Farm Ireland

Thursday 22 March 2018

It’s boomtime for sheep - still 'significant scope' to increase margins on sheep farms

Breeding ewe numbers have surged but the scope for better margins in the sector was the key message at the Teagasc Sheep Open Day event in Athenry, reports Louise Hogan

Andrew McNamee from Letterkenny demonstrating the quadrant and Shears method of measuring grass at the Teagasc Sheep Open day. Photo: Andrew Downes
Andrew McNamee from Letterkenny demonstrating the quadrant and Shears method of measuring grass at the Teagasc Sheep Open day. Photo: Andrew Downes
Louise Hogan

Louise Hogan

Breeding ewe numbers have surged by almost a third to 2.6 million, with improved lamb prices and reduced feed costs helping to drive the increase.

And Teagasc expert Michael Diskin told farmers at the Sheep 2017 event in Athenry that there was still “significant scope” to increase margins through improved grassland management and breeding.

The early data from the Teagasc 2016 National Farm Survey showed an average gross margin of €595 per hectare for lowland mid-season lambing flocks.

However, the top one third of flocks generated a gross margin of €1,329 per hectare compared to €268 per hectare for the bottom third.

Increasing the prolificacy  of a ewe to deliver higher lamb numbers significantly increased lamb carcass output per hectare, said Teagasc’s Philip Creighton.

“We can increase the prolificacy — there is no increase in feed demand, we get the same number of lambs finished from grass but we get more lambs finished per unit area,” he said.

“Prolificacy is the first step — it increases your profitability straight away as you are diluting all your other costs.

“The ewe has to be maintained for the year regardless, so if she is giving you less lambs she is costing you the same but she is giving you less back,” he said.

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He added that improving the stocking rate in conjunction with increasing grass production and utilisation was key.

“Increasing prolificacy plus increasing the stocking rate by increasing the amount of grass to support the increased stocking rate will deliver more profits.”

He said that concentrates cost four times more than a kilo of grass dry matter.

“You need to match the stocking rate on your farm to what your farm can produce and what you can utilise from it. We are not trying to tell people to keep increasing the stocking rate.”

Mr Creighton highlighted the the average National Farm

Survey margin for sheep farmers of around €595 gross per hectare.

“We (at Teagasc Athenry)were achieving about €900 or €950 excluding payments,” he said, adding farmers could be losing on average €300 due to lower prolificacy, inadequate stocking rates and poor grass management. 

“It is going to depend on land type and location but this is the point we are trying to make here — you might not be able to go to €1,200 here but if are at €600 and you do a bit more management of your grass you may be able to go to €800. It is all about baby steps.”

Meanwhile, other research to catch the eye of farmers’ was the work on breeding ewes at a younger age to help drive profits.

Dr Tim Keady’s research found that breeding ewe lambs at about nine to 10 months and changing ewe genotype can increase profit by €26/ewe per year.

The research showed that lambing at one year did not impact the performance when lambing at two years.

Dr Keady said they used the ‘ram effect’ to help compact the breeding season of ewe lambs and help them to go in lamb.

“We found that using the ram effect resulted in a compact lambing season with 62pc of

the ewes lambing within two weeks and 84pc lambing within three weeks,” he said.

Dr Keady added that concentrates fed at a rate of .25kg/ewe lamb/day up to six weeks prior to lambing helped the ewe lambs’ growth.

The study found that over four years the Belclare and the Suffolk/Belclare crosses had reared one extra lamb.

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