Farm Ireland

Monday 22 January 2018

Surplus grass in Donegal: A 'well run' sheep farm can generate a decent income

Unpredictable weather during late May and June made silage planning trickier than usual

Grass growth has been well above normal on Michael Duffy's sheep farm in Kerrykeel on the Fanad Peninsula
Grass growth has been well above normal on Michael Duffy's sheep farm in Kerrykeel on the Fanad Peninsula
Michael Duffy

John Cannon

It's been another busy month on Michael Duffy's sheep farm in Kerrykeel on the Fanad Peninsula in Co Donegal. When I spoke to Michael last week he said he had adequate grass from lambing in March.

"During April I realised that my decision to purchase the 50 in-lamb hoggets was the correct one and that I can carry more ewes," he said.

He closed 15 acres for silage on April 14 with a target cutting date of June 1.

Ground conditions in mid-April were difficult so no slurry was applied. Instead, Michael applied 100 units of nitrogen - three bags 18-6-12; two bags 10-10-20 and one bag CAN per acre.

Michael Duffy
Michael Duffy

He closed a further three acres with a 10cm grass cover (grazing field) on April 28 as grass growth surged ahead. Three bags of 18-6-12 per acre were applied. This was cut on May 31.

The weather at the end of May and in June was mixed making it difficult for farmers and contractors to plan their silage cutting. Most farmers would like to have a 12-24 hour wilt to aid preservation and reduce the bale count. Michael cut his silage on May 31 and put it into the pit the following day.

While he did not manage to get a planned grass sugar percentage check done, similar grass samples tested by Teagasc Letterkenny had 2-3pc soluble sugar and low Nitrate levels.

Surplus Grass

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Many farmers in the north west were caught off guard with the surge in grass growth that occurred in late May and early June this year and ended up with grazing getting out of control.

When I asked Michael what he done to maintain pasture quality, he replied: "I decided to cut seven acres of grazing as round bale silage. I allowed it grow on for about 12 days past its planned grazing date. I ended up giving it an extra day to dry and made round bales of hay on June 21."

Currently, he has six acres of silage closed since June 10. This received 60 units of N and will be cut in late July. He also has earmarked five acres of surplus grazing for cutting this week as round baled silage because grass growth is still well above normal.

Sheep Open Day

Michael led a busload of 38 members of the East Donegal Lamb Producer Group to the Teagasc sheep open day in Athenry on June 21.

"Our Lamb Producer Group had an excellent day out, credit must go to Michael Diskin, Philip Creighton and his team for a very well presented day," said Michael.

"The information presented really did show that a 'well run' sheep farm can generate a decent income. The take home message for me was one ewe and her lambs needs one tonne of grass dry matter per year so keep as many ewes as you can grow grass for."

Lamb Performance and Parasite Management

Michael started weaning on July 4 and has sold 12 lambs to date. He began grazing his silage after-grass with ewes and lambs on June 25. The lambs were dosed with white wormer in late April and with Moxidectin on June 10.

"I will use an Avermectin product for the next dose to reduce of the possibility of Moxidectin resistance developing. Faecal egg counts will also be taken post weaning," said Michael.

"I put a big effort into my grazing management this year so far and it is paying off. I weighed some lambs last week and while I would have liked better from the doubles overall I am quite happy."

The target is to have lambs gaining over 300 grams per day prior to weaning so I think that Michael has done quite well.

He has maintained lamb thrive by not forcing the sheep to graze out the paddocks during surges in growth. He grazed to 5cm and then topped to 4cm using a disc mower.

"Post weaning performance in 2016 was poor due to fields being too large and wet weather. I have targeted post-weaning grass management this year," said Michael.

"After-grass fields have been split with electric fences. A plan is in place to move lambs to new grass every three days rotating over seven paddocks. Lambs will graze paddocks to 5cm, be moved on and ewes used to graze down to 4cm."

Small amounts of fertiliser (half bag 18-6-12/acre) will be applied after each grazing to push quality. Michael is also planning to feed a small amount of around 300-400 grams/day of meal post weaning to targeted groups of lambs.

Ewe body condition is also being reviewed as Michael felt his ewes were "just about 'ok' in condition post lambing".

All ewes will be shorn in mid-July post weaning, split into batches based on body condition and grazed to get improved body condition until tupping in mid-October. These ewes were winter shorn in December 2016.

Soil samples taken in January are also being worked on. Forty ton of lime was spread in May with a further 40 ton planned for July/Aug. Fertiliser application this year has been predominately 18-6-12, some 10-10-20 and a very small amount on CAN.

Michael also took on some part time consultancy work during June which has him away from the farm for around three days per week at present.

Upcoming decisions

The main decisions that Michael will have to make shortly are:

Will he purchase any store lambs this year?

What will be the make-up of his ram team?

What level will he increase ewe numbers to for 2018 and what's the contingency plan if poor growth conditions prevails next spring?

The current thinking is for 420 ewes going the ram and moving lambing date three days earlier to begin on March 17.

The next Sheep Tech report will be in our August 8 edition with Tom Coll, Teagasc Mohill reporting from Clifford Richardson's farm

John Cannon is a Teagasc business and technology adviser based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal

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