co. Louth. The events were sponsored by Mullinahone Co-op and Sheep Ireland and large crowds attended both events. The events focused on maximising performance from sheep enterprises through a defined breeding policy and improved grassland management.

Quality replacements and grass utilisation delivers in Sligo

Over 300 farmers attended the Irish Grassland Association’s (IGA) sheep farm walk on Philip Higgins’s farm in Skreen, Co. Sligo on 31st July.  Along with his son Jonathan and help from all members of his family, Philip runs a flock of 280 mid-season lambing sheep (210 mature ewes and 70 lambing ewe lambs) and a 45-cow spring-calving suckler herd. Philip intends increasing the ewe flock to 400 ewes over the next two years after deciding to sell all progeny of the suckler herd as weanlings.   

 

 

Breeding

The breeding policy is delivering, with ewes possessing good maternal characteristics and high levels of prolificacy. It is based on a combination of purchasing replacements and retaining home-bred ewe lambs.  Each year a small number of Mule ewe lambs are purchased from the Mayo Mule & Greyface sales in Ballinrobe. These form the foundation breeding stock possessing strong maternal traits from the Mayo Blackface and Blue Leicester offering prolifacy. These ewe lambs are bred to Suffolk and Texel sires. The first cross ewe lambs are seen by Philip as the ideal ewe type for the farm bringing an improvement in shape and conformation. With a focus on maximising output per animal, ewe lambs are bred to lamb as yearling hoggets. The success of breeding ewe lambs is attributed to selecting animals possessing maternal traits and also meeting weight targets at mating. Jonathan explained, “We select our own lambs early before lambs are drafted for slaughter. We pick from the first cross and have a preference for Suffolk crosses as these cross great with Texel rams to produce better-quality lambs for slaughter. Lambs that have good size, length and weight for their age are selected.” The target weight at mating is in excess of 50 kg, with many lambs weighing 55 kg to 60 kg. Philip finds having lambs stronger and heavier at mating has a number of benefits. “Lambs generally mate quicker and we have only a few repeats, with all lambs usually mated inside the four weeks of breeding. Lambs with a bit of strength are also easier to manage through the winter and we don’t really have any problems once they are looked after well. That said, I took my eye off the ball a little last year. Ewe lambs had a good coat of wool and were in lower condition than I thought coming up to lambing. They were OK once they got a bit of extra feeding but it showed me a lesson of handling sheep more often.”  

Ewe lamb output

Ewe lambs are mated to lamb after the first cycle of mature ewes. This spreads the workload but still provides an opportunity to cross-foster lambs onto ewes. The number of lambs weaned per ewe lamb put to the ram normally works out at 1.4. Teagasc B&T adviser Tom Coll explained that an outbreak of abortion last autumn led to higher mortality rates and a higher than normal barren rate. “The ewe lamb flock is significantly adding to output. It is not unusual in a normal year for Philip to wean 1.3 to 1.5 ewe lambs or an average of 1.7 to 1.8 lambs across all the flock,” said Tom. “Its impact in increasing output cannot be underestimated, with anywhere from a quarter to a third of lambs sold or retained bred from ewe lambs. But remember, it requires higher levels of management to work successfully.” 

Getting more from grass

While the breeding policy is delivering on the farm, Philip admits there is room for improvement in grassland management with a plan to utilise more grass in progress. In previous years, ewes were lambed in early February with high levels of concentrates fed to finish lambs. The lambing date for 2014 was pulled back to 1 March to coincide with normal grass growth on the farm.  The aim is to achieve comparable levels of liveweight gain without concentrate feeding through improved grassland management. Many fields on the farm range in size from 10 to 15 acres and these are currently being divided into paddocks.     

Splitting of paddocks is being carried out by a combination of permanent field divisions through the TAMS fencing grant and temporary field divisions using four stands of electric wire. The electric wire fencing has been set up in such a way that it can be quickly removed or erected in silage fields. 

According to Teagasc researcher and IGA Council Member Philip Creighton, implementing a rotational grazing system is one of three key steps (along with soil fertility and reseeding) for improved grassland management on sheep farms. Philip recommends having at least five paddocks available for each grazing group. This, he says, will give the best balance in keeping good-quality grass ahead of stock at all times.  

The farm is already seeing the benefits of having more paddocks in place. Grass quality is easier to control and lambs are achieving high levels of animal performance. At present, lambs are receiving preferential treatment and are being grazed ahead of dry/cull ewes. The target is to turn lambs out to leafy swards with a grass height of 7 cm to 10 cm. Lambs are spending four to seven days in paddocks, with ewes then used to graze down paddocks to 4 cm to promote high-quality regrowth. 

