"But the sub-dividing means that it's easy for ewes and lambs to get mixed up in this system, so we are very particular about having a numbering system. Each batch gets a different colour, and the ewes with twins are marked on the left, and singles on the right. That way, we know straight away if we see a ewe or lamb running along a fence with a number on the left that she's probably been separated from her lamb.
"We've always taken on students to help during lambing. Henry Burns even did a stint here. One stays for about three months, and three vet students come for just two weeks when the pressure is really on."
Flock may be too prolific
While most Irish sheep farmers are trying to increase the prolificacy of their ewes, the Mathews are worried that their flock may be too prolific.
“It’s difficult to know if last year was just an exceptional year, but our scanning says that our lambing rate will be even higher than the 2.15lambs/ewe that we got last year,” says Ken.
“I certainly wouldn’t like it to go any higher, but I’m not particularly keen on switching to another breed. Even though we keep a Suffolk nucleus flock, I wouldn’t like to use them as a terminal sire.
They say that the Lleyn are as prolific as the Belcare, but with the advantage of lower percentages of triplets and quads. However, I think the Lleyn breed falls down on carcase grade.
“We’ll sit tight for another season before making any changes. Maybe we could look at the prolificacy score on the rams that we buy.”
Taking the partnership approach
"I'm looking forward to my paid holidays!" is Ken Mathews' light-hearted take on his decision to form a partnership with his son Richard.
"It's a difficult decision to make, because a lot of us want to keep farming forever. But my dad retired when he was 70 and I always intended to so the same. I'll qualify for the pension this year, but I suppose it was when I discovered that I had prostate cancer that I realised that I needed to do something more than just think about it."
So the Mathews' got themselves some professional advice from IFAC, and are now one year into one of the new partnerships structures that have generous tax incentives.
IFAC's Declan McEvoy said that there's been a massive interest from farmers in setting up partnerships because they are such a "no-brainer".
"We've dealt with at least 200 during the last eight months alone, simply because it's so attractive," said the taxation specialist.
For the Mathews, it was also the right time, with Richard starting a family and looking for certainty in his farming career.
"I'll gradually step back and let Richard at it. I'll still be involved with the producer group at least a day a week, so that will be a good way for me to stay involved," said Ken.
His was one of the first non-dairy farms to register for the new Registered Farm Partnership package that was introduced to replace the Milk Production Partnerships that became obsolete last April.
The new Registered Farm Partnerships have the same tax benefits, but with an even broader reach in that they now apply to all farm sectors.
Provided one partner is a 'young trained farmer', a registered farm partnership can pay as little as 20pc tax on over €100,000 of earnings, if both parents and the child are all earners. Stock relief is also doubled, and 25pc of up to €60 is available on the first 50 activated entitlements.
The latter can amount to a payment of €3,000 for up to five years.
In addition, if the young trained farmer owns or leases land that has no, or even low level entitlements, they can be eligible for new entitlements out of the national reserve, and higher capital grant rates.
But a lot of boxes have to be ticked, including registering with Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, opening a dedicated bank account, and drawing up a written agreement. But there is even a grant to cover 50pc of the professional fees incurred.
Last year's Budget proposed an additional tax credit of €5,000 a year for five years for farming partnerships formed between parents and a successor. The catch is that most of the farm asset has to transfer to the successor during the decade that follows the establishment of the partnership. This has yet to be signed into law.