Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 February 2018

Passion drives John to be better

EWE SEE: Host farmer John Kelly addresses the visitors to his
Baltinglass sheep holding at the Irish Grassland Association
summer conference and farmwalk.
EWE SEE: Host farmer John Kelly addresses the visitors to his Baltinglass sheep holding at the Irish Grassland Association summer conference and farmwalk.

John Shirley

A sheep farming gem was uncovered by the Irish Grassland Association (IGA) for its summer conference and farmwalk.

Originally from Co Derry, John Kelly and his father Eamonn moved to a 400-plus acre farm near Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, in 1994 when John was at Junior Cert age. After a period working abroad, mostly with horses, John came home and has established a sheep enterprise on 115 acres of the home farm.

Passionate about sheep, and an excellent communicator, John told the large Grassland gathering of his experience to date in establishing his flock of 330 ewes and 100 ewe lambs and of his ambition to keep 500 ewes on the same acreage. Speaking with a typical no-nonsense Northern directness, he explained how he sought, and seeks, information on sheep at every turn. He is a member of the Teagasc Better Farm Sheep programme but claims that he is not yet ready for the term "Better Sheep Farmer".

However, given his progress to date you would have to back him to reach his targets. And given his disposition he will share his experiences on the way. Given his detailed measuring, his results will be credible. Yes, now that there is a new interest in the sheep, John Kelly is an asset to the business.


In 2010 an average of 1.46 lambs have been reared from the 334 Kelly ewes put to the ram. The target is to deliver over 1.6 lambs per ewe from a flock of 500 ewes, plus replacements kept on the same area. And this is to be done with little increase in time worked.

At each stage of the production cycle there are targets. All lambs get electronic tags and are weighed at birth as part of the Better Farm programme. His lamb weaning weight targets, off grass only, are 33kg for twins and 38kg for singles. In 2009 John averaged 32.2 and 37.4kg. Post weaning, he wants at least 0.2kg/lamb/day off grass.

Currently John reckons that the sheep take up about 0.5 of a labour unit, with the balance of his time spent working on his father's beef and tillage enterprise.

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John Kelly started in sheep with Suffolk cross ewes bought at the nearby Tullow Mart. These have been crossed with Charollais, Texel and Suffolk rams. In addition, Belclare rams have been introduced to breed replacements that will push lamb output to a higher level. The 100 best ewe lambs are retained as replacements. He hopes to buy 200 more ewes for the flock expansion.

A priority is to manage the grass on this all-sheep unit to deliver high-quality leafy material that will cut down on meal usage. To this end the 12 well-fenced paddocks are walked every Monday, grass height is measured with a plate meter and decisions made on moving sheep, closing paddocks or even introducing supplementation.

Last year, by September 75pc of lambs (spring born) were drafted for the factory without meal. Averages were 44.9kg liveweight, 19.7kg carcass weight, with 90pc grading R3 or U3. In 2009 this farm delivered a gross margin of €48 per ewe. The cold spring led to March lambing ewes getting meals at grass but hopefully this will be more than offset by higher lamb prices.

Other issues that arose: Lameness -- controlled by foot baths; Flystrike -- he has purchased a mobile dipper; Worms -- ewes get one fluke dose and nothing else. Lambs get a white wormer at five to seven weeks and a levamisole at 10 weeks. Later dosing will be based on faecal sample worm egg counts.

The grassland audience warmed to John Kelly as he described how he loved working with sheep. In the past he has worked "hard with hard boys in Australia and elsewhere", so lambing and shearing sheep holds no fears for him. Adding to his commitment to the farm and the local community is that he and his wife Caroline are expecting their third child.

Irish Independent