Farm Ireland

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Investing in an unconventional approach can still pay its way

John Shirley

The Irish Grassland Association (IGA) always susses out interesting farmers to visit, and last week's pick, Gordon and Yvonne Johnston, who farm a 128ac all-sheep unit at Tyrellspass, Co Westmeath, were no exception.

Are the Johnstons interesting? Yes. Are they passionate about sheep? Yes. Do they use the latest technology? Yes. Are they conventional? No.

They take an almost holistic view of farming. They aim for a balance of efficiency, workload and profit that fits in with their age profile (50s) and lifestyle. And judging by their relaxed demeanour, they are happy with their system of farming and will not be easily deflected from it.

They make no silage or hay, spread little nitrogen and house their sheep in a cattle shed. Yet their gross margin from sheep last year, at €936 per ha and €102 per ewe, as assessed by Teagasc Profit Monitor, is way ahead of most of Ireland's sheep farmers.

Their stocking rate, at just under 10 ewes/ha, is modest enough, given the quality and depth of their farm soil. But their sales of two lambs per ewe and one lamb per ewe-lamb are outstanding. The Johnstons also indulge themselves with a 45-ewe pedigree Vendeen flock which was scanned at 1.8 lambs per ewe to the ram in 2011. The overall flock is closed apart from ram purchase.

They peruse sheep research and then extract the bits that fit in with their farming philosophy. To my mind, Yvonne is the stock person and Gordon the grass buff, but both aspire to tidiness and high standards.

The below quotations from Gordon hint at his farming priorities.

"If you don't spend it you don't have to make it."

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"If anybody told me that I was going to get a 20pc increase in grass, I'd get sick."

"Approaching the Grassland visit, grass supply looked tight, so I spread 3t of nitrogen on 75ac (40kg/ac). I've a funny feeling I've overdone it."

And: "Our Lleyn cross Texel ewes are not as prolific as the Belclares, thank God."

Yvonne, who works part-time off the farm as a medical scientist, also made some telling comments during the visit, including: "If a ewe looks crooked at me, she is culled. We don't give foot problems a chance to get going."

Gordon's strategy is to match grass supply with demand for as much of the year as possible. Little or no nitrogen is spread in spring or summer but, at the end of August, 35ac gets a bag per acre and is closed for mid-winter block grazing similar to the Knockbeg system.

Phosphorus and potassium are kept topped up, but less is needed where no silage or hay is cut.

Grass growth is measured. The aim is to keep about two week's supply ahead of the flock, based on ewes needing 3kg grass dry-matter (DM) daily per ewe early in the season.

This reduces back to about 2.2kg DM/ewe/day at weaning. Approaching weaning, lamb demand is reckoned at about 0.8kg DM/hd/day.

Every effort is made to deliver leafy grass. Should a paddock become coarse or sedgy, a disc mower is brought in to top and renew the sward. Only the lambs from the hoggets and "other stragglers" get meals at grass. "If we had all the lambs gone by July, how would we manage the grass?" Gordon added.

Come winter, the flock is block grazed on the saved grass using electrified net fencing.

In drier weather, three-day blocks are used, but in wetter periods the ewes are confined to smaller blocks and moved daily.

"The block can look badly poached but it recovers quickly," Gordon added.

About six weeks before lambing, staggered from January to March, ewes are housed in a slatted cattle shed which is bedded daily with straw. Ewes get an extra 0.45kg/day over the standard pre-lambing meal allowance to compensate for the lower feed value of the straw versus hay or silage.

The great attraction of straw and flat-rate meals is convenience and dry bedding.

How much further would the meal price have to rise before you would change over to silage? I asked Yvonne.

"Double" was her answer.

Other facts from this model sheep unit included:

• All lambs are tagged at birth and records used for culling and ewe selection.

• Worm dosing is based on faecal egg counts.

• A hydrometer is used to measure the zinc sulphate concentration in the large 10ft x 10ft footbath.

• Shearing is in August and includes replacement ewe lambs.

• The ram effect is used to synchronise heat in ewe lambs.

The IGA meeting glimpsed another interesting Westmeath sheep flock when young farmer John Fagan described his transition from 400 ewes in 2008, to 1,350 and 100 fattening heifers in 2011, on 185 ha.

Keys to success in sheep include good fencing, good handling facilities and a liking for the creatures. John scores well on all three. A mobile handling unit saves him time and effort.

Sheep are the ultimate utilisers of grass and John is exploiting this to keep the ewes and grow lambs as cheaply as he can. Reseeded pastures have given a boost to his lamb's performance, with 535 drafted by the end of June, 2011.

His flock is based on western-bred Mules, but he is also keeping replacements from within the flock.

In 2008, John sold 598 lambs at an average of €68.67 per animal. In 2009, he received €65.31 per lamb for a total of 1,034. In 2010, the per-lamb figure rose to €83.72 for 1,039, and 2011 returned €99.20 for 1,524.

In 2012, John has 2,041 lambs to sell, but, like us all, he is watching prices drop with dismay.

Indo Farming