Quality the key if we're to secure top prices
Another year gone, and looking back it was a very good one in terms of sheep prices and production. The price rise was badly needed and really only got us up to where we need to stay, €100 for mid-season lamb.
How we got this price increase was possibly due more to a lack of supply rather than an increase in demand. So we must continue to produce quality lamb, and market this as a grass-based product that will help us hold onto our share of the market and maybe even grow the demand for lamb.
We must also push out quality assurance schemes and be prepared to put our name behind the product. I have seen my name in butcher shops as the producer of their lamb and even last week heard my name used in an advertisement on our local radio station.
All these small things are important to the consumer but, to me, consistency in quality -- the same weight every week -- is what I, the farmer, can control by weighing the lambs regularly and selling as soon as they become fit.
Last year's production was greatly improved by a better spring, which gave us a higher lamb survival rate. With more grass at turnout, there was no requirement to feed meal to ewes. This kept our meal usage down by about 10t.
A very good summer for grass growth kept lambs growing well, then we had a good burst of growth in September, which gave plenty of grass for the last lambs and ewes at tubing time. One could not really ask for a better year to produce lamb from grass.
Now we should also give some credit to ourselves as farmers for being able to manage this grass and get the best results from it.
This can be achieved by grass measuring, knowing when you have enough, when you have some that needs to be taken out or when you need to spread some fertiliser to push it on.
You also need good fencing to control your stock and get them to eat out paddocks properly. We use electric netting, which we find stock-proof once you have a good electric shock and can be moved and put up quickly.
Good, permanent fences of high-tensile sheep wire are very important when you are creep-grazing the lambs ahead of the ewes. This way, the lambs get the best grass as the ewes finish off the last of their paddocks.
Another area where we can improve is genetics. There is more to be gained from the maternal side, in ease of lambing, number of lambs produced, good milkers and a ewe of a moderate weight.
If we could improve these traits, we would gain from less labour needed at lambing, more lambs to sell, a heavier weaning weight and the ewes would be carrying a few tonnes less in terms of weight. I do not need a ewe of 100kg rearing 1.5 lambs. I can do this with a ewe of 75kg and feed four of them instead of three of the heavier (100kg) ones.
On the terminal ram side, sheep farmers need rams that produce lambs that finish quickly and off grass. They don't want to end up in September with tall, raw-framed lambs that need meal to get some fat cover on them.
Now, there is a downside to this good story. The increase in the cost of feed, fertiliser and fuel -- some of which we can pare back slightly -- will take from our income. So it will be even more important to keep a close watch on costs this year and hold on to as much of our lamb price as possible.
So best of luck to all us sheep farmers for another year.
John Large is a sheep farmer from Gortnahoe, Co Tipperary. Email: email@example.com
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