Phenomenal grass growth brings a different set of management challenges for Donegal sheep farmer

Michael Duffy
Michael Duffy

John Cannon

Phenomenal grass growth is the main news from the Duffy farm on the Fanad Peninsula in north Donegal this summer.

While 2018 was a good year for grass, 2019 is beating it hands down with silage pits full and loads of bales made (both hay and silage).

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This is in sharp contrast to 2017 when grass was in much tighter supply. It has created its own problems, however, with the management of surplus grass for grazing and low demand for surplus bales.

Flock update

Knee-deep: One of the May/June lambing ewes enjoying the after-grass on the farm of Michael Duffy
Knee-deep: One of the May/June lambing ewes enjoying the after-grass on the farm of Michael Duffy

In the April update, Michael had 699 lambs on the ground with lamb mortality running at 10pc.

Since then, Michael explained that "lamb mortality has increased another 2pc to 12pc and I weaned 685 lambs.

"The last 40 ewes to lamb have accounted for the bulk of these extra losses from coccidiosis even though I had the lambs treated for it in May. It reared its head again in late June and July with five lambs succumbing to it, which necessitated a second treatment of this group.

"I also had two deaths among the 'pet' lambs with remaining mortality occurring throughout the remaining 500 lambs," said Michael.

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However, on a positive note, the ewes that were originally barren at scanning in January have all lambed. "I have 20 ewes with 27 lambs and three pet lambs, and they are a useful group for grazing some of the surplus grass."

It also means that he should have 700 lambs for sale in 2019 which was his target for the year.

Grazing: Ewe lamb replacements selected by Michael Duffy at weaning
Grazing: Ewe lamb replacements selected by Michael Duffy at weaning

Michael has 117 lambs sold to date (57 from grazing and 60 pet lambs). Many of the remaining pet lambs are very close to sale weight but they will not leave much of a margin this year given the lower lamb price currently.

He weaned from July 10 to July 22 and he now has his ewes split with the thinner ewes getting preferential grazing.

Michael told me that he has his lambs divided into a number of grazing groups at present

"First of all, I have 80 of my best ewe lambs selected for replacements. I have 180 lambs that are over 35kg being trough fed 0.5kg of meal/head/day. I have 50 lambs that are less than 30kg being introduced to meal at grass - these are currently consuming very little meal.

"The remaining 220 lambs are on grass only."

Most of the lambs are on good after-grass at present. The ewes were all shorn in mid-July (and will be shorn again in December).

Grazing management

Michael has cut and sold 13ac of surplus grass this year, in addition to 17ac cut for his own silage.

Michael explained "the grass growth all year has been amazing. I have used very little chemical fertiliser since May.

"All the silage ground received a dressing of 1,500-2,000 gallons of sheep slurry after cutting. I sold as much grass as I could so I am currently topping paddocks after grazing them down to about 6cm. The last seven acres of grass sold is due for cutting and baling and this land will also receive sheep slurry after cutting. I will check after-grass recovery following the first grazing. This will dictate how much and when I spread chemical fertiliser again - possibly in mid-August".

Michael has more than adequate silage for his own flock's needs over the winter due to a combination of silage carried from 2018 and bumper yields this year.

Parasite and disease control

All the lambs have been given two worm doses to date, a 'white' wormer in May and Moxidectin ('clear') around June 20. Michael took some faecal samples on July 16 and sent them to a lab for worm analysis.

"These samples showed very low worm egg counts ranging from 150 to 200 eggs per gram," he said.

"The weather has been reasonably dry so I will sample again before deciding when to dose next. I also dosed my hogget ewes then with Moxidectin as they are still growing and under extra stress from their lambs. I did not dose my mature ewes as research shows that they do not require a worm dose."

The next worm dose to the lambs will be either a 'yellow' levamisole or 'clear' avermectin-type dose. Michael has got any lameness in the lambs well under control with regular weekly foot bathing using zinc sulphate. The lambs are also given a cobalt drench every week. Michael used a cypermethrin 'pour-on' product for blow fly control. This product both treats and prevents, but as it has a 35-day withholding time, the heavy lambs were left untreated and are being kept well dagged and checked daily.

Store lambs

Michael has no plans to buy store lambs at present as the current price is much too high for the risk involved. He will review the situation again in October.

Plans for 2020

Michael will again buy in some replacement ewe lambs this year from the same source as last year. These have 1/4 Belclare genetics and are from a known disease-free flock. He also plans to increase his flock by 10pc because the surplus grass that was on the farm over the last two years shows the farm can carry them.

John Cannon is a Teagasc advisor based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal

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