Irish Grassland Association Council and Research Officer, Teagasc
Over 150 farms and industry delegates attended the Irish Grassland Association sheep conference and farm walk, sponsored by MSD and Mullinahone Co-op, in Horse and Jockey, Co Tipperary on Tuesday 22nd May.
A theme running through the event was the importance of recording across both animal and grassland parameters in order to successfully manage a more profitable and efficient system. The morning session featured presentations from Darren Carty, Irish Farmers Journal, Kevin McDermott, Sheep Ireland and Matthew Blyth, Didling Farms, UK while the afternoon session incorporated a farm walk on the farm of John Large, Gortnahoe, Co. Tipperary.
The last 10 years have seen the Irish sheep industry overcome many challenges and welcome many opportunities. This was discussed in detail by Darren Carty, in his presentation entitled ‘Sheep sector opportunities and challenges – what lies ahead’. Darren gave a comprehensive overview of the Irish sheep Industry, highlighting the stabilisation in the national flock and the growth in sheep meat exports to new European markets as positive reflections of the past ten years. As the demand for efficient and sustainable production systems increases Darren addressed some of the challenges which will inevitably face sheep farmers over the next decade.
A declining number of early lamb producers have increased the seasonality of lamb production. Therefore, maintaining a year round supply of lamb will be a growing issue going forward. In conjunction with this, lower New Zealand exports have created opportunities for Irish export markets. Going forward, securing an equal footing in world trade negotiations in for exporting Irish sheep meat to international markets such as China and the US will increase demand and hopefully profitability. This year, producers of animal food products have seen the increase in production of meat alternatives (lab produced meat) worldwide. This, coupled with the influence of social media on consumption patterns has the potential to create negative perceptions of the products we produce. It is up to us as producers to make sure the nutritional value of our high quality produce is understood by all consumers. Implementing and delivering a practical clean livestock policy will be vitally important to the success of this going forward.
Genetics is responsible for providing approximately half of all productivity gains in livestock production systems. The second speaker, Kevin McDermott, brought us through the history of Sheep Ireland over the past 10 years since it was first established in 2008. He reminded the audience of the initial genetic objective within the Irish sheep industry which was focused on a single trait, lean meat production, and the potential detrimental fact that designing a breeding policy on a single trait can have. A breeding policy should integrate aims from both a maternal and terminal perspective which means that flocks can focus on developing both growth traits and ewe maternal ability at the same time. As a result the Sheep Ireland genetic index ranks animals on both their replacement (maternal) and terminal characteristics. This allows farmers to select rams which will meet the requirements of their breeding policy and improve the genetic make-up of the flock. Kevin highlighted the forward progression of the genetic sheep index through the development of a central progeny test (CPT) programme and the increase in the number of farmers’ performance recording within the LambPlus programme. In 2017 alone it was noted that over 10,000 pedigree ram lambs were performance recorded through the Sheep Ireland database.
Our third speaker of the day, Matthew Blyth, gave an in-depth overview of his farm, based in West Sussex, UK, where he is running 1250 mid-season lambing ewes across 489ha. The farm is currently divided into permanent pasture (83.86ha) and 5year leys (66.18). Matthew addressed the importance of having key performance indicators (KPI’s) for your flock and putting targets in place in order to ensure that your farm is performing to its optimum potential. He explained the advantages of paddock grazing and highlighted the importance of putting a grassland management plan in place. Over the past 10 years Matthew has progressed completely to a rotational grazing system, and outlined the benefits he has seen in flock performance as a result. Rotational grazing has maximised grass growth and by maintaining quality throughout the grazing season. A combination of improved grassland management and earlier weaning has led to higher lamb growth rates and a greater percentage of lambs being sold from the farm earlier in the year. The aim for Matthew is to have approximately 80% of lambs sold by the time the ram is introduced to ewes the following autumn. Lambs are weaned at 12 weeks of age and given priority to pasture. This has resulted in introducing lambs to swards at grass heights of 7-9cm and 75% of lambs being drafted by mid-October.
A beautiful sunny afternoon set the scene for an exciting and thought provoking farm walk on the farm of john Large, Co. Tipperary. John operates a mid-season lambing flock alongside a beef suckler to fattening system which is run over 87ha. John’s Teagasc advisors Jack Murphy and Joe Hand discussed his farm structure and grassland management. His land is split into three grazing blocks, two of which are located away from the main yard and housing facilities. John is currently running 630 ewes and 180 replacements, which are bred as ewe lambs. His current stocking rate for the sheep enterprise is 12 ewes/ha. Similarly to sentiments expressed by Matthew Blyth in our morning session John emphasised the importance of a rotational paddock grazing system to all attendees. He highlighted the importance of implementing a grassland management system on his farm and how it has allowed him to operate a profitable production system with low input costs. The average paddock size is 1.5ha while temporary fencing is also used to further divide paddocks during the grazing season. This practice was clearly visible on the day with plans in place to remove heavy grass covers as baled silage. The Spring of 2018 has been extremely tough for farmers across the country and things were no different on John’s farm. Thankfully, with nitrogen applications and improved soil temperatures grass growth rates have now returned to normal levels of 80+kg DM/ha/day.
John’s farm is one of four farms involved in the Sheep Ireland CPT programme since 2009. As a result all of John’s ewes are AI’ed in early October with the majority lambing down within a two week window in early March. In 2018 72% of the ewes held to AI with an average litter size of 2.05 lambs. Eamon Wall, Sheep Ireland, discussed the role John plays in the CPT programme and the importance of data recording in order to validate ram genetic performance. Eamon explained that over 20 rams were used to mate John’s ewes in 2017 ranging from five breed types namely, Belclare, Texel, Charollais, Suffolk and Vendeen. A selection of female progeny is then retained from each ram in order to further evaluate their maternal performance and longevity within the flock. John and Eamon gave us an overview of current animal performance with lambs averaging 17.3kg at 46 days of age, equating to a growth rate of 270g/day. John operates a lamb finishing system where he sells all of his meat lambs directly to the processor. The target carcass weight is 20.5. In order to achieve this slower growing lambs are moved onto a crop of forage rape in October to boost growth rates and reduce finishing times.
The final stop on the farm walk reviewed the financial performance of the farm with John addressing the point that your farm is your business and that each farmer must run a profitable system to suit their requirements. The beef and sheep enterprises on John’s farm are set up in such a way that both complement one another with gross margins of €888ha and €982/ha, respectively in 2017.