John Fagan: My lambs are thriving - I wish I could say same for prices

File photo
File photo
John Fagan

John Fagan

Winter has arrived and farmers all over the country are busy housing what stock they can.

Sheep for the most part remain outside as breeding is in full swing, but I am gradually closing up the farm with an eye to having grass next spring for lambing and to facilitate the early turnout out of cattle.

At this time of year, you need to earmark fields needed for lambing now. If you fail to do this you may as well prepare to fail as your costs of producing lamb will spiral out of control.

Lambs continue to thrive and I am drafting them as quickly as possible. I let the remaining lambs out on the fodder rape and it is proving a really effective way to finish them.

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I am really happy about how my lambs are doing this year. It is ironic that considering I started lambing three weeks later (March 17) I am finding that most of the lambs are actually going to be gone three weeks earlier than usual.

This indicates to me that the later lambing date is far more suited to my farming system than the hardship of starting lambing in early March.

I have been slow to learn this, as previously I always wanted to get lambs out early for either a late Easter market or to coincide with the Muslim festival of Ramadan.

Unless you have a small number of sheep, you really need to aim for lambing to start at a time when you can be sure that the worst of the winter is over and spring has well and truly arrived.

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I'm letting the rams out with the ewe lambs this week and I am aiming to start lambing around the first week in April. I have found that if you are going to lamb ewe lambs they need to be at least 50kgs going to the ram.

You also need to keep them thriving throughout the year. Don't forget that they are still growing themselves so their health and thrive needs to be maintained.

Some people say that you need to treat an in-lamb ewe lamb like a triplet ewe. Always have an eye to their condition.

I footbathed them and gave them an iodine/zinc and cobalt bolus. I generally footbath the entire flock once a month in a zinc sulphate solution.

This has basically knocked lameness on the farm on its head.

A mistake some farmers make when footbathing sheep is that they don't put in enough zinc into the water - you need to make sure the solution is at least 5pc zinc for it to work.

I use a hydrometer which I got from a sheep farming friend of mine.

God knows where you can buy one, but it's a handy tool to have and accurately tells you if your footbath is going to work.

Finally, one very important thing with ewe lambs: be sure to put an easy lambing ram like a Charollais or Belclare with them. Terminal rams like a Suffolk or a Texel, are not suitable.


Lamb price is struggling and has been for quite a while. It's pretty clear that the uncertainty around Brexit has affected the market.

Brexit has demolished sheep farmers profitability this year in a similar way to what has happened to beef.

We've had the cost of electronic tagging (EID) dumped upon us. It was hailed as route to higher prices, but lamb prices have dropped to a five-year low.

The benefits of EID are lost if farmers can't justify the money they are spending on these tags. €25 million was allocated by Government to fund the Sheep Welfare Scheme but only €18 million has been drawn down.

Surely there is scope to use the unused €7 million to top up the Sheep Welfare Scheme?

Electronic tagging will have benefits, but if the only benefits are for processors and retailers while sheep farmers are left to foot the bill, then I'm afraid the sheep business is in a tricky spot.

The bottom line is we need higher prices.

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