Farm Ireland

Wednesday 24 April 2019

'We need a base price to put sheep farming on a sounder footing'

John O'Connell
John O'Connell

Ken Whelan

John O'Connell runs a sheep enterprise on heavy ground across nearly 100 acres in two equal blocks three miles apart in Ballinamore in Co Leitrim and is a member of the Sligo-Letrim Producers Group.

His flock consists of 240 Belclares-Suffolk cross ewes and he says he has "done well" on sales over the past year.

John (51) also contract rears some 60 heifers for local dairy farmers and does beef B&B.

He finds the dual sheep and finishing enterprise suits his income spread across the working year and is better than relying on a once-off payment when he is selling his sheep to market.

John ran a 30-strong dairy herd on the farm up to the late 1980s with his father Peter, but they sold the herd when the milk price made it non-viable and then went into sucklers.

They finally settled on sheep as the main enterprise in 2012, and John has no intention of looking back now.

"We've done well from the sheep. Ours are grass-based with the least reliance on concentrates as the weather allows," he says.

"Matching the sheep's needs to the available grass is important, and I always aim at getting a 10-month grazing season on my farm, though with the weather we have had over the past two years this is not always possible. Matching lambing to grass availability is essential."

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And with those golden rules in mind his thoughts last week were about grass availability, or more precisely what grass is likely to be available in the heavy fields of Ballinamore come next February.

A member of the regional Teagasc Better Farm Programme, John emphasises the importance of grassland and its quality in the overall profitability of his sheep enterprise.

And while he is generally satisfied with how sheep farming is working out for him, he says the Department of Agriculture should look at setting a base price for sheep which would ease the price swings endured by farmers.

"We have to be sure of a margin, and underpinning a guaranteed price would put the sector on a sounder economic footing," he says.

John is married to Amanda, who works as a civil servant in Longford. The couple have three children: Peter (15), Lizzie (13) and Dearbhla (11). Peter is already showing an interest in farming.

John, who did his Green Cert at Ballyhaise Agricultural College in Cavan, says he doesn't have much time left for non-farming pursuits, but he still manages to list off enough activities that would keep two men busy.

He is a member of the organising committee for Ballinamore Agricultural Show and other community groups in the area, and is involved in the local musical and dramatic society.

"They are still talking about the special drama we wrote to commemorate the 1916 anniversary two Easters ago," he recalls, before listing a canon of musicals from the Pirates of Penzance to Calamity Jane, where his ability to hold a note was remarked upon.

"I love the singing," he says but then pauses and adds that his children think his singing is "cat!".

In conversation with Ken Whelan

Indo Farming