Making heifers work on a sheep farm

Contract rearing complements a mid-season lambing ewe flock on Sean Conway's heavy land in Sligo

Branching out: Sean Conway with some of the heifers he is contract-rearing on his farm in Sligo
Branching out: Sean Conway with some of the heifers he is contract-rearing on his farm in Sligo

Tom Coll

Sean Conway farms at Coondrihara, Lavagh, Ballymote, Co Sligo at the foot of Knocknashee with his wife Angeline three sons David, Alan and Fergal and daughter Aine.

The farm is of heavy soil type, and this was one of the reasons why Sean changed his farming enterprise 16 years ago from dairying to drystock and sheep. Ninety mature ewes and 16 ewe lambs went to the ram in 2018 and lambed down in mid-March this year.

Please log in or register with Farming Independent for free access to this article.

Log In

So what has changed on the farm since my previous article about Sean in January 2016?

Sean has entered into a contract heifer-rearing agreement with a dairy farmer and currently has 80 heifers on the farm: 40 aged 0-1 years, and 40 one- to two-year-olds.

The farm is currently stocked with 60pc of the land available for heifer rearing and 40pc available for sheep.

Ewe numbers have reduced since 2016 to accommodate the expanding cattle enterprise. Ewe scanning rate has increased from 1.8 to 2.2 or by about 0.1 pc per year as a result of the use of Belclare sires to produce replacements.


Profitability of the sheep enterprise on a gross margin per ewe basis over the last five years is outlined in the table below.

Gross margin per ewe peaked at €109 in 2017 when stocking rate was at its lowest on the farm prior to the introduction of the contract rearing enterprise.

Get the latest news from the Farming Independent team 3 times a week.

This was influenced mainly by a very high weaning rate of 1.97 lambs per ewe joined and a reduction in fertiliser usage due to the low stocking rate.

Average lamb price over the five years ranged from €92.02 in 2017 to €100.75 in 2018 and includes lambs sold as stores.

Over the five years the higher weaning rate where variable costs were less than 50pc of output gave a greater margin per ewe irrespective of lamb price.

In previous articles we mentioned a target of 160:80:80. €160 of a gross output, giving a gross margin of €80 per ewe when variable costs are at €80 per ewe or 50pc of output.

Sean has been consistently achieving this target or not that far off it over the last five years and says weather conditions - especially where land is heavy - can have a dramatic influence on lamb performance and variable costs, particularly the amount of concentrates fed.

This year Sean weaned 1.94 lambs per ewe put to the ram and had by mid-July less than 50pc spent on fertiliser and concentrates than he had last year.

To date 33pc of lambs have been slaughtered at ICM Navan through the Sligo/Leitrim lamb producer group. The average lamb price this year to date is €98.12 at an average carcase weight of 20.46 kg. This is well back on the average price of €106.50 for lambs slaughtered over the same period last year.

Sean says: "The savings in concentrates and fertiliser will compensate for the reduction in lamb price but I would much rather increase the gross margin per ewe by being efficient with costs rather than being efficient to stand still."

Prolific replacement ewe lambs

Sean and 20 other like-minded sheep farmers with prolific ewe lamb replacements in the Sligo/Leitrim area have formed the Carrick Prolific Ewe Lamb Producer group.

They have organised a sale of over 600 prolific ewe lambs at the show grounds in Carrick-on-Shannon this Saturday (August 31) at 2pm.

The lambs are bred from prolific flocks like Sean's and will include Belclare X, Lleyn X, Suffolk X, Continental X, Cheviot X and Mule ewe lambs all suitable for breeding this year.

"The lambs I am taking to the sale have the potential to make great ewes that should produce lots of lambs. The ewe lambs I retained last year scanned with a litter size of 1.75," says Sean.

Contract rearing

Sean was still exploring the idea of contract rearing dairy replacement heifers in January 2016.

In autumn 2017 he took in 32 heifers (aged 0-1 years) from a dairy farmer.

He now rears 80 heifers which arrive on the farm weaned in May each year and return to the owner by late October the following year to calve in February at two years of age.

This year, with the exceptional grazing conditions, heifers were turned out to grass on February 4.

Sean says: "This resulted in all but four heifers reaching target bulling weights with no concentrate input over the winter period."

Silage fed over the winter period was 76 and 78 DMD. The heifers that did not reach target weight at bulling were under target arriving on the farm as they were younger than the main batch.

Heifers were on the one shot of prostaglandin protocol at breeding which went well, with 80pc in calf in the first cycle to AI and 100pc in calf after 10 weeks of breeding.

Sean says that when he was milking himself he didn't have the time to look after his own replacement heifers compared to the way he looks after the heifers on the farm today.

Good grassland management, making high DMD silage and reducing the reliance on concentrates to reach target weights is the key to profitable contract rearing, he feels.

The owner of the heifers admits he would never consider rearing his own heifers in future.

Managing a mid-season lambing ewe flock and contract rearing complement each other well, Sean says.

The peak labour demands of each are spread out over different periods and both groups facilitate maximising grazing days and grass utilisation on a heavy farm.

Tom Coll is a Teagasc advisor based in Mohill, Co Leitrim


Sean's eprofit monitor results

sean e profit.PNG

Indo Farming

For Stories Like This and More
Download the Free Farming Independent App