John O'Connell decided to switch to contract rearing and expand his sheep operation
'The cows had to go," Leitrim farmer John O'Connell told the National Sheep Conference recently, summing up a consensus shared by many suckler farmers in recent years.
The trends that have driven these choices are real, as evidenced by the CSO's June livestock survey, which put the suckler herd at its lowest level since 1993, with cow numbers declining by almost 5pc (48,000hd) in the past 12 months.
John took the decision to leave the suckler game during the winter of 2012/13 following a very wet year in 2012 and a review of his profit monitors.
"I was also working in Lakeland Diaries and I felt like my job was subsiding the suckler cows. Rather than the cows keeping me, I was keeping them," he said.
"Basically, the figures were not stacking up, the type of land I have meant my cows were spending up to six months indoors and more in wet years, making it very hard to make a profit from the system.
"What was really killing me was the six, seven and eight-month winters because of the type of ground I'm farming and the amount of rain we get."
He said that during his final year with suckler cows, some of them were housed in June and didn't go back out to grass again that year due to poor ground conditions.
"I'm not knocking the suckler cow. They definitely have their place, but for me and my situation, it wasn't working. A lighter type animal was needed," he said.
John, who farms just outside Ballinamore in Leitrim with his wife Amanda and three children, Peter, Lizzie and Dearbhla, took the decision to expand the sheep operation and try contract rearing.
"The best way to describe the land is marginal, heavy and impervious type land. To say the least, it's surely challenging," he said.
Indeed, he describes his farm as "a little green oasis" surrounded by forestry, noting that he has had a lot of issues with shading over the years.
"With my system now, the sheep suit my land type and the type of dairy heifers I am rearing are 390kg-400kg dairy crossbreeds, which are significantly lighter than suckler cows," he said.
Currently, he lambs approximately 200-220 ewes from March 10 onwards, including ewe lambs, which leaves him with a stocking rate of 12 ewes/Ha. There are also 80 dairy heifers being contract reared on the farm, with 40 weaned calves arriving in June each year and going back to their parent farm at the point of first calving.
John joined the BETTER Farm Sheep Programme in August 2013, however, he stressed he is "no better farmer than anyone else".
"I would like to think I'm improving in my farming, but I wouldn't like to think I'm the best or better than anyone else," he said.
Despite his modesty, John has achieved some impressive results, with a 45pc increase in the number of lambs reared since 2014 despite only expanding ewe numbers by 11pc.
"I'm producing 100 more lambs each year off the same land base," he said.
This has helped his gross margin per hectare from the sheep increase from €351/Ha to €1,244/Ha for 2019. John said one of the key factors has been increasing grass utilisation by managing and measuring grass.
"One of the biggest changes I have made on the farm has been to improve my grassland management, which reduced the amount of concentrates being purchased and improved ewe and lamb performance.
"I have a reseeding and a drainage programme for the farm, which I have been progressively doing over the years. For me, drainage of the heavy wet land I have is every bit as important as reseeding and I have tried every type of drain, depending on finances and the ground type I am draining."
However, after all this effort, he needed to be able to utilise the extra grass which is where paddocks come into play on the farm.
"In the last few years, I went from 12 paddocks across the farm to 23 paddocks," he said.
Adopting a consistent breeding policy, particularly to produce prolific replacements, has also been important for John to maximise flock performance. "I needed to improve ewe output, so I introduced Belclare genetics and focused on ewe body-condition score," he said.
He also said pre-lambing nutrition and maintaining strict hygiene at lambing, and colostrum management are essential to minimise disease in newborn lambs and to ensure lambs get a good start in life.
However, just like with his decision to exit the suckler game, John stressed that using the data from your farm, no matter how basic, is vital to make the correct decisions to improve performance.
"There is no point collecting all this data if you're not using it," he said.
1) Keep a diary
"Something as simple as keeping a diary can be beneficial on the farm," John Connolly says. "I started doing in recent years. I write a lot of information into it, and one might say its insignificant at the time, but it can be very helpful to look back on and benchmark from year to year."
2) Tag management discs
"I use management discs to help with selecting ewe lambs as replacements. Every lamb is tagged within 24hrs of being born. If I see good square ewe that has had a ewe lamb and she ticks all the boxes, I'll insert one of the discs into the tag. It is a visual aid, so in June and July I'll be able to identify potential keepers."
3) Operate a closed flock
"I've encountered most diseases over the years. I bought in CODD and enzootic abortion. It took time to get on top all of them. I operate a closed flock now, and the only stock bought in are rams. As the rams come off the trailer, they go straight into a shed and get a prescription wormer and fluke dose. They are then foot-bathed and segregated for the rest of the flock for 4-6 weeks."
4) Foot-bathing pays off
"I recommend batch foot-bathing. I converted the old milking parlour into a foot-bathing shed and it's worked wonders. I had been foot-bathing in the race, but the lambs were running it too quickly and weren't standing on concrete afterwards. I've realised the time spent out in the yard is equally, if not more important, than the time in the bath. They must stand outside for 25-30 minutes. I use a 10pc zinc sulphate solution and have seen the incidence of foot issues fall 30pc to 5pc a month after introducing the batch foot-bath."
5) Invest in a nurse's station
"I have what you could call a nurse's station set up in the yard. I spend quite a bit of time here at lambing and it's got everything I need in one place. It's a real time saver. My station has a water heater, clock, gloves, medicine cabinet and all the different lambing aids a sheep farmer needs.
6) Colostrum management is key
"Making sure a ewe has colostrum goes back 4-6 weeks before the ewe actually lambs. If the ewe hasn't got that colostrum when she lambs down, you cant manage it. The only way she is going to have that colostrum is to feed a good quality ration with 20pc soya. If that's not in the feed, she won't have that quality milk. I like to see every lamb getting 50ml per kg live weight."
John O'Connell soil sampled the entire farm in 2014 and, using the results, drew up a fertiliser plan to address soil nutrient deficits.
"Firstly, I had to spread lime to address low soil pH on the farm and given that land in Leitrim can be sold both by the acre and by the gallon, this leaves very tight windows to get lime out without causing severe damage to soil," he said.
He explained that he used to spread his first application of fertiliser no earlier than March 17 and that was only on the silage ground which would not have been grazed since the previous autumn, leaving him with insufficient grass during the spring. The remainder of the land got its first application of fertiliser in mid-April after its first grazing.
However, in recent years, he has completely changed this and now the first round of fertiliser is half a bag of Urea/acre in early February.
"A fertiliser spreader purchased for the quad means that I can get fertiliser out even when the tractor wouldn't get through the gate, and this has reduced soil compaction as well as ensuring early application of fertiliser," he said.
"The next two rounds of fertiliser, which begins after the first grazing in early April, is usually 18-6-12 before going back to straight nitrogen in the autumn."
John targets his slurry on the low P and K fields and where he cuts silage to try and replace the P & K taken off in the silage.
Ground conditions often mean that most of the slurry usually goes on after silage cutting.
Grass measuring is now a regular job on John's farm and he stresses that it gives him the information and confidence to make decisions when managing grass during the year.
He also uses netting and plastic wires for the temporary fencing, which is allowing him to keep good grass in front of lambs throughout the year.