Sheep: Strong prices mask some pressing issues in the sector

Former IFA President John Bryan
Former IFA President John Bryan
John Large

John Large

AS November draws to a close and grass supplies start to get scarce, winter housing and feeding are not far away.

Very good grass growth in September and October has left ewes in fine condition going into the winter.

The most important thing now is not to lose this condition by leaving ewes out without grass to eat. If you have to leave them out, supplement with silage or some other feed.

We have some ewes on rented grass until near Christmas and more are on the out farm eating off any grass left after the cows and calves which were housed on November 10. We still have to move 100 to fodder-beet tops. The remainder have enough grass until mid-December at which time they will be housed and fed hay or silage.

We have about 75pc of the lambs sold and after the latest increase in price, more will go next week.

The price increase is very welcome especially since we have fed very little meal so far this year. Our aim is to finish most of our lambs off grass only.

The current strong prices should be a help to those who bought store lambs last August and September. These customers are very important to us sheep farmers as they add an extra outlet for lambs when numbers are high at marts in the autumn.

When they can make a profit on their investment it means they will be back next year especially if they have plenty of grass to eat.

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Any lambs remaining are now on a field of Italian Rye Grass, this should keep them happy for another 10 days. After that they will go onto Fodder Rape and this should finish most of them again without any meal.

This crop was sown the first week of September after a crop of spring barley, at a seeding rate of 4kg per acre. We spread three bags of 18-6-12 when the crop was well established and sprayed for volunteer barley after one month using Falcon at half rate.

Even after the late sowing date we have a very good crop, very thick as every seed grew but not very high. We will feed by using electric netting to divide the field into two acre sections, that should give them enough to eat for five days.

The lambs will also have a run back to a grass field. Unlike cattle, sheep do not require silage or straw as a roughage source when feeding on brassica crops.

The only time silage may be needed is if we have a severe frost at which time we will also feed meal. The big bonus for us is when we put the last of the lambs onto the rape after they have been dosed for worms. With very little new worms to pick up they thrive very well.

We also give them a booster shot of Heptivac P which keeps them free from Clostridial disease and pneumonia. So hopefully by mid January we should have them all sold.

Taking a broad look at the future of our sheep industry, the two big problems are: the continued decline in lamb consumption and what happens, not if but when there is a change in the exchange rate with sterling.

With the former IFA President John Bryan appointed as the new chairman of the EU Commission Sheep Reflection Group, we should be optimistic that the sheep sector - involving 34,000 farmers with an output value of €300m and production of 58,000 tonnes of lamb - should get a good hearing in Brussels. The key areas that need to be addressed include:

- low farm incomes

- increased production costs

- declining consumption

- a viable lamb price

- increased direct payment support including couple payment for sheep.

- the need for some form of coupled payment to maintain and grow the sheep sector.

So far 22 member states across the EU have introduced coupled payments for sheep as part of CAP reform with an average payment of €12 per ewe. The money is there but how to come up with a viable mechanism to get it to the farmer on the ground is the challenge.

John Large is a sheep farmer from Co Tipperary.

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