Experts predict a bright future for Irish sheep farming -- but there's still a lot of work to do

John Shirley

The phrase 'a new world' was used several times at last week's Irish Grassland Association annual sheep conference and farm walk in Co Kilkenny. This new world includes:

•A dramatic surge in sheepmeat prices both in Ireland and across the world, which in turn, is leading to significant new inquiries for live and carcase sheep from Ireland. In fact, Iraq recently wanted to place a significant order for Irish sheepmeat, according to James Murphy of the IFA sheep committee.

•An ambitious new Sheep Breed Improvement Programme, led by Sheep Ireland (part of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation.) This programme draws in both pedigree and commercial producers. It includes measurement of maternal and functional traits as well as terminal merit. All these are combined in the new €uro Star indexes for sheep.

•A changing of the guard at sheep research level, with stalwarts such as Drs Frank Crosby, Seamus Hanrahan and Sean Flanagan retiring and young guns moving into their considerable shoes.

The conference held workshops inviting farmers to nominate topics for these young tyros - namely Tommy Boland, from UCD, and Noirin McHugh and Philip Creighton, from Teagasc - to research. Each made their pitch and feelers were put out as to the willingness of farmers to make a levy contribution towards this research. The response wasn't totally negative but I await the farm organisations reaction.

Regrettably, Ireland simply hasn't enough sheep to contemplate large new orders from the Middle East or elsewhere -- a flock that was once over five million ewes has shrunk by 50pc. However, there are signs that the favourable prices of this season and last have at least stemmed the decline and maybe even reversed it.

Never short of prescriptions for the promised land, Sheep Ireland and ICBF have now come up with a genetic improvement package to turn around our sheep fortunes.

The last time I saw New Zealander Tim Byrne, he was filling a minor role at Tully Beef Performance Test Centre in Kildare. At the Grassland meeting last week he was back with the gravitas of an international consultant on sheep genetics. He was representing AbacusBio, a New Zealand firm in which both Teagasc and ICBF place a lot of trust. Indeed, we seem to be going down almost exclusively the New Zealand route for our technology.

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Still, I liked what Tim had to say. Shooting from the hip, his message was to forget the show ring when selecting breeding stock and look instead for animals that have performed in a commercial environment.

"Irish sheep lack functionality and sheep farmers feed far too much expensive grains", he said.

Across the world, sheep are linked with subsistence farming, high maintenance relative to output, low meat yield per carcase and high processing costs per kg of saleable meat. On lowlands, they need a premium price to be competitive with other land uses.

However, international demand for sheepmeat and other sheep products continues to outstrip supply. He predicted a good future for Irish sheep farming but stressed the need for breeding functional productive sheep and optimising output per kg of brood ewe. He pointed out that only 10pc of Irish rams are recorded and indexed, as opposed to 85pc in New Zealand.

Sheep Ireland's LambPlus programme for pedigree breeders is supported by MALP (Maternal Lamb Producer) groups plus a small number of CPT (Central Progeny Test) farms.

One of the CPT flock owners, Andrew Maloney from Edenderry, who spoke at the conference, presented an interesting challenge to the Sheep Ireland programme including the €urostars. Prior to his CPT involvement, Andrew farmed 500 ewes plus 150 purchased Borris-type ewe lamb replacements. He consistently scanned 1.8-1.9 lambs/ewe and reared 1.6-1.65 lambs/ewe. Feeding no meals at grass usually had 50pc of lambs sold to the factory by weaning.

As a CPT man, the Edenderry flock owner is now using 10 to 15 rams, across five breeds via AI. The rams are selected by Sheep Ireland. Instead of buying replacements, Sheep Ireland will select ewe lambs from within the flock. It will be interesting to learn if this complex system delivers higher profit. Time will tell.

For more on the Irish Grassland Association farm walk in Co Kilkenny, go to Page 22

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