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Friday 14 December 2018

Hitting the target - Sligo sheep farmer Philip Higgins on his plans to increase ewe number to 500

 

Philip Higgins
Philip Higgins

Tom Coll

Philip Higgins is the latest farmer to join the Sheep Tech joint venture run by Teagasc in conjunction with Irish Country Meats.

Philip farms a mixed suckler and sheep farm just outside the village of Skreen in Co Sligo where he lives with his wife Amanda, son Jonathan and daughters Naomi and Hannah.

His flock consists of 316 commercial ewes, 29 pedigree Texel ewes and 115 ewe lambs put to the ram in 2017.

He plans to increase ewe number to 500 in the next few years.

The mature commercial ewes lambed in early March and the ewe lambs from mid-March. Mature ewes were weaned on June 27 and ewe lambs weaned on July 7.

His main farming target on the sheep side for 2018 was to finish as many lambs off grass as possible without meal feeding.

An autumn grazing plan in place on the Higgins farm to ensure there is adequate grass for ewes at lambing in early March.

The fields near the yard were grazed in rotation since the rams were turned out on October 6 and will not be grazed again until spring.

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The first fields closed will have a rest period equivalent to the ewes' gestation period of around 145 days which should ensure adequate grass supply at lambing.

To date, 45 acres has been closed and a further 20 acres will be closed every two weeks until the planned housing date in early December.

Philip admits that the temptation is already there to graze the first paddocks closed prior to housing as they have nice covers of 1,000 kg DM/ha due to the mild weather conditions and good growth over the past three weeks.

This, however, would be a big mistake.

The grass available in March for grazing ewes is generally grown in October or early November and carried through the winter for grazing in the spring.

If this is eaten prior to housing it will result in a shortage of grass in the spring and ewes will require supplementation with concentrates to meet their nutritional requirements post lambing.

The feed demands of the ewe in the spring when rearing lambs are almost double that of the pregnant ewe grazing in November and December.

No amount of early fertiliser application will make up for a grass deficit caused by grazing too late into the winter period.

Finishing lambs predominantly off grass and reducing the concentrate input per ewe is one of the sheep production targets that Philip sets himself at the beginning of each year.

Concentrate costs per ewe this year - including that fed to lambs - have been running at €26.35 of which €6 was fed directly to lambs.

Flock performance is outlined in Table 3 opposite.

The figures for lambs sold/retained per ewe mated in 2018 were 1.56 and 1.0 per ewe lamb mated which are just slightly below the targets set for the Teagasc lowland sheep BETTER farm programme.

The lamb drafting pattern for the flock is outlined in Table 2 and shows that 38pc of lambs were sold by the end of August, 55pc by the end of September and 85pc sold by the end of October.

This means Philip will have an adequate supply of grass for ewes and ewe lambs at mating.

Approximately 50pc of the lambs were sold off grass with no concentrate input, the remaining lambs were fed on average 36kgs per head up until slaughter at a daily rate of 0.4 kgs/hd/day, increasing to 1 kg/hd/day for the remaining 15pc of lambs currently on the farm.

The total lamb sales per ewe, price per lamb and controlled variable costs will ultimately determine the gross margin per ewe.

In an earlier article we outlined that Philip had a financial target of 160:80:80 - this translates into gross output of €160 per ewe with variable costs of €80 and a gross margin of €80 per ewe.

At the current weaning rate of 1.56 lambs per ewe put to the ram, and the current average lamb price of €102.64 as per Table 2, he will not be too far off the output figure this year as the cull ewes sold this year averaged €98.95.

We will give details of the flock financial performance in our next report from the farm.

Three hundred ewes went to the ram on October 6.

The rams were raddled and the colour changed every 14 days to pick up repeats and facilitate management at lambing.

Suffolk, Texel and Charollais rams were used on mature ewes. In total, 130 ewe lambs were retained for breeding and were joined with Charollais, Texel and Beltex rams on October 20. These ewe lambs weighed between 49-60Kgs.

Vaccination

The ewe lambs were given a clostridial vaccination in early summer followed by a booster injection four weeks later.

They were then vaccinated for toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion in mid-September.

All sheep were given a fluke drench prior to mating containing closantel which Philip has used for the entire year.

He plans to change to a product with a different active ingredient against immature and mature fluke next year to try and avoid the problem of resistance.

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

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