The Irish Grassland sheep conference and farm walk takes place in Kilkenny tomorrow. At the same conference last year, Dr Tim Keady of Teagasc, presented a paper which contained the following fact: Most of the decline in sheep numbers occurred during the last six years when the national flock has declined by 36pc. During the same period ... there has been no improvement of technical efficiency at farm level.
The two key components of profitability in the sheep enterprise are weaning rate (the number of lambs weaned per ewe put to the ram) and stocking rate. Weaning rate has hovered around 1.3 lambs per ewe since the mid-fifties. National Farm Survey data shows that stocking rate, which has been at around 9-9.5 ewes/ha since the mid-1980s, has declined over recent years. What is wrong?
Do farmers not want to increase income? Is it the way the message is being sold?
Sheep farmers have shown they can change provided the change delivers benefits such as improving income, reducing workload or improving working conditions. Prior to the 1970s, most lowland flocks were out-wintered, generally on root crops. Sheep farmers invested heavily in wintering accommodation and adopted silage and meal feeding. The use of continental sires such as the Texel and Charollais has since become widespread. In more recent years the use of pour-ons and injectables for the control of ectoparasites is now the norm.
However, despite all the research and advice, output has effectively remained static.
The Teagasc 2030 Foresight Report sets two targets for the lowland flock, one is to increase weaning rate to 1.5 lambs/ewe and the other to increase stocking rate to 11.5 ewes/ha. Given that these targets have not improved in the past few decades, when there was a vibrancy in the industry, I fear they are unlikely to improve over the next 10-20 years.
Despite farm walks, demonstrations and the development of the BETTER sheep farms, farmers are not buying into the Teagasc message so we must try to get to grips with the reasons why.
I'll now put my head on the block and outline my reasons why lowland sheep farmers have shied away from improving this aspect of performance.
There are around 32,000 sheep flocks with about 2.5 million ewes in the country. In the region of 25-30pc of these flocks (9,000) are located in hill and mountainous areas and 23,000 flocks are on lowland farms. It is highly unlikely that sheep farmers with less than 100 ewes will implement a breeding programme to increase litter size.
These flocks are only making a relatively small contribution to family farm income and operating a breeding policy only complicates management. It is far simpler for these farmers to purchase flock replacements.
In the region of 65pc of flocks in the country have less than 100 ewes. Omitting these smaller flocks leaves us with around 8,000 larger lowland flocks. Another aspect that we have to consider is the age of the flock-owner. In comparison to dairy farmers, sheep farmers are a relatively old group of people.
According to the 2009 National Farm Survey, the average age of flock holders in Ireland is just 58. What is more disconcerting is that the average age has increased by two years since 2005, indicating that very few young people are entering the enterprise. On the other hand, the average age of dairy farmers has remained static at 50 over the same period. The majority of these older farmers stay with sheep as an interest and as a pastime but are not interested in implementing breeding programmes or increasing output or any form of increased efficiency. If anything, they will reduce stocking rate to make life easier. In addition 37pc of flock holders are engaged in off-farm work.There are probably fewer than 4,000 flocks in the country that are likely to implement a breeding policy to improve ewe productivity and some of these are already doing so.
I believe that there is a need, particularly in the present climate, for Teagasc to undertake research and ascertain why sheep farmers are not buying into its message to improve output.
The present Teagasc programme for lowland sheep farmers to increase output is a 'one brush for all'. Programmes require a targeted audience. It is undesirable, to say the least, that the advisory programme at present is irrelevant for more than 80pc of lowland sheep producers.