Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Research programme is well worth the high price


Andrew Kinsella

I returned to one of my old stomping grounds recently, Teagasc Athenry, for the launch of its new sheep research programme. The main thrust of this programme includes:

•A new research project;

•An expanded BETTER sheep farm programme;

•Increased collaboration with UCD and Lyons Estate.

The new research project will look at the effects of prolificacy and stocking rate on lamb growth rate, carcass output per hectare, labour requirements and ultimately profitability per hectare. The comparison will involve two groups, each of 180 ewes, one group with a potential weaning rate of 1.5 lambs per ewe to the ram and the other group weaning 1.8 lambs.

Each of these groups will then be subdivided and farmed at three different stocking rates; a low stocking rate (10 ewes/ha), a medium stocking rate (12 ewes/ha) and a high stocking rate (14 ewes/ha). These six combinations of weaning rate and stocking rate will each be operated as a mid-season grass-based system on their own individual self-contained farmlet.

I believe it to be a very good project that probably should have been carried out years ago. It will be interesting to see the effect of stocking rate and litter size on lamb growth rate and how lambs will be finished without concentrates, particularly those on the higher prolificacy and stocking rate systems.

It will also be interesting to know whether the parasite challenge differs across systems and whether some systems require more frequent worm dosing. Finally, the research will provide definitive information as to the profitability of each system.

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The development of a production and economic computerised model based on the data will be invaluable to the industry. I know some farmers have expressed concern about the overall cost of the project and how inputs such as labour are going to be measured.


Research does not come cheap. This five-year project will cost in the region of €250,000-300,000, or about 12c per ewe in the national flock. But I'd argue that it's not that expensive if the findings provide new information on improving lamb growth, reducing costs and improving profitability.

It is important that sheep farmers are kept up to date with what is going on. They should also be given opportunities, at least annually, to debate the measurements and findings and buy into the project.

While I think this is a good project, it must also be recognised that other farmers have different views. Participants, including sheep farmers that attended the Irish Grassland Association sheep conference last July in Kilkenny, were asked to prioritise areas for future research.

The main issue under grassland was reseeding and clover. The best reseeding methods for different soil types and the grass varieties that will achieve optimum results on these soil types was a particular focus.

Also, what are the best methods of over-sowing grass-seeds particularly clover into sheep grazing swards? This latter topic has been bandied about for years and still awaits research.

It was also mentioned at this meeting that despite all the research that has been completed over the years, there has been relatively little change in the dynamics of sheep farming.

Weaning rates and stocking rates have remained static over the past 50 years. It should be noted that the lowest weaning rate and stocking rate levels cited in the above project are about 20pc greater that those being achieved on the average sheep farm in the country.

It could well be argued that much of the previous research had a poor cost-benefit ratio.

Teagasc BETTER sheep farms are well-managed commercial farms where research recommendations are applied and the results are then measured and demonstrated at local level.

There are three hill and three lowland farms and it is intended to add an additional two or three lowland farms. In my opinion, the farms are excellent, the farmers are excellent and what is being achieved on the farms is excellent. However, very few sheep farmers know what is going on. Compared to the BETTER beef farms, these farms and the technologies they have adopted have received relatively little 'information dissemination'. Hence, they have not contributed as much as they could have.

Andrew Kinsella is a former sheep specialist with Teagasc and is now sheep farming in Wicklow

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