While 2020 will go down in history as a year blighted by coronavirus, for sheep farmers there were a number of positives recorded.

Sheep prices increased by 10% or 50c/kg on 2019 levels.

It should be noted that 2019 was a particularly challenging year for markets, with Brexit causing major disruption.

Taking this into account and looking at market performance over a five-year trend shows sheep prices running 6% or 34c/kg higher, at an average farmgate price as reported by Bord Bia of €5.24/kg.

As such, the year will go into the record books as a relatively good one in terms of market performance.

Added benefit

An added benefit to this is that the trade was underpinned by a strong appetite in domestic and export markets, rather than driven by production falling.

As reflected in Figure 1, the sheep kill recovered after a dip in throughput in 2019.

Total throughput increased by 74,519 head.

This hides the fact that the ewe and ram kill reduced by 21,639 head, with throughput of 386,605 being the lowest level for six years.

Higher farmgate prices added more optimism into the sector and resulted in sheep farmers maintaining flock numbers and in cases increasing them.

Table 1 details a breakdown of the kill in the period 2007 to 2020 and shows changes within certain categories of sheep.

Hogget throughput at the start of the year at 793,066 head increased 40,786 head on 2019 levels, while lamb throughput was strong right through the year until supplies started to tighten significantly in November.

At one stage in October, throughput was running in the region of 100,000 head higher than the corresponding period in 2019, but finished the year 55,372 head higher.

Anecdotal reports also suggest a higher retention of ewe lambs as potential replacements, which would tally with a higher lamb crop on the ground in 2020.

It is early days to gauge it, but it is likely that a percentage of these ewe lambs which have been carried over into 2021 will be drafted for slaughter if farmgate prices continue to perform at a strong level.