'Sheep farming is in my blood but I am losing interest - it's a pity there isn't a few pound in it'
Storm Powell travelled to Tullamore Mart last week to hear farmers' views on the sheep price slump and why farmers are exiting the sector.
Longwood, Co Meath
Brendan is a livestock farmer from Ballyclare, and lambs up to 300 ewes annually. Cognisant of the €100m Brexit support package for beef, Brendan says: "The cattle men need it more than the sheep men. I would like to see the ewe subsidy under the Sheep Welfare Scheme doubled to €20."
Brendan intends to maintain current sheep numbers. The family help out during the lambing and he also engages casual labour. He puts the decline in sheep farming down to the ageing profile of farmers who are not able to cope with its demands "The young farmers are not coming through," he says. "Sheep prices are down this year, but we had a good year last year. You can't back out of a sector when you hit a bad year."
Mullingar, Co Westmeath
Two years ago, James bought a residential farm on 50ac in Dysart. He also works as an agricultural consultant specialising in grant applications. "I regard the farm as a hobby and hope to get into the Organic Farm Scheme (OFS). The €10 per ewe subsidy is only a token gesture and should be €40."
Nevertheless, he doesn't begrudge the €100m set aside to assist beef farmers. James's wife, Anne and two children help him lamb 50 ewes. "And we've good neighbours too. The Meitheil is still here." He ponders why farmers are leaving the sheep sector. "Perhaps, it's the workload. But what's better?" he asks. "Dairying is a huge investment. Rearing dairy calves is an option."
Moate, Co Westmeath
Patrick, who was working off-farm up to a year ago, has a 90ac mixed farm in partnership with his son Eamon at Rosemount. "I would prefer better prices than increased subsidies," says Patrick, who hopes to increase ewe numbers next year. "There's more money in sheep than in beef but it is labour intensive and farmers are not getting adequate returns for the hours they work."
Farm safety is a topic close to Patrick's heart. "Don't take chances. Always have someone with you when you are fixing machinery or agitating slurry." Patrick originally came from a small farm and bought land between 1989 and 1995 to develop his own holding. "I love it, I always wanted to farm and I am not doing it for money alone."
Rochfortbridge, Co Westmeath
"I was born into farming," says Aidan. "It's in my blood. It's a healthy lifestyle. But I'm losing interest. It's a pity there isn't a few pound in it."
Aidan works off-farm as a coach driver and is also a part-time suckler and sheep farmer on 50ac in Rahanine. He keeps 70 ewes. "Lamb prices have decreased in the last month," says Aidan, who would welcome a slice of the €100m if it was available for sheep. "The existing ewe subsidy should increase to €20. There's a lot of work involved in sheep and overheads are high. You need to be fit and able."
Apart from the physicality and uncertain income, he quotes other reasons to leave the sector. He knows of two young farmers who have moved to dairying. "That's where the money is and there is a guaranteed cheque in the post each month."
At present, 24ac of Aidan's farm is rented. "I will give myself a year, but if suckler prices don't pick up, I may sell them, give up the rented land and just keep sheep.
Mullingar, Co Westmeath
Fergal has been farming all his life and has a 95ac mixed farm, 35 sucklers and 50 ewes, in Gaybrook. He also has an off-farm job as a store man with Bord na Móna. Fergal calls on the Government to provide subsidies for lamb to keep the business going. "Profits are very slim, the sector needs propping up," he says. "The industry is struggling. The dairy man is the only man making money but I couldn't go into dairying due to the high setup costs."
He is concerned about the uncertainty of Brexit and worries that the Mercosur deal will include sheep. "The poor margins are influencing the exit from the sheep sector. Previously, wool was making a good price but this is no longer the situation. The cost of keeping the sheep in good order is increasing."
On the positive side, Fergal says that the sheep rid his land of weeds. Fergal plans to stay in sheep for another while and hopes that the market will improve. "I've always had sheep and so did my father before me. I want to keep the farm for future generations."
Ballynacargy, Co Westmeath
Twenty-three-year-old Maeve farms sucklers and sheep with her father on 50ac in Empor. She keeps her own stock of 20 ewes and works part-time in a crèche.
"Prices are down," says Maeve. "I worry about the future for full-time farmers. Brexit is causing huge uncertainty. I love the way of life but there's not enough money in it."
However, she plans to stay in sheep farming. "They keep the land clean and eat down the ragwort. The family help her out at lambing time. "Cows can be dangerous after calving," she says. "But ewes are different, I am never afraid of them. They're easier to handle."
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