The Irish Grassland Association (IGA) sheep conference and farm walk returns following a two-year COVID-inflicted hiatus.

The Mullinahone Co-op-sponsored event takes place on Thursday 19 May, with the morning conference session being held in the Hudson Bay Hotel, Athlone, Co Westmeath, followed by a farm walk on a high-performing sheep farm in Roscommon.

The father and daughter team of Peadar and Aoife Coyle operate mixed sheep, suckler and dairy beef enterprises a short distance outside Curraghboy in sheep heartland in south Roscommon. The mid-season ewe flock extends to 575 head.

They are run alongside a 40-cow suckler-to-weanling enterprise and, in recent years, the farm has added a dairy calf-to-beef system, with 50 head brought through to finish.

Peadar and Aoife Coyle, host farmers of the IGA sheep conference.

The cornerstone of the farming enterprise is targeting high levels of output in an efficient manner with a strong emphasis on grassland management.

Valuable changes

The home farm block extends to 32ha (80 acres), with the remaining 60.7ha (150 acres) rented.

A farm roadway runs through the farm and Peadar explains that designing the layout of paddocks and altering field sizes to make maximum use of the roadway was one of the most valuable changes made on the farm.

The home block combines a mixture of good-quality free-draining land and soils which are heavier in nature and more challenging to manage.

There are 17 permanent divisions in place and with this block possessing the best infrastructure, it is the grazing hub of the farm and stocked heavily in the region of 2.6LU/ha.

Mixed grazing

Peadar and Aoife are big advocates for mixed grazing and there is typically three to four grazing groups run here sustaining the suckler herd (and replacement heifers) along with 300 ewes and twin lambs up to weaning stage.

The remaining sheep are also mixed grazed with dairy-beef animals on outfarm blocks, where silage is also saved.

The high stocking rate on the home farm means grass growth and demand are typically well balanced early in the season, removing the need to take surplus grass out of the rotation.

A reseeding programme is in place, while the farm has also focused on improving shelter, with a number of new hedgerows sown along paddock divisions.

Addressing soil fertility

Aoife explains that monitoring and addressing soil fertility is also a vital part of sustaining high stocking rates.

Soil analysis is carried out on the home farm every three years and lime is applied as necessary to maintain the pH at 6.3 or higher, while 80% of the block is categorised at index 3 and 4 for phosphorus and potassium.

The farm is no different to any other farm at present and is weighing up its options in light of escalating input costs.

Clover will be incorporated into swards in the coming years, while the farm has been toying with the idea of getting out of sucklers for some time and Peadar says the sharp rise in fertiliser and concentrate costs could advance this decision or a reduction in numbers.

Breeding policy

The breeding policy utilises Bluefaced Leicester, Suffolk and Texel genetics in a criss-cross breeding programme.

The Bluefaced Leicester is used to maintain a good level of prolificacy in the flock and Peadar says the Suffolk and Texel genetics help to compensate for any shortcomings in conformation and growth rate.

Peadar also finds that progressing too far down Bluefaced Leicester breeding lines gives rise to lambs which possess a lower cover of wool and are harder to turn outdoors quicker when there is intense pressure on housing space.

The scanning rate in the flock is consistently in the region of 1.9 to 1.95 lambs per ewe joined, while the number of lambs sold or retained as replacements is in the region of 1.7 lambs.

In the past, lambs were creep-fed, but, in recent years, creep feeding has been confined to lambs in the group of triplet-suckling ewes and problem ewes.

Meal is used strategically post-weaning, with lambs grouped for feeding on weight.

Meal supplementation at this stage of the year is at a low level and this switches to ad-lib feeding indoors for any lambs remaining on the farm from October onwards.

Triplet litters

The farm has also changed the way in which triplet litters are managed. The policy which had existed was to remove one lamb for artificial rearing.

However, this was viewed as giving rise to increased issues with mastitis, while also demanding on time to get lambs accustomed to the automatic feeder.

If there are any signs that a lamb is performing poorly . . . it is removed and artificially reared

There was in the region of 60 triplet litters this year.

The policy now in place is to leave three lambs with ewes that are seen as having a reasonable chance of being able to rear three lambs. These ewes are batched together for preferential treatment and, depending on weather, receive supplementation for five to six weeks post-lambing, with lambs receiving creep up until weaning.

Ewes and lambs are monitored closely in early lactation and if there are any signs that a lamb is performing poorly or starting to fall behind, it is removed and artificially reared.

Contract rearing

There is a unique system in place for ewe lamb replacements. Potential replacements are ear-notched at birth and the best-performing 150 lambs are then selected in August.

Ewe lambs leave the farm and are transferred to a contract rearer, who maintains these until their return as two-tooth hoggets the following August.

Conference programme

Three papers will be presented at the morning session with the topics outlined below.

  • Veterinary practitioner Ryan Duffy has extensive experience in preventative medicine and will discuss mastitis in sheep, including control and treatment options.
  • Dr Philip Creighton of Teagasc will discuss the potential role of clover in grassland sheep systems, including animal and environment benefits, options to establish clover swards and grazing management.
  • Co Antrim sheep and beef farmer Roger Bell operates a mid-season flock of 550 ewes with his wife Hilary. The Bells are strong advocates for technology adoption and are participating members of DAERA’s technology demonstration farms, as well as participating in the European Innovation Project assessing the role of herbal leys.