Teagasc should be relevant to more of us to have an effect
The Irish Grassland sheep conference and farm walk takes place in Kilkenny tomorrow. At the same conference last year, Dr Tim Keady of Teagasc, presented a paper which contained the following fact: Most of the decline in sheep numbers occurred during the last six years when the national flock has declined by 36pc. During the same period ... there has been no improvement of technical efficiency at farm level.
The two key components of profitability in the sheep enterprise are weaning rate (the number of lambs weaned per ewe put to the ram) and stocking rate. Weaning rate has hovered around 1.3 lambs per ewe since the mid-fifties. National Farm Survey data shows that stocking rate, which has been at around 9-9.5 ewes/ha since the mid-1980s, has declined over recent years. What is wrong?
Do farmers not want to increase income? Is it the way the message is being sold?
Sheep farmers have shown they can change provided the change delivers benefits such as improving income, reducing workload or improving working conditions. Prior to the 1970s, most lowland flocks were out-wintered, generally on root crops. Sheep farmers invested heavily in wintering accommodation and adopted silage and meal feeding. The use of continental sires such as the Texel and Charollais has since become widespread. In more recent years the use of pour-ons and injectables for the control of ectoparasites is now the norm.
However, despite all the research and advice, output has effectively remained static.
The Teagasc 2030 Foresight Report sets two targets for the lowland flock, one is to increase weaning rate to 1.5 lambs/ewe and the other to increase stocking rate to 11.5 ewes/ha. Given that these targets have not improved in the past few decades, when there was a vibrancy in the industry, I fear they are unlikely to improve over the next 10-20 years.
Despite farm walks, demonstrations and the development of the BETTER sheep farms, farmers are not buying into the Teagasc message so we must try to get to grips with the reasons why.
I'll now put my head on the block and outline my reasons why lowland sheep farmers have shied away from improving this aspect of performance.