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Breed information must stand up to scrutiny

A ll in all, 2010 was not a bad year for sheep farmers. Lamb prices were up from an average of €3.75/kg in 2009 to €4.38 -- an increase of 63c or €12.50 for a 20kg carcass. Mid-season producers fared best as lamb prices increased by €15-€20 from the end of June onwards. Cull ewe prices were up €20 to €25 a head.

There was great demand for both breeding ewes and ewe lambs. Wool is now making €1.20/kg compared to 60c/kg this time last year. Now, at least the wool covers the cost of shearing.

The increase in lamb prices was a consequence of not just the reduced slaughterings here but also in the main sheep-producing states across Europe. Lamb slaughterings in Ireland were back 9pc this year. However, this reduction is camouflaged by a large number of lambs coming down from Northern Ireland. The plants there experienced a massive 40pc reduction in lamb slaughterings compared with 2009.

The prospects for the coming year seem reasonably good. The decline in production across Europe is expected to continue. The New Zealand lamb crop is down 2.5pc on last spring. It must also be recognised that lamb consumption within the EU is declining but at a slower rate than production.

The big issue is the current financial constraints being experienced by consumers right across Europe and the effect this will have on lamb prices. Nobody in the trade is prepared to hazard a guess.

It is likely that there will be a significant increase in production costs over the coming year, especially in meal, fertilisers and fuel. While there is a degree of optimism around we must continue to improve output and/or reduce costs. For years farmers were claiming that there was little point to improving output because lamb prices were too low to warrant the additional effort.

At this year's lamb prices, each 0.1 increase in weaning rate will increase margins by €8-9 per ewe. Increasing the weaning rate on lowland flocks from the current average (around 1.3 lambs per ewe) to 1.5 lambs per ewe will add nearly €20 per ewe. This amount of money cannot be sneezed at.

It is essential that all information regarding sheep breeds and breeding is able to stand up to the strictest interrogation and scrutiny. In this respect I came across some information during the year that I question.

  • "Mature ewes of the predominant breeds in the Irish ewe flock all have the potential, under good management, to scan up to 1.8 lambs per ewe and wean 1.5-1.6 lambs per ewe." I'm quoting the Teagasc 2009 Profit Monitor here.

This sentence reminds me of the various statements issued by the banking fraternity over the past number of years. It is theoretically correct but also misleading as it does not take into account the practical realities that exist on the majority of sheep farms.

The weaning rates cited are correct in that they refer to mature ewes. By mature ewes I mean ones that are four and five years of age. However, the majority of flocks will only contain 20-30pc of such ewes.

The predominant Irish breeds in lowland flocks are crosses of Suffolk (60pc), Texel (10pc) and Charollais (5pc) and I believe the figures quoted exaggerates the contribution that these breeds can make to improving the weaning rate of the national flock.

Teagasc Foresight 2030 report states a target for lowland flocks of 1.5 lambs weaned per ewe to the ram. This can only be achieved by using prolific sires on 20-30pc of flocks. Continuing to advocate the use of terminal or finishing sires to produce replacements will do little to increase output.

  • Data from Sheep Ireland showing that the progeny of high-merit, '5-star' rams outperform low-merit, '1-star' rams by 3.8kg at weaning. I was very surprised at the scale of this benefit.

Various Teagasc comparisons, either on high and low growth rams or high and low Lean Meat Index rams, show relatively small differences. These range from no difference to about 1kg in the weaning weight between the progeny of the high and low index rams.

So who are we to believe? I believe there is an obligation on Teagasc and Sheep Ireland to give some rational explanations.

Andrew Kinsella is a Wicklow sheep farmer and former Teagasc advisor

Indo Farming