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Tuesday 20 November 2018

Tommy Boland: Eight key lessons for farmers from Sheep 2018

George Graham from Gorey, Wexford displaying the correct way to shear a sheep as part of 'Project Baba' at the Sheep 2018 held at Teagasc, Athenry. Photograph: Hany Marzouk
Tommy Boland

Tommy Boland

The Sheep 2018: Farm to Fork event in Athenry last weekend had something for all those involved in the sheep industry. Exhibits ranged from commercial trade stands, sheep breed shows, a food village, cooking demonstrations, and a range of technical villages outlining the latest research to support the sheep industry.

Not surprisingly the drought was a big topic of conversation and many stands contained information as to how best deal with this, though a wider view of developments in the sheep industry was also taken.

The key take-home messages were:

1) Grassland management:

An excellent display of grass measurement techniques and fencing options opened the technical village trail. A lazy assessment might be that there is no grass at the moment so measurement and budgeting does not matter. Nothing could be further from the truth, grass is our cheapest feed resource, correct management is essential. The current need for expensive supplementation must highlight the requirements for efficient production and utilisation of grass in any profitable production system.

2) Breeding:

High genetic merit animals are out performing low genetic merit animals. This is resulting in improved profitability within the flock. Ewe and ram functionality and body condition score are key to a successful outcome in any breeding flock. The INZAC project which compares Irish animals of high and low genetic merit with New Zealand high genetic merit animals is now being rolled out to commercial farms through the Better Farms program.

3) BREXIT:

The potential impact of BREXIT on income of Irish sheep farmers was discussed in the BREXIT forum. No clear answers can be drawn given the uncertainty in the UK approach, but the fact that Irish lamb/sheep meat is a premium product must continue to be promoted in the search for new markets post BREXIT, as has been the case in the market diversification driven by Bord Bia and DAFM.

4) Lamb Selection:

Again the drought has focussed the mind on marketing lambs. Hitting factory specification was highlighted as a key issue once more in terms of carcase weights and fat cover. For all the debate we can have about the merits or otherwise of these specifications, there is no point in producing a product that your customer (the factory) does not want, and then complaining when they don't want it! Speak to your processor and understand what they are looking for. This conversation should happen before lambs are ready to market.

5) Hill Sheep:

Options to increase farm output and ultimately profitability were discussed. Included were options for hill lambs post weaning and management of ewe BCS. The drought conditions, especially along the east coast, were highlighted in terms of how it would impact the market for store lambs. While no solutions could be offered, the importance of having lambs in good order for sale was highlighted.

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6) Flock Health:

Parasites and lameness occupied a lot of discussion time. Resistance to products for control of both internal and external parasites was highlighted, as was the need to only treat animals for worms when required. The development of resistance by the scab mite to macrocyclic lactones was raised as a major concern and the justification for the use of injectable macrocyclic lactones to control scab was questioned in light of anthelmintic resistance development. The routine hoof pairing of sheep was cited as a cause of lameness in flocks rather than offering any benefits as a preventative. This will require a seismic shift in thinking and practice for many sheep farmers.

7) Sheep Nutrition:

Options for dealing with the lack of grass on farm occupied a lot of discussion time. Where meal feeding is taking place the difference between ingredient cost and ingredient value is a key consideration, with the mantra that lowest cost does not represent best value being to the fore. The necessity to make good quality silage was also highlighted, with the visual display of the difference in quantity of meal required to feed a ewe during late pregnancy when she is offered either good quality or poor quality silage, being particularly striking.

8) Health and Safety:

Farms are the most dangerous working environment in the country. How often do we hear of a child fatality in any other work place? The vulnerability of children on farms was highlighted in an excellent Health and Safety village and options to minimise risk were presented. Farmers must also take better care of themselves. Farmers are less inclined to visit the doctor than the general population and specifically in relation to sheep farming the issues of back pain and back care were discussed at length.

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