Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Prolific and profitable

Compact lambing can pay big dividends but is management intensive

Ken and Richard Mathews, centre and right, with their Teagasc advisor, David Webster
Ken and Richard Mathews, centre and right, with their Teagasc advisor, David Webster
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

"It's a very profitable system but it's not for everyone," is local Teagasc advisor, David Webster's assessment of the Mathews' set-up.

"With 90pc of the flock lambing in just three weeks, and with such high levels of prolificacy, it is very management intensive. Not alone do you need very good grassland management skills to ensure that there's enough grass when the pressure comes on, you also need to be somebody that can delegate and communicate well to staff."

But the reward is a €850 gross margin that leaves the flock in the top 100 nationally.

"The prolificacy means that the Mathews are selling €1,585/ha. This is the output of a system normally stocked at 12 ewes per hectare, despite the fact that it is actually stocked at a level that is 25pc lower," said the drystock specialist.

The Mathews only feed concentrates to ewe lambs with lambs and those coming off the automated feeder.

"We run about three groups of ewes, along with another group of ewe-lambs. They stay in these groups for the season to minimise the likes of coccidiosis," said Ken.


"So we divide each field in four with an electric netting - we don't want permanent paddocks because smaller fields wouldn't suit the tillage which we rotate around the farm every five years. Even at yields of 9t/ha, I make less from it than the sheep, but I think it's good for the land and prevents the farm becoming 'sheep-sick'.

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"But the sub-dividing means that it's easy for ewes and lambs to get mixed up in this system, so we are very particular about having a numbering system. Each batch gets a different colour, and the ewes with twins are marked on the left, and singles on the right. That way, we know straight away if we see a ewe or lamb running along a fence with a number on the left that she's probably been separated from her lamb.

"We've always taken on students to help during lambing. Henry Burns even did a stint here. One stays for about three months, and three vet students come for just two weeks when the pressure is really on."

Flock may be too prolific

While most Irish sheep farmers are trying to increase the prolificacy of their ewes, the Mathews are worried that their flock may be too prolific.

“It’s difficult to know if last year was just an exceptional year, but our scanning says that our lambing rate will be even higher than the 2.15lambs/ewe that we got last year,” says Ken.

“I certainly wouldn’t like it to go any higher, but I’m not particularly keen on switching to another breed. Even though we keep a Suffolk nucleus flock, I wouldn’t like to use them as a terminal sire.

They say that the Lleyn are as prolific as the Belcare, but with the advantage of lower percentages of triplets and quads. However, I think the Lleyn breed falls down on carcase grade.

“We’ll sit tight for another season before making any changes. Maybe we could look at the prolificacy score on the rams that we buy.”

Taking the partnership approach

"I'm looking forward to my paid holidays!" is Ken Mathews' light-hearted take on his decision to form a partnership with his son Richard.

"It's a difficult decision to make, because a lot of us want to keep farming forever. But my dad retired when he was 70 and I always intended to so the same. I'll qualify for the pension this year, but I suppose it was when I discovered that I had prostate cancer that I realised that I needed to do something more than just think about it."

So the Mathews' got themselves some professional advice from IFAC, and are now one year into one of the new partnerships structures that have generous tax incentives.

IFAC's Declan McEvoy said that there's been a massive interest from farmers in setting up partnerships because they are such a "no-brainer".

"We've dealt with at least 200 during the last eight months alone, simply because it's so attractive," said the taxation specialist.

For the Mathews, it was also the right time, with Richard starting a family and looking for certainty in his farming career.

"I'll gradually step back and let Richard at it. I'll still be involved with the producer group at least a day a week, so that will be a good way for me to stay involved," said Ken.

His was one of the first non-dairy farms to register for the new Registered Farm Partnership package that was introduced to replace the Milk Production Partnerships that became obsolete last April.

The new Registered Farm Partnerships have the same tax benefits, but with an even broader reach in that they now apply to all farm sectors.

Provided one partner is a 'young trained farmer', a registered farm partnership can pay as little as 20pc tax on over €100,000 of earnings, if both parents and the child are all earners. Stock relief is also doubled, and 25pc of up to €60 is available on the first 50 activated entitlements.

The latter can amount to a payment of €3,000 for up to five years.

In addition, if the young trained farmer owns or leases land that has no, or even low level entitlements, they can be eligible for new entitlements out of the national reserve, and higher capital grant rates.

But a lot of boxes have to be ticked, including registering with Revenue, the Department of Agriculture, opening a dedicated bank account, and drawing up a written agreement. But there is even a grant to cover 50pc of the professional fees incurred.

Last year's Budget proposed an additional tax credit of €5,000 a year for five years for farming partnerships formed between parents and a successor. The catch is that most of the farm asset has to transfer to the successor during the decade that follows the establishment of the partnership. This has yet to be signed into law.

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