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How this farmer is transforming the lambing figures on his Dingle hill farm

Last year, only 73pc of the ewes put to the ram on this farm lambed— this year, it was 95pc. Here’s what he did differently

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Significant improvements: John Joe Fitzgerald with his hill sheep on his farm on the Dingle peninsula, Co Kerry. Photos: Domnick Walsh

Significant improvements: John Joe Fitzgerald with his hill sheep on his farm on the Dingle peninsula, Co Kerry. Photos: Domnick Walsh

John Joe with his 1974 Massey Ferguson 135

John Joe with his 1974 Massey Ferguson 135

John Joe and his daughter Shannon

John Joe and his daughter Shannon

John Joe’s breeding policy is focused on increasing the proportion of pure-bred hill ewes that can graze and perform better on the hill.

John Joe’s breeding policy is focused on increasing the proportion of pure-bred hill ewes that can graze and perform better on the hill.

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Significant improvements: John Joe Fitzgerald with his hill sheep on his farm on the Dingle peninsula, Co Kerry. Photos: Domnick Walsh

Last year, 27pc of the ewes put to the ram on John Joe Fitzgerald’s Kerry hill farm didn’t lamb. This year, that figure was down to just 5pc, with a litter size of 1.3 lambs per ewe lambed.

Blooding sampling of ewes and other in-depth analysis were not able to identify a single obvious reason for this significant improvement, but there were a number of possible contributory factors.

These include a reduction in dog-worrying incidents on the hill after mating and very careful management of rams and raddle colours during the mating period.

Another potential factor is the breed composition of John Joe’s flock, at Baile an Lochaig on the Dingle peninsula, where he and his wife Karen farm 12ha (30ac) of green/improved ground and a share of 80ha (198ac) of open commonage on Mount Brandon, plus a further half share (11ha) of an enclosed section of rough ground at the base of the commonage.

Previously a lot of half- and three-quarter-bred ewes (Texel and Belclare cross) were kept as replacement ewes, and these were struggling to maintain BCS, particularly during the winter on the hill.

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John Joe and his daughter Shannon

John Joe and his daughter Shannon

John Joe and his daughter Shannon

This led to ewes lambing down in poor BCS, and then poor-quality lambs that were slow-growing due to reduced milk production capabilities of thin ewes.

John Joe’s breeding policy is focused on increasing the proportion of pure-bred hill ewes that can graze and perform better on the hill.

Lambing finished on May 13 after beginning just over five weeks previously.

John Joe had been careful to remove the ram from the ewes after a five-week mating period the previous autumn; his focus on breeding policy and ewe BCS at mating has enabled him to compact his lambing period.

This not only reduces labour on the farm but also makes management of the flock easier as there is no need for smaller groups of younger ewes and lambs during the summer.

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John Joe with his 1974 Massey Ferguson 135

John Joe with his 1974 Massey Ferguson 135

John Joe with his 1974 Massey Ferguson 135

John Joe is very happy with how lambing went.

He lambs the ewes outdoors on an enclosed section of rough ground at the base of the commonage. The ewes are offered supplementary concentrates here, and once lambed the ewe and her lambs are brought indoors into individual pens for 24 hours to allow them to bond and ensure the lambs get sufficient colostrum.

During this time the lambing data from both the ewes and lambs is recorded. This data along with lamb weights recorded during the year is helping John Joe identify poorer-performing ewes in the flock and try to spot any causes of flock performance issues.

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John Joe’s breeding policy is focused on increasing the proportion of pure-bred hill ewes that can graze and perform better on the hill.

John Joe’s breeding policy is focused on increasing the proportion of pure-bred hill ewes that can graze and perform better on the hill.

John Joe’s breeding policy is focused on increasing the proportion of pure-bred hill ewes that can graze and perform better on the hill.

After 24 hours the ewes and her lambs are turned out to the ‘green’ ground, where they graze until the seven-week weights are collected in late June.

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After this the single-bearing ewes and their lambs will go to the hill, while the twins remain down until weaning time.

John Joe is using temporary electric fencing to control grass and manage grass supplies at this time of the year.

Surpluses will be dropped out for silage or hay, with the silage sold and hay bought back if necessary.

In previous years John Joe has found it difficult to manage feeding silage outdoors pre-lambing; he has had problems with listeriosis and prolapses, both of which have reduced to almost zero this year with hay being fed and more feed space available for the ewes.

Currently grass supplies are on target for the green ground with 14 grazing days ahead but grass growth is still relatively slow for this time of year, at 23kgDM/day, which is behind demand.

The first round of fertiliser was applied this ground in mid-March — 15 units/ac of nitrogen— and the plan is to go with a further 15 units in the form of 18-6-12 this week.

Lime is also being applied this week, at 2t/ac, to re-seeded ground that missed out on lime last year due to weather conditions.

Frank Campion is a Teagasc advisor based in Athenry, Co Galway


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