This farmer started with just 23 acres but has built up a 600-strong flock on 400ac
It was at the tender age of 13 that Joe Scahill hung up his schoolbag to begin working on the family's modest hill farm in Westport on the foothills of Croagh Patrick.
"Looking back it wasn't the smartest move I've ever made," laughs the Co Mayo man, who no doubt doesn't relish the thought of him and his wife Cathy's own children Lisa (18), Kate (16), Sean (14) and Joseph (12) bringing their school career to a close quite as early.
Yet when Joe began farming the family had a few cows and sheep and he had access to just 23 acres of owned land, including 17 acres of commonage.
It was the hard slog and determination that has now seen the established sheep producer farm over 400ac that caught the eye and impressed this year's judges to land the Zurich Farm Insurance Farming Independent Sheep Farmer of the Year award.
"We bought a lot of the land we farm in bits and pieces," says Joe, who explains he was fortunate that the contracting business he set up with his brother provided them with steady employment over the years.
Now he farms over 400ac, including 100ac of improved and 300ac of hill land, after purchasing close to 300ac over the past three decades. They lease around 100ac of land.
"I still work off farm doing a good bit of contract work, seven or eight months of the year," he says, as he shears in partnership with his brother and also operates a contract sheep showering business.
His father Thomas, always known as Sonny, had kept a few sheep and that is what first got him into the business.
"As I got a bit older I joined up with the producer groups in the west - that is what inspired me to stay in the sheep job," explains Joe who now chairs the successful Mayo Mule and Greyface group.
"It is very important for younger fellows to join up as there is healthy competition - it is good for the whole thing and it drives you on."
Looking out over the scenic landscape, their land is a mix of heather, blanket blog, upland grassland and some good quality lowlands.
After buying his first flock of 100 ewes in 1987 when he was 17 - without any herd number - he went on to build up the flock.
They now carry 600 Blackface Ewes, Lanark and Lanark Mayo Connemara crosses, with 400 crossed with Blue Leicester rams to produce Mayo Mules. The remaining 200 are mated to Blackface rams to produce hill replacements.
In addition, he purchases around 20 weanling cattle each year to sell off grass the following autumn.
Like many drystock farmers trying to juggle a workload off-farm, Joe feels the Mayo Mule cross is a good fit for part-time farmers.
"They are very trouble free, good to lamb on their own and super mothers. They suit a low labour system - lads working can put them in a field and let them lamb away. One of the main feedbacks is that they can produce a big crop and they are all sold. It is great to rear them and get them out of the gate quick - that is where they really seem to shine."
The Mule and Greyface sheep are growing in popularity here - however he points out they still fall far behind the percentage in the UK flock. "The future is bright for them in a lot of farms," he says.
The lamb crops from well-bred Mule and Greyface ewes average 175pc to 200pc, with the ewe selectively bred for the specific purpose of becoming a top-class mother of prime meat lambs when crossed with continental sires.
Usually Joe would have around 280 ewe lambs on the ground, however, this year it is closer to 250, with around 350 Mule ram lambs.
"So far we have around 150 of the ram lambs killed - we'd usually be targeting a finished weight of about 19kg but this year we decided to move quicker," he says, adding they were sold to the factory at around 18kg at €5.50 and €5.30/kg. However, he said they were finished without meal and they may have lost out on a kilo of meat but the overall prices were better.
This year Joe has around 80 lambs currently grazing on the leafy catch crop Typhon to try and put weight on the lambs at less cost. "It makes sense from a labour point of view and a cost point of view - I haven't done the sums on it yet but I think it will be cheaper," he says.
He feels many farmers don't place enough emphasis on the quality of the ram. "He is half your flock and if you have to spend an extra €100, it is a small investment," he says.
Now he says you can buy a Bluefaced Leicester ram bred from a top ram in Scotland that might have cost €10,000 thanks to the introduction of AI in sheep. "The bloodlines are making a difference to our flock. The Blue Leicester rams we have now they'd be like night and day such is the difference in size, confirmation and general quality of the sheep," he said.
Around 12 years ago he began introducing the native Scottish Breed Lanark to his ewe lines. "I feel the introduction of that blood brought the biggest improvement in our own sheep," he says.
On the technical side, the flock ranks in the top 10pc of hill producers nationally in terms of litter size and gross margin.
Like many he feels it is hard to make a living out of hill farming but he was able to buy the other commonage shareholder's section of the land and fence it off to deliver better quality grass that could be rotated. In addition, they aim for a higher weaning rate of 1.5 compared with some other hill farms.
Also, the fencing means ewes can be outwintered on it with meal fed to them, without feeding the "neighbours sheep" as well, which is an issue on commonages.
Now Joe has the ewes scanned around the middle of February and leaves the singles outdoor to lamb while those carrying doubles are housed in the slatted and straw-bedded accommodation.
Otherwise Joe found that over the years those with doubles were losing lambs to the foxes.
"Some years we would have lost 30 or 40 lambs," he says.
At the moment the Mules are castrated, while the Blackfaced lambs are left entire as they grow into a heavier carcase.
He says the price point of lamb continues to be an issue for many shoppers.
"We as a rule get less than €5/kg for lamb but the average price is somewhere in the region of €16/kg, that is a big gap," he says, adding more needs to be done to encourage young people to eat lamb by using it in more convenience meals.
With the mammoth fire that raged through the Cloosh Valley still fresh in people's minds, Joe feels the hills simply aren't being maintained the same as in the past, with farmers now putting less sheep on the hills.
He said this was turning to heavy heather covers and drier grass as the years went by.
Now he says there is less talk from younger farmers of going into farming with little land available as farmers work well past retirement age.
He feels the new young farmer scheme and national reserve has distorted the land rental market as they rent land to get entitlements at "over the top" prices. He feels it may be time for a new early retirement scheme to help people hand over the farm. "Few farmers are able to pay into a pension for themselves. There is not enough of an income out of it," he says.
For Joe as a contract sheep shearer the price of wool has been a bugbear this year. The poor trade for wool saw lowland prices around 50-60c/kg, with scotch wool at 20c/kg.
"I'll probably sell it as it's only a nuisance around the place but all we'd get for it is a pittance," he says, adding he'd like to see it at least cover the cost of a shearer.
"Shearing is a hard job, a tough one and I think my days are probably numbered at it. You need to be very fit for it - it's a young man's game," he says.
Producer groups tapping into collective know-how
It's over three decades since Joe Scahill first joined the Mayo Mule and Greyface producers group. "I know I have learned from being in it - you learn a lot from the older farmers," he says.
"The beauty of being in a producer group is that you can put a number of sheep together for the sale that people are interested in," he says, adding the buyers there on the day know the spec of the animals. "We hold the premier sale on August 25 in Ballinrobe where there will be 3,000 on offer and you work to select the best of the mule rams for that.
"It gives you a market to work towards. Without that you are only out there trying to sell them on spec," he says, adding you see the same faces popping up at the sale over the past three decades as they continue to seek out the maternal breeding sheep.
He pointed out farmers come from all over the country for the premier sale.
For Teagasc advisor John Noonan the producer groups are a key outlet for farmers. John feels that is where Joe has excelled through his focus on increased output alongside bringing added value to the product.
Other groups attending the event on the Scahill farm included the Mayo Blackface group, South Mayo lamb producers, Hilltex and the Mayo Connemara Blackface Hill sheep society groups.
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