As with many events across past 18 months, the 2021 IGA Sheep event fell victim to Covid-19 restrictions and an on-farm event was not possible. Not wanting to disappoint our membership, the IGA sheep committee put their heads together to find the best option for the summer event. After much consideration it was decided an online event was the only option, but we were conscious that we still wanted to get out on the road and give our viewers a virtual farm walk. Despite the initial disappointment of not being able to host an on-farm event, the committee had the bright idea to use the restrictions as an opportunity to engage with an international speaker. When discussing potential farms to visit the committee out did themselves and came up with three excellent potential hosts and after some discussion it was decided that each potential host was deserving of a dedicated evening to showcase their farm on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th of June. The three-day event, which was kindly sponsored by Mullinahone Co-op, consisted of a virtual farm tour with Peter & Tom McGuinness in Trim, Co. Meath, and Alan Cole in Athy, Co. Kildare followed on the third night by an online presentation and discussion with Neil McGowan of Incheoch farm in Perthshire, Scotland. The theme for this year’s event was “The use of innovative practices to enhance flock management and performance” and it became apparent very quickly that each of our three hosts suited this theme perfectly, each of them adopting some form of innovative practice to drive flock performance. The video productions went live on the IGA website each evening and are available on the website and on YouTube for anyone who was not able to tune in on the night.
The first farm visit of the event was that of Peter McGuinness who farms in a partnership with his father Tom. IGA council member Alan Bohan visited the McGuiness farm and discussed the farm, the sheep enterprise, flock performance and grassland management with Peter. There was a lot to see on the farm which at just over 500 acres includes a flock of 800 ewes, a beef finishing unit, dairy hiefers to graze surplus grass as well as a large tillag enterprise. All ewes are lambed outdoors from mid-March with all single and twin bearing ewes outwintered, and triplets being housed. Grassland management is top class on the farm with 96% of lambs drafted for slaughter by the end of September with just 8kg of concentrates fed per lamb on average. Peter’s excellent grassland management was acknowledged in 2020 when he received the Grass10 Grassland Farmer of the Year award in the sheep category. Once ewes are lambed, they rotationally grazed in batches of 250 ewes and their lambs pre weaning and then lambs are grazed ahead of the ewes in a leader follower system post weaning. The farm is well set up to manage grass with 20 permanent paddocks that can be subdivided to manage grass at different times of the year and this along with 10% of the farm being reseeded annually allowed Peter to grow and impressive 13.7 tonnes of grass per hectare in 2020. Peter spent some time in New Zealand on work placement and it was there that he discovered the value and benefits of grass measurement. Peter embraced this technology and has implemented it on his own farm to great effect. The high level of grassland management means that the 13.7 tonnes of grass produced on farm supports a stocking rate of 10.5 ewes per hectare, produces silage for a beef finishing unit on farm and also supplies enough surplus grass to feed by 100 dairy heifers that are grazed on the farm on a daily rate during the summer months.
On the second night of the event, we joined IGA council member Christy Watson as he travelled to Alan Cole’s farm in Athy, Co. Kildare where Alan runs a flock of 200 mid-season lambing ewes, contract rears 60 dairy heifers, and has a small tillage enterprise mainly growing Spring Barley. It was clear to see from the video clips of the farm that Alan puts a big focus on grassland management with weekly grass measurements uploaded to PastureBase, which enables Alan to make best use of the grass grown on the farm. The high level of grassland management is helped by the excellent grassland infrastructure with the farm split into 20 paddocks averaging 1.3 ha in size that can easily be subdivided when required. Alan aims is to finish as many lambs as possible off grass with concentrates only introduced from September to finish any lambs remaining on the farm. Alan discussed how the slow grass growth this spring had put a lot of pressure on the ewes that had to work very hard and as a result had a lower than usual body condition score. His aim is to use good quality grass to rebuild the body condition of the flock before breeding season later in the year. Along with embracing grass measuring, Alan discussed how he embraced the use of faecal egg sampling to manage lamb performance and to guard against anthelmintic resistance in his flock. He described how he carried out the faecal sampling and how he is able to do it in the field without having to gather the flock. Alan uses this information to ensure his lambs are not under any worm burden and if they are he can dose them accordingly. This method has significantly reduced the number of doses the lambs receive across the year and is helping to mitigate the risk of anthelmintic resistance in the flock, which is a growing concern in many flocks across the country. Alan ended the interview by describing how useful on farm data such as grass measuring and faecal sampling to assist day to day management and to assess the farm performance from year to year.
On the third and final night of the event IGA council member Ciaran Lynch was joined by Neil McGowan via a Zoom call which was the best available approach considering covid restrictions. Neil presented a fascinating presentation where he described in great detail his farm in Perthshire, Scotland where he farms alongside his wife Debbie. Neil described how they are farming 1,200 breeding ewes and 220 suckler cows on 485 hectares of upland ranging from 400 to 750 feet above sea level. The focus of the farm is to produce lamb and beef from grass and forage crops grown on farm. All ewes lamb outdoors from late April with minimal intervention. Of the 1,200 ewes on the farm, 1,100 are Lleyns, 800 of which are performance recorded. The remaining 100 ewes make up a pedigree Texel flock which is also performance recorded. Neil and Debbie complete all the performance recording themselves utilising EID technology to record a large amount of data on each animal and from this estimated breeding values are produced allowing for the selection of the top performing animals to breed the next generation. Neil spoke about the criteria they have for selecting breeding stock which was focused on “letting the sheep do the sheepy things” without need for intervention or without causing extra work for the shepherd. Traits such as lambing ease, maternal ability and ewe efficiency allows the McGowan’s to select for the most commercially viable ewes that need minimal shepherding. The careful selection for desirable traits has seen the twinning rate increase from 65% to 75% over the past 10 years and lamb liveweight at 150 days increase by 3.8kg in the same period. Grassland management is an area that is constantly being assessed and improved with the aim of finishing all lambs off grass or forage crops with no concentrate supplementation while also outwintering ewes on swedes. An unique aspect of the McGowan’s farm is that they do not just have a breeding programme to improve their own flock, they also produce rams and bulls for sale at their on-farm sale each year. Neil stated that the aim is to produce functional, efficient, and robust animals that will perform well for their new owners and ensure repeat custom for the farm. The achievements at Incheoch Farm have not gone unnoticed with Neil and Debbie being awarded the 2018 AgriScot Sheep Farmer of the year award and the 2020 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the year award.
The Irish Grassland Association would like to thank our three farmer hosts for inviting us onto their farms and for being so generous with their time and information. The three interviews are available on the IGA website for anyone who was not available to watch them on the night. We would also like to thank Mullinahone Co-op for their generous sponsorship which made this production possible.