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'Beltex are a meat machine... I find farmers who use a Beltex ram once will return'

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Sheep farmer Hugh O'Connell with his daughter Stepahanie, 22 and grandaughter Chloe, 12 and sheepdog Bonnie at his farm in Ballivor, Co Meath. Picture: Arthur Carron

Sheep farmer Hugh O'Connell with his daughter Stepahanie, 22 and grandaughter Chloe, 12 and sheepdog Bonnie at his farm in Ballivor, Co Meath. Picture: Arthur Carron

Sheep farmer Hugh O'Connell with his daughter Stepahanie, 22 and grandaughter Chloe, 12 and sheepdog Bonnie at his farm in Ballivor, Co Meath. Picture: Arthur Carron

Hugh O'Connell left school at a young age to go farming at home with his father and uncle near Ballivor, Co Meath.

At the time, they had drystock, with a little bit of dairying, but that wasn't for Hugh, 59, and he developed a sheep flock. Today, he keeps 60 pedigree ewes - a mixture of Charollais, Beltex and Rouge - as well as 230 commercial ewes.

"I had been using pedigree Beltex on my commercial ewes for 15 years and five years ago I decided to start breeding a few of them, bought a few pedigree Beltex and now I've 30 pedigree ewes," he says.

"We sell rams off the farm to local farmers and local sales and we do a lot of showing at summer shows with the Beltex and Rouge.

"I like showing, I like looking at good sheep. My granddaughter, who got her confirmation last week, shows her own sheep. It's to promote your breed, and people might buy a ram off you. We have won the Beltex ram champion at the premier show and sale in Tullamore and last year we had the highest price ram lamb sold."

Last summer, Hugh won three championships at three different shows.

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Sheep on Hugh O'Connells farm

Sheep on Hugh O'Connells farm

"The Rouge last August won the pedigree Rouge ewe lamb All Ireland at Tullamore Show. That was our first year entering that. We've only been breeding Charollais a year or so, so haven't started showing them yet."

But Beltex is his favourite breed.

"They are a meat machine. The cross breds are bred for meat, easy lamb, quick finishing and up sucking within two minutes."

Most of his commercial flock are Rouge cross, producing good milk and very prolific; in December he sold a number of pedigree Rouge hogget ewes in lamb to a Beltex ram.

Hugh had quintuplets on the farm a few years ago and before Christmas he sold a ewe that went on to have quintuplets in Cork.

The Rouge is noted for having a lot of lambs, and twins is the ideal scenario, he says.

"With the pedigree Beltex you'd like to see some singles as well. You get singles ready for sale quicker. But I like to breed a big strong Beltex. Most commercial farmers who buy from me are looking for a Beltex ram - a long powerful sheep. Good topline and good back, but he needs power."

This year, Hugh already has 40 pedigree Beltex lambs on the ground and a few more Rouge and Beltex due in February. The Charollais lambed from January 3 and are finished now.

"I'm lambing sheep from January 1 to May 1. That's four months of lambing. Years ago we lambed the commercial sheep in February and March, but putting them back to April means they are straight out to grass. All the ewes are lambed inside. You need the pedigree early, as you need ram lambs ready for the sales.

"I'd be out at night, the last check would be at 12 and if there's nothing doing I'd check back at 3am and then out again at 6, unless there is something lambing and then you're out for the day.

"The manual labour is tough. I don't count my steps per day but you'd be walking kilometres taking water and checking in on the ewes and lambs."

Approximately 90pc of the ewes are in straw-bedded sheds for lambing and even with good weather this year, Hugh is keeping the pedigree sheep in as long as possible.

"It's three weeks or a month before they are left out full-time. They are being fed on a 20pc ewe and lamb nut and hay. The pedigree ewes with the twins would be getting up to 3lb of nuts per day per head."

His daughter Stephanie and granddaughter Chloe, who is 12, help out on the farm when they can.

"Chloe is living near by and comes to help at the weekends," Hugh says.

"She has her own sheep on the farm, a couple of pedigree Beltex. She has show sheep and won the young handler class in Trim last September. She has her pedigree Beltex ewe lamb picked out to show this year for summer shows.

"She has a lovely way about her with stock and she has the sheep dog here, Bonnie. She keeps me young."

Hugh is unsure who will take over the farm, or what will happen to it, and he says it's a common problem.

"That's affecting farming right across the country, the money that young people can made in other jobs. The price of store cattle at the money at the moment makes no sense, compared to what beef is making," he says.

"But there's always money in sheep in my eyes, you'd always have a few quid. You could load up 10 lambs any day and sell them.

"I do think there is a future for sheep farming in Ireland. As long we have the market out there for sheep."

And the younger generation of sheep farmers, he says, are more interested in the Beltex.

"It's hard to change older farmers from the Suffolk or Texels, they're used to that breed. But I find farmers who use a Beltex ram once will return."

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