Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Teagasc has no plans to let the grass grow under its feet

John Shirley

"Those are nice looking lambs," said the man at the Teagasc open day on sheep in Athenry. "Aye, but look at what they're 'atin," said his companion, referring to the carpet of leafy grass under the flock.

Last week's sheep event at Athenry was somewhat of a milestone for Teagasc. On show was:

* A newish team of sheep research and advisory staff;

* The early results from the new Athenry sheep research farm;

* Results to date from the Teagasc BETTER sheep farms;

* Early results from the ICBF Sheep Ireland breeding programme.

The past couple of years have actually seen a small recovery in the Irish flock. The breeding flock was up 2pc in December 2012 but at 2.58 million, this is way short of the 5 million breeding ewes the country carried in the early 1990s.

Farmers exited sheep production because it was too much work and too little profit. Sheep farmers also ended up with the poorest Single Farm Payment on average, at a mere €244/ha, compared to the national average of €344 per ha. But a move to new price levels for the past three seasons has stopped the sheep exodus.

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The Athery open day was largely about harnessing grassland and other technology to help boost the incomes of sheep farmers. Hence, the farmers admiring the nice grass at the start of this piece.

Teagasc economist Anne Kinsella described the average sheep farmer in 2012 as:

* Family farm income of €16,700;

* Average farm size of 50ha;

* Average flock size of 142 breeding ewes;

* Average age of 59 years;

* Average stocking rate of 1.08 livestock units per hectare;

n28pc with off-farm employment.

The 2012 Teagasc farm management analysis showed the top one-third of lowland mid-season lamb producers earning a gross margin of €990/ha. There was a huge gap between the profitability of the top, middle and bottom third of lowland sheep farms. Table 1, right, shows that while the top third achieved €990/ha, the bottom third were back at a paltry €216/ha.

Indeed, the average net margin on lowland sheep farms in 2012 at €165/ha was down 38pc from the €268 per ha in 2011. The drop was attributed to poorer lamb prices and higher costs in the bad summer last year.

The 2012 average net margin of €165/ha is less than the average entitlement on a sheep farm. In addition, many farmers subsidised production with their Single Farm Payment.

In the 2012 analysis I noticed that Teagasc included an assessment of land quality. It showed a high correlation between profit from sheep and land quality. Alongside land quality, Anne Kinsella said stocking rate was the biggest factor in delivering the higher gross margins.

The top third are carrying nine ewes per hectare. This compares to seven ewes per ha on the average farm and five ewes per hectare on the farmers in the bottom third for gross margin.

Just as with the BETTER beef farms, the BETTER sheep farms with intensive Teagasc support are also showing dramatic income lifts. On the lowland units the gross output increased by 53pc between 2009 and 2012. A lift in sheep prices over the period saw the gross margin increase by 130pc over this period.

Interestingly the gross margin of €670/ha for the BETTER farms in 2012 was in line with the €990/ha on the top performing farms when the €244 Single Farm Payment is added.

The €1,000/ha gross margin target surfaced again in the early results from the new Athenry demonstration farm. The unit, under the direction of a young man called Philip Creighton, is set to play a vital role in Teagasc's sheep research and advisory armoury.

This all-grass lowland mid-season lamb demo unit is actually a series of six smaller self-contained blocks carrying stocking rates of 10, 12 and 14 ewes per hectare crossed with two litter sizes; 1.68 lambs per ewe (medium) and 1.8 lambs per ewe (high). Each block has to provide summer and winter keep for the ewes and lambs. If silage needed to be added in, this had to be fully costed. It is high quality, limestone land.

Each block is paddocked for rotational grazing and the aim at all times is to efficiently grow and utilise grass.

The first year's results showed increasing margins for the higher stocking rates. But when it came to increasing both stocking rate and prolificacy the margin could actually suffer from inability to finish lambs off grass.

Almost 20pc of the lambs from the highly stocked, high prolificacy block had to be finished indoors on concentrates.

Spring 2013 was a severe test of the grass-based demonstration unit at Athenry. Philip Creighton stuck to the planned rotation but fed an extra 20kg of meal per head to the ewes during March and April.

This has cost an extra €7.20 per head but ewes were strong and lamb performance was sustained.

In recent days, extra half paddocks have been taken out for silage. At 12 weeks lambs were averaging 27.4kg at the highest stocking rate and 29.5kg at the lowest stocking rate. The tops of the lambs were already over 40 kg.

We will watch the progress of this demo unit with interest. This year Philip will vary nitrogen application rates from 120-180kg/ha depending on stocking rates.

Irish Independent

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