Optimising performance of the sheep has always been a priority on the farm. We are always looking for ways to improve our system and to make life easier.
This year we refocused our efforts in performance-recording. We recorded sheep for several years with Sheep Ireland but many other breeders were not recording, which made it difficult for us to make significant improvements in terms of accuracy.
More breeders are recording now, so it is easier to create links between farms.
We began recording again this spring. We are not recording just for the sake of it: we are selecting sheep on both physical appearance and on data collected from the flock. It will take us some time to get completely accurate info about the flock but we have to start somewhere.
We are looking at breeding ewes to be good mothers, and to be hardy, with good milking ability and good growth rates, along with health criteria - such as reduced foot problems, scouring, mastitis.
Measuring these traits along with weights throughout the year gives us good information, and in theory we should improve the efficiency and profitability of the flock.
My son Tom was in New Zealand last year and called to a sheep farm (Avalon genetics) that has some of the best genetics in the country.
The farm had been recording for 40 years and recording dag score and resistance to worms for the 30 years. The farmer said he used to be sick of coming home from school every day and going out dagging lambs - understandable when they had 11,000 ewes.
Tom helped the farm weigh lambs for slaughter, and in the batch of 1,500 lambs there were only a handful that were dirty or lame.
That showed that the recording is working.
Without direct payments, each sheep has to profitable, so they can't afford to hold on to sheep that are not performing.
It was interesting to hear that the farm was trying to select sheep more resistant to blowfly strike.
There are things we can learn from farmers on the other side of the world. Not everything they do would be practical here, but even some small tips might help.
Our experience with recording has been good so far. The recording at birth was made simple with the Sheep Ireland app, as is the weighing of the lambs.
All lambs were tagged at birth and are being tracked until sale, and our replacements that will be kept will continue to be recorded.
We are recording the pedigree Bluefaced Leicesters and the Scottish Blackfaces (Lanark type). We see straight away that these breeds have different growth rates and traits, as expected. This is why they cross so well to produce the Mule ewe, which has the best traits of the Bluefaced Leicester and the Blackface ewe.
We can also see that there is a bigger difference within the breeds than between the breeds.
The Bluefaced Leicesters are growing on average 90g/head/day more than the Blackface lambs. The best-growing Bluefaced Leicester is gaining over 520g/day, while the best Blackface lamb is growing at 460g/day. The Bluefaces are averaging 330g/head/day, while Blackface lambs are averaging 240g/head/day.
It's a project that will continue for many years to come and hopefully help improve the farm.
Recording is working well in dairy and many other sectors. As the saying goes, "you can only manage what you measure".
Tom Staunton farms at Tourmakeady, Co Mayo