Farm Ireland

Monday 25 March 2019

Expanding enterprise: How this Sligo farmer has more than doubled his flock numbers in the last five years


Philip Higgins
Philip Higgins

Tom Coll

Philip Higgins farms a mixed enterprise of suckler cows and sheep with his wife Amanda, their son Jonathan and two daughters Naomi and Hannah in the scenic area of Skreen, Co Sligo.

The sheep enterprise consists of 316 commercial ewes, 29 pedigree Texels and 115 ewe lambs put to the ram on the October 9, 2017. The flock size has steadily increased from 200 ewes in 2012 to a target of 500 females going to the ram in 2018.

The flock is made up of 20pc mules, the pedigree Texel flock and the remaining ewes are 50:50 Texel X mules and Suffolk X mules stocked at eight ewes per hectare.

Mature ewes are large at 90kgs and over. Suffolk, Texel and Charollais rams are used both as terminal sires and for breeding replacements.

This year Beltex rams were used to mate the ewe lambs. We will report on how this works out in future articles as it not a common practice on farms breeding from ewe lambs.

Philip usually buys mule replacement ewe lambs at the annual mule sale in Ballinrobe. The mature mule ewes are used to breed home bred replacements.

In 2017 Philip ran into a major problem with joint ill in young lambs which resulted in a mortality figure of nearly 10pc of lambs that were born alive.

"I put it down to the fact that the ewes were not in the correct body condition score at lambing and as a result did not have adequate quality colostrum," he says. "The plastic slats also became quite dirty around lambing time which in my opinion added to the problem.

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"Lambs showed symptoms after turnout and resulted in significant losses even after treatment. This year my ewes are in much better condition and the twin and triplet bearing ewes are currently on 1kg per day of a high soya ration offered in two feeds."

This year Philip washed and disinfected the slatted pens pre-lambing and will cover the slats and lambing pens with an antibacterial powder during the lambing period. Hopefully the problem will be significantly reduced this year.

Philip has been operating a paddock grazing system for a number of years and will begin measuring grass on Pasturebase this year.

"Using Pasturebase will enable me make better decisions on pre and post grazing heights throughout the year and give me more confidence to skip and cut paddocks when grass growth exceeds demand," he says.

Soil samples

Soil samples taken recently show that 70pc of the farm is index 1 for P and the remainder Index 2. Around 90pc of the paddocks had a pH of 6.0 or greater.

One ton of lime per acre to bring the pH's up to the target 6.3 and additional applications of P fertiliser and slurry will be required to improve soil fertility.

We will keep you up to date in future articles on how the Pasturebase system is working for Philip. We will also look at how he tackles the soil fertility issues on the farm to improve overall grass production to match the additional demand associated with increasing flock size and stocking rate.

The financial targets for the farm are straightforward 160:80:80. This translates into a gross output of €160 per ewe with variable costs of €80 resulting in a gross margin of €80 per ewe.

Lambs per ewe mated are outlined in tables 1, 2 and 3. If lamb losses between scanning and sale can be maintained less than 10pc the current scan will result in a weaning rate of 1.60 lambs per ewe and ewe lamb mated.

An average lamb price and cull ewe price of €100 will be required to reach the target output per ewe figure.

Philip is a founder member of the Sligo/Leitrim Lamb Producer Group established in 2009 and slaughters all finished lambs through the group. In 2017, average carcase weight was 19.83kgs with an average lamb price of €96.10.

Three tonnes of lamb creep ration was fed in total in 2017 with lambs not fit for the factory sold as stores in September due mainly to the lack of thrive off grass and the poor weather conditions from July onwards.

"In 2018 I plan to finish all lambs on the farm even if it involves concentrate feeding," says Philip.

His farm is also a bench-mark farm for the Teagasc FETAC Level 6 course run locally in Ballymote. He is a member of a Sligo based knowledge transfer sheep discussion group.

We will outline and address the key management decisions and flock performance on the Higgins farm over the coming year.

Tom Coll is a Teagasc advisor based in Mohill, Co Leitrim

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