The Teagasc sheep BETTER farm programme has now been in operation for five years. This year, large numbers of farmers attended a series of open days on these farms that demonstrated how farmers made significant gains over the last five years from improvements in technical performance. The main messages are outlined below:
The average stocking rate for lowland sheep systems in Ireland is approximately seven ewes per hectare. Research and experience from the BETTER farm programme has shown that stocking rates of between 10 and 12.5 ewes per hectare are achievable on lowland farms. This allows for dilution of fixed cost and increases margin per ewe.
A clearly defined breeding policy that will produce prolific flock replacements in addition to lambs that grow faster is a must for every serious sheep farmer.
Ewes that are capable of giving birth to and rearing larger litters are key to increasing output where ewe numbers are maximised.
Therefore farmers should identify a proportion of their flock to be mated to maternal breeds (eg Belclare, Bluefaced Leicester, Lleyn, etc).
The aim is to ensure a sufficient number of suitable flock replacements are born each year. Each 0.1 increase in litter size is worth an additional €7 in net margin to the sheep farmer.
Terminal sire selection is also important. Selecting rams that produce lambs that grow faster is also an important component of any breeding programme.
Again, research has demonstrated that the progeny of five-star rams grow faster than those of one-star rams or the average unrecorded ram. The difference is in excess of 1kg liveweight per lamb at weaning, which is equivalent to feeding around 20kg of creep per lamb.
Grass is the cheapest feed – that's a given. The problem on most farms is a lack of grass in the springtime, especially after the ewes have lambed.
Then there is often too much grass in the summer which results in stemmy swards and reduced lamb performance.
Planning for spring grass starts now. The first fields that will be grazed next spring must be closed up in late October. Matching lambing date to when you can expect to have grass in the springtime is critical in ensuring that grass is growing when demand peaks.
It takes effort and time to become a good grassland manager. Again, experience from the BETTER farm suggests that participants felt it took two to three seasons before they were really confident that they where making the right decisions.
However, the pay-off is huge. Improved performance from both the ewes and lambs and a significant reduction in concentrate usage has been measured on the BETTER farms.
Expenditure on veterinary medicines is the second highest variable cost on intensive sheep farms.
In addition to the cost of treating or preventing disease, there are also costs in terms of labour and lost animal performance. In my opinion, a good handling facility with a batch footbath are essential tools in maintaining a healthy sheep flock and maximising animal performance.
Anthelmintic resistance is also a major issue on sheep farms. Despite this, until the introduction of STAP this year, very few farmers had gone to the trouble of identifying which drugs worked on their farms. If you intend to feed lambs grass or concentrates then it is imperative to make sure the drugs you use to control internal parasites have worked. Otherwise you will end up feeding the parasites and not the sheep.
There is a good future for sheep enterprises. While market returns for sheep meat are important in maintaining farmer confidence in the sector, there are also lots of other decisions to be taken at farm level to improve profit.
Talk to your adviser about assessing your sheep enterprise with a view to identifying where improvements can be made.
Michael Gottstein is the head of Teagasc's sheep advisory service