Investing in farm infrastructure and a paddock-based grazing system has paid big dividends for the Earle family who farm in Cullentra, Ballycanew, Gorey, Co Wexford.
Selected as the Zurich Farm Insurance/Farming Independent Sheep Farmer of the Year last November, John Earle, his wife Margaret, daughter Gillian and son Edward have built up a flock of 300 ewes on their 80ac farm close to the coastal village of Kilmuckridge.
Family affair: John Earle with his wife Margaret, son Edward and daughter Gillian on their sheep farm in Ballycanew, Gorey, Co Wexford. Picture: Patrick Browne
Recognised by Irish Country Meats and Bord Bia as 'a farm of a superior standard' with regard to flock management and animal welfare, the Earles have hosted many international visitors over the past decade with delegates from China, Switzerland and France frequenting the picturesque, traditional farmhouse.
In 2014, the Earle farm was selected to be one of the faces for Irish lamb products in Tesco stores across Ireland.
TLC: Gillian Earle with one of the first of this year's lambs
But looking at the success of grass management on dairy farms nationwide, Margaret, John and Edward were also thinking about changing the layout of their farm.
They started looking into the creation of paddocks to help utilise grass growth on the farm. This development has seen them lower their feed inputs when finishing lambs, something John describes as a "massive help financially".
John Earle with his son Edward. Picture: Patrick Browne
Thereafter, feeding is built up so that at lambing the ewes with triplets get 1.5kg a day, doubles get 1kg a day and singles get 0.75kg a day.
Post lambing, ewes are then supplemented for three to five days, put off meal and onto a grass-based diet. The lambs are weaned at 14 weeks of age on average and lambs are drafted for slaughter from 41-43kg live-weight.
Pictured are John Earle with his son Edward. Picture: Patrick Browne
Margaret, John and Edward run a commercial closed flock consisting of Texel, Charolais and Suffolk crossed ewes.
The mature ewes are mated with Texel, Charolais and Suffolk rams. Other breeds such as Border Leicester also have a role to play on the farm, mating with six purebred Border Leicester ewes annually. These Border Leicester lambs are managed by Gillian Earle who is in fifth year in Coláiste an Átha, Kilmuckridge.
Breeds such as Vendeen, Belclare, Cheviots/Kerry hills and Lleyn are also visible on the farm.
The diversity in breed creates a very "versatile lamb", according to Edward, and the amount of rams on site allows the Earles to implement "ram power", with a ram-to-ewe ratio of 1:16 at mating time.
John generally runs rams in pairs during the mating period. He says it shortens the lambing period and covers them if there are any fertility problems with certain rams.
All ewe lambs are mated to Charolais rams for the ease of lambing, and new rams are purchased as ram lambs each year.
The Earles use the Sheep Ireland star rating when deciding which ram lambs to purchase, allowing them to look for five-star rams on both material and thermal traits.
With constant improvements being made over the past 15 years, the whole farm now has all-field boundaries externally and internally fenced with ewe and lamb wire.
Transforming the 80 acres from 12 fields to 42 paddocks has seen the farm move from being 65pc efficient in grass utilisation in 2016 to now having a grass utilisation of up to 80pc.
This grassland development has paved the way for a number of benefits, according to Edward, including "better grazing plan of the fields, ease of closing off fields for silage" and it gives the family "assurance that once the sheep are put in the field, that is where they stay for two to three days."
The Earles reseed 10pc of their land each September and have done so for the past nine years, with a good grass mix and extra clover.
Reseeding began to take place through the advice of Teagasc and John sees the extra clover being "vital" as it is a 'nitrogen source reducing the requirement of nitrogen fertilising on the farm'.
With a current stocking rate of 11 ewe/ha, the family have seen their scan rate improve from 1.7 in 2014 to 2.1 in 2016, 1.85 in 2019 and 2.1 in 2020 for the main ewe flock.
Silage ground is cut seven to eight weeks post-fertilising and John usually takes two cuts of silage off 15 acres, targeting 10 bales/acre.
With this, the Earles are looking for high quality leafy silage of at least 70DMD. This leads to a "reduction in the level of concentrates required during the winter and pre-lambing season," says John.
With the rotational grazing system, ewes are turned in to fields with pre-grazing heights of 7-8c and the ideal cover of 1,000kg-1,200kg DM/Ha is always the aim.
The first grazing is vital, believes Edward, as it ensures the field is grazed out to 3-4cm.
Progress the name of the game over six generations
Many youngsters back in the day fell in love under the roof of the renowned Unyoke Dance Hall in County Wexford and John and Margaret Earle were no exception. After a dance together in their early twenties, the pair were married 12 months later.
John took over his family farm at just 16 years of age after his father became unwell. The Cullentra family land was always a sheep-orientated farm but many advancements were introduced over the years with John and Margaret always working in harmony and sharing their duties on the farmyard and in the home house.
The happy couple reared six children together — Alice, Edward, Johnathon, Elizabeth, Martha and Gillian — with everyone playing a part during their childhood and giving a helping hand on the farm.
Edward, who works part-time in Danone Nutrition, will be the sixth generation to take over the farm.
John and Margaret believe that conversations about succession planning and wills should be “welcomed and encouraged” in any family home.