While the focus is on reducing concentrate usage, targeted meal feeding still has a role to play. Light lambs (approximately 35 kg), mainly born to ewe lambs, are being introduced to meal feeding. Supplementation rates are being kept low with grass quality capable of achieving high levels of lamb performance. If quality deteriorates in the coming weeks, supplementation rates may be increased to 300 g to 400 g per head per day. The reasoning behind this is to prevent lambs remaining on the farm late into the year and competing with ewes for diminishing grass supplies.

Physical and financial performance

The physical and financial performance for the farm in 2013 is detailed in Table 1. As was the case on most farms last year, the difficult spring and tight grass supplies led to higher concentrate usage with concentrate costs totalling Ä297/ha or Ä40.17/ewe. Concentrate costs were also influenced by high levels of meals being fed to finish lambs. As mentioned previously, pulling back the lambing date to 1 March (to coincide with normal grass growth) and targeting finishing a high percentage of lambs off grass should also help to reduce concentrate input. Tom Coll said this is one of two main areas targeted to improve the gross margin from the sheep enterprise. The second is increasing kilograms of lamb produced per hectare. As Philip is already achieving satisfactory levels of lamb output per ewe, Tom says the aim on the farm is to increase the stocking rate from 7.5 ewes/ha to 10 ewes/ha.  This is being undertaken as part of a combined change in enterprises with the cattle enterprise changing from a suckler to bull beef production system to suckler to weanling system while sheep numbers are being increased from 280 ewes and ewe hoggets to 400 mid-season lambing ewes. The 2013 profit monitor does not give an accurate picture of the farm’s performance due to the extra costs faced. Tom’s advice is to look at the average of two to three years and develop a three- to five-year farm plan highlighting areas where improvements can be made.

Defined replacement policy

Having a defined breeding policy is delivering for the farm and the lack of a breeding policy is limiting output potential in a large number of the country’s sheep flocks. If breeding your own replacements, he says it is vital to select only from maternal breeds and to steer clear of terminal sires. With the breeding season approaching fast, he says flock owners should study their own system and identify changes that need to be implemented to improve ewe performance. In many cases this may mean buying a source of replacements with maternal breeding that will act as a foundation breeding flock, as is the case on Philip’s farm. 

He says that, if you are progressing down this route, it is vital that a programme is also in place to ensure smooth incorporation into the flock. Where possible, purchase from known sources and investigate the background breeding (ideally maternally bred) and health history. 

Preventing disease coming onto the farm is vital if purchasing replacements. The farm’s policy for incorporating replacement hoggets is to quarantine on arrival. All animals receive vaccination for Enzovax and Toxovax along with treatment for internal and external parasites and footbathing. Sheep are kept separate for a period of two to three weeks to monitor for any health issues.      

Table 1. 2013 Physical & financial performance

Ä/ha Ä/ewe Output
Wool 18 2.50
Ewe sales 66 9
Lamb sales 774 104
Gross output 858 115.50
Variable costs    
Purchased concentrate 297 40.17
Fertilizer 123.50 16.62
Veterinary 122 16.45
Contractor 14 1.86
Other variable costs 41.50 5.60
Total variable costs 598 80.70
Gross margin 260 35

 

Irish Grassland Association sheep farm walk on the farm of Anthony McShane in Carlingford, Co. Louth

Anthony McShaneOver 200 farmers attended the second IGA sheep farm walk which was held on Anthony McShane’s farm in Carlingford, Co Louth which was held on 7th August. The focus of the walk was maximising output and gross margin in a sheep enterprise through optimum grassland management and implementing a defined breeding policy.

Anthony runs 350 mature lowland ewes and 150 Scottish Blackface ewes, along with flock replacements, on 53 ha permanent pasture. The lowland is split between two blocks with 18 ha around the yard and 27 ha outfarms. There are also 8 ha of commonage hill ground, which is used for the hill flock. 

