Video - Sheep Farm of the Year: 'At the end of the day it's a business'

Sheep Farmer of the Year John Bell talks to Catherine Hurley about his drive for efficient farming

John Bell and his wife Marese on their farm in Castletowngeoghegan, Co Westmeath
John Bell and his wife Marese on their farm in Castletowngeoghegan, Co Westmeath

Sheep Farmer of the Year John Bell sold the home farm when his mother retired and moved to Castletowngeoghegan in Westmeath 28 years ago, because his wife Marese was working in Mullingar.

"I didn't walk into the farm. Initially when I bought this farm and sold the home farm, there was a lot of investment needed on top of the initial cost of buying it," he says.

"It was a bit of pressure financially, but it does make you think about how better to make money and how to be more efficient."

Today, John farms 600 breeding ewes, mainly Belclare cross, Texel cross and Suffolk on a 120-acre farm 20 minutes south-west of Mullingar.

Moving wire on the farm is a daily job.
Moving wire on the farm is a daily job.

Some 90 acres are owned, while a further 30 acres are rented, all in one block.

The Bells' farm is a mixture of high, dry ground and moury/peaty (heavy) ground, and the grazing platform is divided into roughly 60 divisions to make ease of the rotational grazing system.

John has divided his flock into a number of groups, and one of the daily jobs is to move three-strand wire each day, with the help of a quad, to ensure each group has fresh grass.

One of the main issues on the farm is the lack of seasonal labour, especially around lambing. His advice, for any farmer, is to think about using labour-saving devices wherever possible.

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As well as employing contractors to make both bales and pit silage, John also farms out all shearing and dosing, which is all done in the one day. He says that as long as everything is well organised in advance, the whole day should run smoothly.

"In my opinion, it's the way to go if farmers can at all - it's more efficient with your time," he says. "It's all done in one day, no messing about, and everyone's finished by 6.30 that evening."

Lambing starts on the farm around St Patrick's weekend, not any earlier because of labour shortages.

"We're finding it harder every year to get staff - and experienced staff," says John. "This land does not lend itself to early lambing; we try to lamb along with the grass growth.

"It's getting that little bit harder every year to find staff. It's the nature of sheep farming, it's seasonal work and sheep farmers often can't afford full-time staff all-year round.

"We get enough drudgery as farmers without drawing more on it. It's a lot easier to go with the nature of the land and with the weather than to go against it. We get a long winter here and a lot of cold weather, and realistically we can't let sheep out until mid-March."

John has an artificial rearing machine to feed the 120 foster lambs that come with spring time on the farm, most of which are triplets.

"A lot of time goes into these foster lambs and it can be expensive to rear them, but with a good price, we often see €30-40 profit per lamb and that's good enough for me to make it worthwhile," he says.

"Farming is a great way of living, there is a living to be made out of sheep farming. The way I'm running it, I can afford to work here full-time with the scale that I have."

But he says it's vital to love what you're doing: "It's not always about the money but at the end of the day it is a business."

'Grass growth was exceptional in October'

John Bell reseeds 5pc of the farm annually, with his own direct seed drill.

He uses later-heading varieties, and some of the farm was recently drained using a one-pass system, which has drastically improved the production levels of the lower land on the farm. Some 3km of drainage was done over two days, and ewes were back out grazing two days later.

John measures grass with his eyes and says it works for him. Sheep are still out at grass at the moment and will be housed towards the end of the month, as long as the weather holds up.

"Growth was exceptional for October and covers got very heavy, we're planning to house them on December 20," he says.

"I know some would say maybe it affects spring grass but I do want the sheep to eat the covers down - they are quite heavy."

John bought his original Belclare ewes some 20 years ago and has for the most part stuck with this breed.

"They're easy lambing, very prolific - some people think too much so!" he says. "But I do think they need to be crossed back with a terminal Charolais, Texel or Suffolk for shaping and a better result at finishing."

Belclare Blood

Replacement ewe lambs are predominantly of Belclare blood, he explains.

John operates a closed flock, apart from buying in the rams, which are bought at Sheep Ireland - all five-star rams.

"I figure that with a five-star ram, you have a better chance of good progeny," he says.

Each August, John selects some 170 ewe-lambs, with those bred from a maternal ram earmarked. After scanning, anything not in-lamb is separated for finishing, leaving around 140 entering the flock every year.

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