Due to Covid19 restrictions, the 2020 IGA sheep farm walk is taking a slightly different approach for 2020 where we are inviting each of you to sit back, relax and enjoy revisiting three of our previous host farmers from the last decade through a virtual, online, ‘event’. This year on August 20th we will be releasing a series of short video clips across our social media channels (Facebook ; Twitter ) and through this website where we will revisit three of our previous host farmers; William Hutchinson, our host farmer from 2011, farms in Co. Kilkenny, Ned Morrissey is farming in Co. Waterford and hosted the IGA sheep event in 2015 and John Bell, hailing from Co. Westmeath, was our host in 2017. Thus far 2020 has thrown each of us many curve balls but we will bring you an insight into how each of these farmers is dealing with 2020 and how their farming system has progressed since our initial visit. For a taste of what is to come please read below for a preview on each of our host farmers.’
Virtual Farm Tour
Further detail will be provided on developments from each of the above farmers on August 20th with a series of short videos which will be released across the IGA social media accounts and on the IGA website. Please join us for an update from each of our three previous IGA Sheep Farm Walk hosts.
Operating a highly stocked farm alongside a tillage enterprise in Co. Waterford
Ned Morrissey, our 2015 host farmer, is farming with his family in Ballybrennock, Dunhill, Co. Waterford. Ned farms a mixed sheep and tillage enterprise on approximately 100 owned acres in addition to a further 500 rented acres, which is primarily used for tillage. There are a range of crops grown on the farm including winter barley, winter wheat, spring barley, spring wheat, fodder beet and maize, although this can alternate from year to year.
The sheep enterprise, based on the 100-acre owned farm block, is run as a mid-season lamb production system with the aim of finding the best balance between maximising output and reducing labour input. The flock consists of 400, mainly Suffolk X Belclare, ewes which lamb from mid-March onwards. Stocking rate on the grassland area is high at 13 ewes/ha with an equally impressive weaning rate of 1.6 lambs/ewe being regularly achieved. Grassland management is a top priority with a strong emphasis placed on utilising as much grass within the diet as possible. A paddock system and a planned reseeding programme in conjunction with the fodder beet help to maximise the use of grass on this farm.
There is a strong focus on reducing labour on the farm with all ewes out wintered on fodder beet during mid-pregnancy (November – January) before twin ewes are turned onto saved grass prior to lambing outdoors thus reducing the need for concentrate supplementation. Ned finds this method of out wintering plus outdoor lambing works for him but he emphasises the importance of assessing ewe body condition regularly and ensures that any thin ewes or ewes falling behind are brought indoors for additional feeding pre-lambing. All single and triplet ewes are housed pre-lambing and lambed indoors to enable cross-fostering. This is crucial as scanning litter sizes of 2.0 lambs per ewe are being achieved year in, year out. There is a strict ewe culling policy operated on the farm with all ewes that have significant lambing difficulty, health issues or fail to hold body condition identified via a tip-tag throughout the year. According to Ned this a vital as “all ewes that are tip tagged were done so for a reason so there is never a question asked over these ewes and they are removed from the flock post-weaning”.
All lambs produced on the farm are either finished and sold to a local butcher or retained as replacements. Belclare and Suffolk rams are used to produce replacement females while Charollais and Texel rams are used to produce finishing lambs. Ned has also recently tried an Ile de France ram with his first lamb crop on the ground this year. Given earlier drought conditions this year lambs have been weaned approximately two weeks earlier than other years and in order to hold grass supplies for lambs, creep has been added to their diet to extend the available grass supply. While conditions haven’t been ideal Ned is thankful for the lessons learned in 2018 and said it has stood to him confidently managing the situation this year.
Achieving high output from a grass-based system in Co. Westmeath
John Bell is farming on the outskirts of Castletown Geoghegan, Co. Westmeath and was the host of our 2017 IGA Sheep Farm Walk. Running a sheep only system based on 42 ha of grassland, John manages a flock of 480 ewes and 130 replacements stocked at 14 ewes per hectare. The farm itself is sitting in one block on a combination of dry to more peat type soil, which John will admit has its pros and cons depending on weather conditions.
With the high stocking rate on the farm good grassland management is now at the fore of John’s system. With good levels of soil fertility on the farm attention was turned to grazing infrastructure where John divided up the larger areas on the farm making good use of the TAMS grant to achieve some of the permanent divisions. He then uses temporary fencing to good effect to achieve further divisions, thus providing an economical way to achieve multiple paddocks.