Farming system

Presentation IGAThe two flocks complement each other, with the hill flock utilising hill grazing and also being a source of prolific replacements for the lowland flock. A percentage of the Scottish Blackface ewes (Lanark-type breeding) are mated to Bluefaced Leicester rams, with Mule progeny forming the base breeding in the lowland flock. The Mules are generally bred to Texel rams, with first crosses also retained. In the last two years, a Suffolk ram was used to cross back onto first-cross Texel ewes. Anthony generally avoids retaining Texel lambs bred from Texel cross ewes. “I like selecting first crosses from mules as I find they possess good maternal traits passed down from the Blackface, good levels of prolificacy from the Bluefaced Leicester and a good frame from the Texel,” says Anthony. Ewe lambs were bred in the past to lamb as yearlings. This has ceased for the last two years due to weather, tighter grass supplies in the latter half of the year, and to reduce labour input at lambing. The scanning rate in the lowland flock is generally 1.7 to 1.8 lambs reared per ewe, with 1.6 lambs reared per ewe put to the ram. Mortality is retained at a low level by adequate nutrition in the run up to lambing and also adopting high levels of supervision at lambing.

Outdoor lambing

Where possible, all ewes are lambed outdoors. Anthony has access to winter grazing on beef and dairy farms in the area and this gives a percentage of his own ground a chance to recover and build a supply of grass for lambing and grazing ewes and lambs. “It works out similar on cost to feeding ewes indoors with pretty much the same labour with moving fences and checking stock daily. I prefer it though to having to house ewes for a long part of the winter as I find ewes get a good boost and are generally fitter for lambing.” 

Last year was the first time in several years that ewes were housed before and during lambing. Anthony says that he would not like to progress down this route every year as it increases workload and disease risk. “You are going to have losses lambing indoors and outdoors, it comes down to what suits your system. There is still lots of work with outdoor lambing but I find that it’s more manageable for me with the days also getting longer from the end of March.”  Anthony says the number of lambs lost to foxes and birds are generally low. However, he admits that even with high levels of supervision, it is inevitable that losses will occur. 

A major aspect in the success of outdoor lambing on the farm is the planting of new hedgerows, building a supply of grass and splitting up of larger fields into smaller paddocks. Anthony began planting new hedgerows ten years ago, that has made this coastal farm more sheltered for young lambs and ensuring earlier grass growth in spring. “I’m a big fan of netted fencing. I’d have no hesitation at all in splitting up paddocks and keeping ewes moved before lambing. Putting in new hedgerows has made a huge difference in reducing mortality at birth and giving lambs a good start,” he says.

Grassland management

Operating at a stocking rate of 10 ewes per hectare (four ewes per acre) and producing a high level of output per ewe puts high demand on the system for grass. According to Hugh Rooney, Anthony’s Teagasc B&T adviser, maintaining soil fertility at optimum levels for grass growth is the foundation stone to the farm operating over 10 ewes/ha. “Every few years, I can expect Anthony to arrive with soil samples. He works on the basis of keeping soil fertility levels up by doing a little every year. The approach is highly recommended as once fertility is improved, it generally doesn’t cost a lot to keep it maintained,” Hugh says. The soil index for phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) are all at Index 4, ideal to promote optimum grass growth. The soil pH was slightly below the optimum of pH 6.3 for mineral soils and, since then, lime has been applied at 1 - 2 t/ha to rectify this.

Paddock grazing

A rotational grazing system is practised on farm. Many fields range in size from three acres to eight acres, which suits grazing large batches of ewes and lambs. Frequent use is made of electrified netting fencing to split larger paddocks and allow greater control of grass quality during peak growth or with smaller group size. Lambs are currently given priority access and are grazing ahead of dry ewes. Ewes have been split into groups, depending on body condition, with ewes falling below target body condition for breeding, grazing the best grass available following lambs. Anthony’s aim is to finish the majority of lambs off grass. “With margins rising, costs are getting tighter and tighter.  I’m trying to finish the majority of lambs off grass this year”. Anthony sells his lambs through the Monaghan producer group. “Lambs are even enough at present, but there will also be tail end and hill lambs that I’ll have no option but to finish with meals. In 2013, hill lambs were slaughtered in late November averaging a carcase weight of 16 kg while all lowland lambs averaged 19.5 kg carcase weight. I’ll keep an eye on grass and take a decision to introduce meals when I see grass starting to get tight, so it won’t interfere with grass available for ewes.”

Reseeding

The reseeding programme in place differs to most farms. Each year, Anthony exchanges an area of ground with local tillage farms. Anthony has used a number of catch crops in the past number of years with a strong preference for chicory for finishing lambs. “The exchange works for both of us. The tillage farmer gets fertile permanent pasture, which boosts yield, while it works for me as it breaks the ground for a year,” he says. Fields for reseeding are selected on the basis of grass produced, sward quality and duration since last reseeded. 

Posted on Wednesday, 19 November 2014  |  By Irish Grassland Association
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