Experts predict a bright future for Irish sheep farming -- but there's still a lot of work to do
The phrase 'a new world' was used several times at last week's Irish Grassland Association annual sheep conference and farm walk in Co Kilkenny. This new world includes:
•A dramatic surge in sheepmeat prices both in Ireland and across the world, which in turn, is leading to significant new inquiries for live and carcase sheep from Ireland. In fact, Iraq recently wanted to place a significant order for Irish sheepmeat, according to James Murphy of the IFA sheep committee.
•An ambitious new Sheep Breed Improvement Programme, led by Sheep Ireland (part of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation.) This programme draws in both pedigree and commercial producers. It includes measurement of maternal and functional traits as well as terminal merit. All these are combined in the new €uro Star indexes for sheep.
•A changing of the guard at sheep research level, with stalwarts such as Drs Frank Crosby, Seamus Hanrahan and Sean Flanagan retiring and young guns moving into their considerable shoes.
The conference held workshops inviting farmers to nominate topics for these young tyros - namely Tommy Boland, from UCD, and Noirin McHugh and Philip Creighton, from Teagasc - to research. Each made their pitch and feelers were put out as to the willingness of farmers to make a levy contribution towards this research. The response wasn't totally negative but I await the farm organisations reaction.
Regrettably, Ireland simply hasn't enough sheep to contemplate large new orders from the Middle East or elsewhere -- a flock that was once over five million ewes has shrunk by 50pc. However, there are signs that the favourable prices of this season and last have at least stemmed the decline and maybe even reversed it.
Never short of prescriptions for the promised land, Sheep Ireland and ICBF have now come up with a genetic improvement package to turn around our sheep fortunes.
The last time I saw New Zealander Tim Byrne, he was filling a minor role at Tully Beef Performance Test Centre in Kildare. At the Grassland meeting last week he was back with the gravitas of an international consultant on sheep genetics. He was representing AbacusBio, a New Zealand firm in which both Teagasc and ICBF place a lot of trust. Indeed, we seem to be going down almost exclusively the New Zealand route for our technology.