When it comes to breeding, good levels of animal performance are key. All lambs produced on the farm are finished or retained as replacements. On the terminal side, high index Texel, Charollais and Suffolk rams make up the team, with Belclare rams making up the maternal component. Key to the performance is a high output ewe flock. Given the numbers on the farm Johns aim is to achieve a high output ewe that will look after herself and her lambs. The ewe flock consists of a mixture of maternal and terminal genetics with Belclare sires being used in a criss-crossed pattern with the terminal sires on the farm. This policy is delivering on the ground with a combination of genetics and good management. Litter sizes of over 2.0 are commonly seen with pregnancy rates of +96% with ewes lambing from early March onwards. The ewe flocks is delivering in excess of 1.6 to 1.7 lambs reared per ewe joined on a consistent basis.
To further increase output all ewe lambs are joined each year with Charollais rams. They lamb from the end of March when the pressure is off from the main ewe flock. Unlike most farms John typically only retains the pregnant ewe lambs as he believes these are the more productive replacements, when you examine the performance there may be merit to this.
A simple system
One of the key aspects of John’s farming system is keeping things simple with an aim of making the farm labour efficient, as much as possible. Whether it’s the feeding of ewes in late pregnancy, lambing, drenching or the weighing of lambs throughout the season John isn’t afraid to ask for help when it’s needed and believes in being organised in advance in order to make the most of people’s time when getting big jobs done on the farm.
The key components in Johns system that are clear to anyone who visits the farm, are to keep things simple and focus on the factors you can manage – grass and genetics, combine these with good management and you can achieve your targets.
Farming in Kells, Co. Kilkenny, 2011 Host Farmer, William Hutchinson and his family farm 120 ha of owned land with a further 27 ha leased in an adjoining block. Since 2012, there have being 2 major changes to the farm system. The move towards the Easycare breed and the bull finishing system has been replaced by a dairy heifer rearing contract.
A major objective on the Hutchinson farm is to focus on a low-cost grass-based system producing vigorous lambs in order to maintain a sustainable farming enterprise. The farm has a clay soil but tends to suffer from drought in the late spring/ early summer period, while being heavy and susceptible to poaching in winter. Changing the sheep genetics has reduced labour per ewe, while increasing lamb output to ensure a profitable and sustainable farm business into the future.
The commercial flock comprised of Belclare and Suffolk cross ewes in 2012 when William hosted the IGA Sheep Farm walk. In 2011 William had purchased his first Easycare ram in order to investigate the suitability of the breed to his system. Since then the commercial flock of 550 ewes has changed almost entirely to the Easycare breed with the target of the entire flock being Easycare in the future. William cites a number of reasons for this decision: reduced labour as the breed sheds and does not need to be shorn, no requirement for treatment of flystrike, exceptional mothering ability of the ewe and the high quality of the lambs, which all grade as R’s and have a higher kill out percentage than the traditional breeds. There has been growing interest from other farmers wishing to purchase Easycare ewe lambs in recent years due to the success of the breed. This spring, lambs were weaned 2-3 weeks earlier than usual, due to lower grass growth and the need to reduce demand for grass on the farm. Average lamb growth rate was 300 g/day from birth to weaning (approx. 80 days old). William attributes this to high DM % and high quality grass, no parasite challenge due to lower rainfall and as a result of the grass being tight, creep was introduced 10 days prior to weaning. As a result William noticed there was no check to lamb growth following weaning.
The pedigree flock includes three breeds: Suffolk, Texel and Ile de France, with approximately 50 ewes of each breed. It is managed similarly to the commercial flock and pedigree ewes receive no preferential treatment. No creep is fed to lambs unless where ewes are rearing triplet lambs or in a drought situation such as this year. Pedigree rams are on grass only prior to selling with no additional feed. William places a strong emphasis on animal recording in LambPlus with Sheep Ireland for both the commercial and Pedigree flocks. It provides invaluable information on his decision-making regarding breeding and selection of his replacement lambs.
In recent years, William has sown chicory, plantain and red clover to identify options to provide palatable crops to finishing lambs and reduce worm burdens. He explains that dry Springs at sowing have compromised the crops and he feels that going forward Autumn sown crops might yield better results on his farm. He has had success with the hybrid brassica, Redstart, which he sows in April and begins to graze in mid to late June with the heaviest ram lambs. Three to four grazings are completed with ram lambs drafted off the crop to slaughter and a further grazing is taken in February with pregnant ewe-lambs prior to sowing the field to a Spring cereal. In recent years, approximately 300 ewes are grazed off-farm during the winter on a cover crop of a nearby tillage farmer.