Dairy expansion can create options for sheep farmers

There was a large show of top quality Texels at the Donegal Texel Breeders show and sale at Raphoe mart on Friday Photo Clive Wasson
There was a large show of top quality Texels at the Donegal Texel Breeders show and sale at Raphoe mart on Friday Photo Clive Wasson
John Fagan

John Fagan

With my Ice Bucket Chall-enge now completed, the countdown to the breeding season has begun and I have been busy getting the flock in shape. I am grazing my thinner ewes ahead of the fatter ladies to give them a chance to improve their condition score.

In general, though, I am very happy with how the flock is looking having had a superb grazing season. I intend to let the rams out for October 5 so everything I am doing now revolves around this date.

The rams are in super condition, possibly even too good, but I am foot bathing them weekly, to keep any little scalds at bay. One ram was sore on his brisket/chest area and I have been treating this. Little things like this, if neglected, will put the ram off breeding so it is important to keep an eye on them.

I introduced meal to the ram lambs over a month ago, but it is only in the last week that they actually fleshed up enough to get away.

I had been weighing them weekly and I found that although they weighed from 44-46kg, they just weren't good enough to kill.

This is a problem I encounter every year with ram lambs and every year I say the same thing, 'I will castrate them next year', and I fully intend to follow through on this in 2015.

In contrast, my factory-fit ewe lambs have no requirement for meal and therefore are cheaper to produce and finish. The margins are so tight in sheep farming that every area where we can reduce costs has to be a priority.

The grass on the farm is growing fine.

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I am currently grazing the fields that I intend to use for lambing next year. This will allow time for the remainder of the farm to build up a bank of grass to get me through the winter.

I topped some of the fields that had gone too stemmy and I will put out a bag per acre of CAN to maximise as much of what remains of the growing season as possible.

It is vital to get fertiliser out at this time of year. The way I look at it, the longer I can keep my sheep outside during the winter the less expense I will incur. I will avoid any breeding sales this year as I have plenty of first cross Suffolk and Texel ewe lambs from my mule ewes to choose from.

It's expensive buying in stock, and also it poses a health risk to your flock in terms of bringing in disease such as foot rot, orf, toxo and scab to name but a few.

The most profitable sheep farmers are the ones who breed their own stock, I was chatting recently to a sheep farmer who couldn't remember the last time he bought in replacement ewes for his flock - he simply focused on breeding policy and changed his rams regularly.

Last year the big dilemma for me was whether or not I would vaccinate the flock against the Schmallenberg virus. Eventually I succumbed to the fear and bought the vaccine, but I won't be doing the same this year. I might give the ewes a pre-breeding mineral dose if they're lucky.

I went to the dairy summer tour hosted by the IGA which was excellent and it really opened my mind to the opportunities now available to farmers when quotas go.

The financial performance of the two dairy farms we visited were outstanding, on average returning profit of €2,000/ha.

You compare this to sheep farmers who, at the top of their game, are lucky if they can generate a profit of €500/ha.

That being said, there is a lot of hype at present in the dairy industry about expansion.

For someone like me to get into dairying right now it would be an expensive and risky venture, but there is still opportunity for sheep farmers in the area of contract rearing heifers for dairy farmers.

It is something we all need to take a look at as a way to boost our farm incomes, improve cash flow and ultimately make a living from farming. I have joined my local dairy discussion group and if margins don't improve in sheep farming I see it as a new challenge and the next step for this farm.

John Fagan is a sheep farmer from Gartlandstown, Co Westmeath

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