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Independent.ie

Saturday 29 April 2017

Sheep super group

Mayo sheep farmers are proving that there really is strength in numbers

Members of Mayo's Sheep group's Pat Waldron (South Mayo Lamb Producers), John Noonan, (Mayo Mountain Blackface Sheep Breeders), Tom Staunton, (Mayo Mule and Grayface Group) Stephen Lally (Mayo Mountain Blackface Sheep Breeders) and John Flannery (Mayo Mule and Grayface Group).
Members of Mayo's Sheep group's Pat Waldron (South Mayo Lamb Producers), John Noonan, (Mayo Mountain Blackface Sheep Breeders), Tom Staunton, (Mayo Mule and Grayface Group) Stephen Lally (Mayo Mountain Blackface Sheep Breeders) and John Flannery (Mayo Mule and Grayface Group).
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

A sheep farmer super group in the west is proving that flocking together in numbers is key to the future prosperity of the industry.

The Lake District Sheep Producers, set up a decade ago, is comprised of three individual sub-groups: 'Mayo Mule and Greyface Group,' (breeders) 'South Mayo Quality Lamb Producers Group' (factory stock) and 'Mayo Mountain Blackface Sheep Breeders Society,' (breeders and factory stock).

Each group was individually established, some more than 30 years ago, by a few enthusiastic, forward-thinking farmers responding to a situation where it was increasingly difficult to source quality breeding sheep in substantial numbers. They also wanted to develop lasting relationships with factories and ensure decent financial returns. The groups compliment the Teagasc technology programme by sending out key grassland and breeding messages that will increase returns to a sector that's under severe financial pressure.

Speaking to the Farming Independent at the super group's office in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, Tom Staunton, treasurer of the Mayo Mule and in Greyface Group, founded in 1984 with just three members, says the amalgamation has brought huge benefits.

"The groups that operate out of this office have great advantages over someone trying to market their own sheep - you have the finance behind you so from a marketing viewpoint we've more leverage," he said.

Financially, he says farmers could "easily" yield a 10-20pc premium by signing up.

"If we market our lambs and hoggets well we get a lot of customers and that drives up price. If you get 50 customers you could get premium of ¤30 or ¤40," he said.

Currently there are 65 members in the group, producing more than 4,000 mule lambs and ewe hoggets each year with the same buyers returning.

John Noonan, Teagasc advisor, says high membership creates an ambitious edge.

"There is competition among the group as well and that drives quality so people who aren't in the group find it harder. All the lambs and hoggets each year would be really good quality. If you came with poor quality you would almost be embarrassed," he said.

Teagasc have played a vital role in bringing the different groups under the Lake District umbrella.

Anthony Fadden says the Mayo Mule and Greyface Group have a waiting list of 12 potential members - all of whom must pay an annual fee ¤50. Each group has their own rules and regulations.

"You have to keep reminding people about the weights of the lambs and the quality - you want a standard," he said. The standard is 40kg minimum weight for the majority of their lambs at the first sale so they can all be bred that year.

Respect

They say factories show "more respect" when dealing with a producer group compared to the ordinary lone farmer.

Patrick Waldron of the South Mayo Quality Lamb Producers, set up in 1988 to get a market for factory lambs, says the group has ballooned from 40 to 190 members, and produces 21,000 lambs a year.

"You've a stronger voice and more control of your sales. It gives the farmer a bit more bargaining power too because you're going to the factory with a large number of lambs instead of a lad with maybe only 100 lambs to kill in the year," he said.

"If there are over 20,000 lambs going out a factory is going to want to play ball. You are guaranteed that they are going to be killed that week - they won't hold them over," he said.

Haulage is another pull factor - all members avail of the same haulier which brings subsidies of up to ¤2 per lamb. Small farmers and big farmers are treated equally.

John Noonan said: "if you even want to haul two or three small individual lambs you can do that. It's the same for a small guy with 30 or 40 lambs as it is for the guy with 300 or 400. Small farmers and big farmers are all treated the same which improves fairness because the small guy usually gets shafted".

Eamonn Patten, local Teagasc advisor, says labour is also reduced.

"It's time saving and convenience, you'll drop your lambs off to the haulier on a Sunday evening and you're finished with them, they are killed on a Monday and you get your cheque in the post," he said.

Like the suckler herd nationally, where terminal traits were followed for the last 20 years, many lowland flocks have huge difficulties around lambing with poor mothering ability, leading to increased workloads, farmer stress and increased mortality rates.

John Noonan says the maternal qualities of hill breeds are shown to "reduce these deficiencies".

Steven Lally, a young farmer with the Mayo Mountain Blackface Sheep Breeders Society, (190 members), says you can't put a true value on the advantages of joining a group.

"A farmer can get rid of his lamb and head off to work. You can't really put a financial value on it. The farmer doesn't have to spend half a day going to factory with 10 lambs or down to a mart, so you're saving a half a day's wages," he said.

But reaping dividends is no easy feat as all groups stress that leaders with "real commitment and vision" are crucial to ensuring favourable outcomes.

The best farmers in the group tend to be the main leaders.

Tom Staunton said: "the reason the groups are expanding is the financial rewards being returned. That's what it's all about. Let's call a spade a spade but the groups wouldn't run without a dedicated team of innovators and volunteers who got us started in the first place," he said.

"We're living proof that producer groups work but you need a few people who will do all the donkey work. There is a huge amount of goodwill and time involved. There are probably 10 people between the three groups looking after 500 farmers," he said.

They say producer groups are the way forward for all sheep farmers, particularly women and young farmers.

"In the future we can see things evolving so that producer groups will start linking up more and get stronger together because more connections would strengthen with marketing as well," said Mr Noonan.

Indo Farming