Falling lamb price and rising input costs just don’t add up when land is being rented for €300-€400/ac and dairy farmers are mad for grass
The countdown for lambing has started and this is often the busiest time of year for me. I find that lambing itself generally goes smoothly once all my ducks are in a row.
For the last few years I pushed my lambing date out to March 17, to coincide with the beginning of grass growth on the farm. This has greatly reduced my costs and the work load as I generally lamb ewes carrying twin lambs outside.
Some people can’t believe that I would lamb so many outside, but I have no major issues with it and losses are kept to a minimum provided the ewes are fed correctly in the run-up to lambing.
I lamb triplets and singles inside, making it easy to carry out adoptions as generally it’s the singles and the triplets that need the most attention.
I constantly condition-score the ewes, and sometimes if a handful of ewes are not thriving in the shed I just let them out and feed them outside where they generally do much better.
Spacing in the shed is really important, as is access to clean water. A pregnant ewe will drink up to six litres of water a day so I keep a close eye on their troughs, making sure they are clean and working properly.
I had one case of twin lamb disease last year, which luckily I got in time. Have some Calciject on hand and some energy supplements as inevitably things like this happen on a Sunday when everything is closed.
This is where the molasses have really helped the flock. I see the sheep constantly licking away at it keeping their energy up as well aiding their digestion. Its introduction for me has been a game changer.
Meanwhile grassland is the focus of my attention, and I got out what slurry I could along with 25kg/ac of urea on the fields that can take it.
The weather has been conducive to spreading fertiliser and while it’s expensive, it’s necessary if you want to have grass in the spring.
It massively helps that I closed off fields in October as they will have over 120 days’ rest before any stock are let out to graze.
In grassland farming, you have to think months ahead for things to run smoothly. I have gotten out of the habit of measuring grass but I dusted down my plate-meter only to find that it’s not working, but I won’t give up on it as measuring grass has been really helpful.
The online Pasturebase system run by Teagasc is excellent — not too complicated and worth trying out.
I still have about 60 hoggets left to sell and I can’t believe the massive drop in prices. In hindsight I should not have bothered buying meal to finish the last bunch and should have just rounded them up and sold them when the base was €6.30.
I broke my own rule about buying meal to finish lambs! I am no further on for acting in good faith for finishing lambs properly rather than to sell them under-fleshed.
It’s disillusioning to realise that you would be better off to sell your flock altogether and rent out the farm than actually work it. Land is being rented for €300-€400/ac and dairy farmers are mad for grass.
The drop in prices, the prospect of the sale of Kildare meats, rising input costs, cuts to CAP payments and inadequate funding for ACRES are nails in the coffin for large-scale sheep farming.
I had to laugh to myself when at the recent IFA sheep meeting in Athlone, the best solution to the crisis given was the prospect of online payments and access to the US market for lamb.
This was after Teagasc’s Michael Gottstein showed that sheep farmers were living off profits of €7per ewe.
I have heard all this before: remember the electronic tags getting us access to the Chinese market? That was five years ago, and how many kilos of lamb have been sold to China since?
Speaking of China, an old Chinese proverb says ‘it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness’.
As farmers we have to think of ways to stay afloat. It is no harm to align with a dairy farmer, investigate a diversified income that could be gained away from farming. Is tourism an option?
Reduce your flock number to a level that will leave you less exposed to buying expensive inputs that decimate your profits. Is organic sheep farming an option for you?
The glass is half full if you want it to be.
John Fagan farms at Crookedwood, Co Westmeath