Producer groups the way forward for hill sheep farmers
Published 23/02/2016 | 02:30
Hill sheep farmers could increase profits through more crossbreeding and establishing producer groups to target specific markets, a conference heard.
Michael Diskin from Teagasc Athenry said the sector has been reliant on Mediterranean markets including Portugal, Spain and Italy to take the lighter carcasses from the hill flocks.
However, he pointed out there has been a 54pc decline in exports to the Mediterranean countries in recent years as the downturn took hold.
Prof Diskin, who addressed the Teagasc Hill Sheep conference attended by almost 300 farmers in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, said a proportion of the hill breed ewes should be crossed with breeds such as Belclare, Bluefaced Leicester or Texel to produce quality replacements or lambs for slaughter.
He acknowledged that hill land was variable but some of the better upland areas may be more suitable for crossbreds.
"Typically the crossbred lamb would be 3-4kg heavier at weaning than the purebred hill lamb," he said.
However, he cautioned the primary aim must still be to produce replacement ewes for the hill breeds.
Prof Diskin highlighted a study in Athenry that showed Texel cross lambs had higher performance than the Scottish Blackface lambs, had higher intake, proved more efficient converters of ration and had better carcase confirmation. He pointed out they nearly all reached the French market specification.
Prof Diskin said they may also be suitable as breeding replacements for lowland flocks.
Seamus Campbell from Teagasc in Carndonagh pointed out Donegal has the largest sheep flock with around 100,000 to 110,000 hill breeding ewes in the county.
He said the typical output from the hill flocks was low at around 0.8 lambs weaned per ewe mated.
"Within Donegal from the 100,000 plus hill breeding ewes, even at low output levels there is potential to produce 30,000 crossbred lambs," said Mr Campbell.
"There is clearly a valuable resource within the hill flocks of Co Donegal that could be exploited if there were more organised sales of crossbred females such as Mules, Suffolk crossed with Cheviot, Belclare crosses, and Hilltex within the county. These females are in demand by lowland producers seeking quality prolific replacements."
It was also highlighted that many purchasers are now anxious to acquire and willing to pay extra for sheep that are vaccinated and have a known high health status. Mr Campbell said this could be targeted through producer groups.