Ronan Delany gives his views on the IGA sheep conference and farm walk.
The Irish Grassland Association held its annual sheep conference and farm walk in Mullingar on the 11th May 2017. The day started with a highly informative conference in the Bloomfield Hotel, Mullingar. Delegates arrived on time in glorious sunshine and the day’s events improved from there.
We had presentations from Isaac Crilly, a super, highly efficient intensive sheep farmer from Co. Tyrone. Isaac gave us a fantastic insight into his farm that left the entire room feeling like a trip to Isaac’s was needed.
Sheep farmers have been lucky in recent years with the introduction of Philip Creighton to Teagasc Athenry. His trial on litter size and prolificacy has delivered invaluable information on the most profitable sheep systems and also greatly increased awareness of grassland management with paddock grazing and temporarily splitting fields with electric wire being implemented at farm level by a growing number of sheep farmers.
Declan Fennell, Bord Bia gave us a most fantastic insight into sheep meat marketing. As farmers we sometimes overlook this area and it is critical that we actually take a greater interest in this area. Ultimately we need to be giving the market what it wants.
Joe Ryan from Meat Industry Ireland, a body that represents the meat processors in Ireland, delivered an overview of the industry and where they see the future in terms of processing, grading, and a growing move to value-added over carcass sales.
Kevin Hanrahan a highly respected economist with Teagasc spoke to us about the impending Brexit issue facing us all and what implications it may have for us. Unfortunately there is a huge level of uncertainty on what way Brexit will effect Irish agriculture. Kevin’s outlook had more worries than positives not only for sheep farmers but for all livestock farmers.
We had an excellent forum chaired by Darren Carty, Irish farmers Journal and IGA council member, where Declan Fennell, Joe Ryan and Kevin Hanrahan took questions from the floor. This was a huge success and was probably the one area we could have enjoyed for longer, given the strong interest sheep farmers have in markets and the influence it has on margins.
Presentations and papers from speakers are available on www.irishgrassland.com.
The sheep event was so lucky to have two fantastic and loyal sponsors in MSD Animal Health and Mullinahone co-op. Both companies had a good presence on the day with excellent content to address most sheep farmer’s interests and questions on sheep health and tagging issues.
The hotel really excelled over lunchtime and provided a lamb dinner – what else could we offer at a sheep conference. It was beautiful and everyone was offered more. It is a pity that we don’t see lamb on more Irish menus, it would really help to boost consumption.
Exciting farm walk
Farmers getting onto buses were glad to be getting out into the fresh air in the afternoon and excited to see first-hand our host sheep farmer, John Bell who farms in Castletowngeoghan, Co Westmeath.
Little did we know what a treat we were in for, this was a grass farmer who took managing grass for sheep to a whole new level. What was pleasing and always a guide to how highly delegates rate host farms was the interaction between the audience, the host farmer and advisors. This was driven by John’s openness to explain his system and the honesty in explaining what worked for him but also importantly what didn’t work for him. This farm is a technically high efficient enterprise that is operated in a very simple way that could be transferred to any sheep farm. Delegates certainly left the event with plenty of food for thought and ideas to take hoke to their own farm.
Take home messages
It is hard to narrow down the take home-messages from speakers, such was the volume of excellent advice and market insights delivered on the day. Some messages that stood out that are worth highlighting include the following.
Isaac Crilly on lamb drafting: Isaac’s presentation showed that drafting lambs at the correct weight and specification makes sense for the farmer and the processor. 100% of Isaac’s lambs delivered a carcase weight between 16kg and 21kg with grades of R and U and fat scores of 2 and 3L. For Isaac keeping lambs moving suited his system and also ensure he was not investing money in producing free meat for the factory.
Philip Creighton on the most profitable sheep system: Philip’s analysis shows that the system that delivered the highest margin in Athenry was the high prolificacy ewes (weaning 1.7 plus lambs) stocked at 14 ewes/ha. He cautioned farmers that the stocking rate of 12 ewes/ha may however be a better system to run as it was less exposed. A vital message was that it is easy to increase ewe numbers and prolificacy but this does not translate into more money. Sheep numbers and prolificacy should only be increased in line with the volume of grass that the farm can grow with prolificacy delivering the greater return.
Joe Ryan on market access: Joe Ryan told delegates that Irish farmers have a super product that ticks all the boxes on sustainability, welfare standards, quality and taste. Gaining access to the US and China is important to create more market outlets, particularly in an era of falling sheep meat consumption in some EU markets. However, he said that we must not lose sight of the importance of 500m consumers on our doorstep in the EU with lots of positives in emerging markets. There are challenges for farmers and processors in delivering a consistent, high-quality product on a year-round basis.
Declan Fennell on New Zealand lamb: Declan Fennell says that while New Zealand lamb will always be a competitor to Irish lamb in EU markets, its presence has reduced significantly in recent years. The future of New Zealand exports will depend on how the EU negotiates New Zealand’s tariff free quota of about 227,000t of sheep meat. Declan says that this quota must be split with the UK on their exit. He questioned future exports from New Zealand highlighting many environmental challenges for the industry to overcome.
Kevin Hanrahan on Brexit: There are more complexities to Brexit than we could have imagined. Trade deals and potential tariffs will negatively affect Irish exports if preferential access cannot be secured to the UK market. UK exports will also be affected with the flow of Northern lambs to southern plants at risk. The UK’s contribution to the overall EU budget could leave a deficit in the CAP budget which could have a huge influence on the family farm income of sheep and beef/suckler farmers. There is a long road ahead and it is important that Ireland gets as good a deal as possible to limit the effect of losing free access to a vital market for Irish exports.
John Bell on transforming his sheep enterprise: John Bell’s farm was heavily reliant on concentrate input for finishing lambs as recent as six to seven years ago. Over time and through gradual improvements, his system was transformed. Strategic use of meal still plays a role in the system but costs have been reduced massively. This combined with a robust breeding policy and high levels of output was the backbone of the farm generating a gross margin of €1,105 in 2016 which shows that well-run sheep farms can deliver high performance.