More sheep farmers should be focused on improving labour efficiency within their business, an academic from the University of Glasgow has said.

“The definition of a good sheep depends on what is limiting for you. On most farms nowadays, time and labour are the biggest limiting factors,” said veterinary clinician George King.

Speaking at a farm walk at Ballygally, Co Antrim, King said there are various measures of efficiency on sheep farms, such as lambs sold per ewe or kilos of lamb sold per hectare.

Lamb output

However, he urged farmers to think about “lamb output per person” as a way of improving labour efficiency on sheep enterprises. “The aim is for one person to manage more sheep, without compromising animal welfare. You need to have sheep that are bred and managed to look after themselves,” he said.

King said these animals need to be “tough” and “resilient” which will mean administration of individual treatments is kept to a minimum.

“Most people who farm sheep don’t value their time. Be honest, your time is valuable, so it is expensive to catch a sheep. If you have to catch a ewe, she probably won’t make you much money and you should replace her,” he said.

He urged farmers to take a preventative approach to animal health by using the likes of vaccines and a strict culling policy to avoid both production losses and the extra labour requirement associated with “emergencies”.

Ease of lambing, mothering ability and lamb survivability were also listed as traits that are needed in labour-efficient sheep. “Kill the ewes that don’t do the job and replace them with better sheep,” King said.

Wool shedding

He also suggested that the market outlook for wool will remain bleak into the long term, and he advised more farmers to breed wool-shedding sheep to avoid the time and cost associated with shearing.

“You should remove all optional tasks from your system. Why do we still keep sheep for wool? When did you last make money from wool?” King asked.

Demand for EasyCare sheep on the rise

There is an increasing demand among local farmers for EasyCare sheep, according to Co Antrim breeder Campbell Tweed.

Campbell runs 3,000 EasyCare sheep on his hill farm at Ballygally and all stock are performance recorded through Signet and Sheep Ireland. He has been breeding wool shedding sheep for 25 years but is also focused on other traits for optimising labour efficiency. “We don’t trim feet and we have 0.5% lambing difficulty across the whole flock. We work from 8am to 5pm at lambing time and one person can lamb 1,000 ewes,” Campbell said.