This week, the benchmarking results for the remaining five programme farms are presented for 2021 and contrasted against the 2020 dataset.

The five farms outlined are all classed as lowland operations. However, this is where their commonality ends as there is huge variation in land quality, soil type and rainfall patterns across the featured farms.

On all five farms, sheep are not the only livestock enterprise present. Each of the farmers also carry cattle, either as a suckler herd or through contract grazing dairy heifers.

However, all financials are tailored to costs and output that are specifically linked to each sheep enterprise.

Mark Davidson

\ Houston Green

Mark operates his flock as three distinct lambing groups, with an early group that lambs down in February, a larger March-lambing flock and finally a group of ewe lamb replacements.

Stocking rate increased to 2.03 cow equivalents (CE) per hectare as the breeding flock increased by 21 ewes to 269 head.

The farm capitalised on higher lamb prices last summer, with 47% of lambs slaughtered at an average price of £111 (€132), up £27 (€32) year on year.

As variable costs remained fairly static, higher output and sale prices meant gross margin rose by 50% to £1,222 (€1,455).

Paraic and Seamus McNeill

Padraig McNeill with his dad Seamus.

Paraic and his father Seamus run a highly stocked cattle and sheep farm, with sheep being the dominant enterprise.

Average breeding ewe numbers increased to 189 last year and again, the flock is lambed down as three groups to suit housing and ease labour demands.

Gross margin per ewe almost doubled at £81 (€94) and more than doubled on a per-hectare basis at £706 (€840).

Just over 50% of lambs were sold direct for slaughter at an average £108 (€129) with 30% sold live at an average £95 (€113). All remaining lambs were held for breeding.

Trevor Nixon

Trevor and Ruth Nixon and their daughter Amy. \ Houston Green

Trevor’s flock was smaller than normal back in spring 2021 as he decided to run his ewe lambs over and breed them as hoggets during the most recent autumn/winter period.

Despite working on heavier land, the ewe flock is extremely productive, with Trevor generating the highest output value on a per ewe basis at £211 (€251).

Trevor Nixon and his daughter Aimee measuring grass growth on the Co Fermanagh sheep farm.

This helped to lift gross margin per ewe to £142 (€169) even with a 19% increase in variable costs.

However, gross margin is lower on a per-hectare basis as there was a re-balancing of land area between the sheep flock and heifer-rearing enterprise.

Roy and Marilyn Mayers

\ Houston Green

Roy and Marilyn’s farm also faces a challenge with heavier soils, despite its lowland status. However, this has not been a barrier in driving the farm forward. Breeding numbers increased to an average 235 head in 2021, raising stocking rate to 1.9 CE/ha.

A major investment has been made in reseeding less productive grazing swards and expanding the rotational paddock system. This saw forage costs rise by £8/ewe (€10), although the real benefits from this will be realised from this year on.

Variable costs increased year on year, partly due to a rise in concentrate use post-lambing and to push lambs into saleable weights by autumn.

Kate Kingan and Peter Mant

Kate Kingan and Peter Man.

The sheep flock at Tynan Abbey has gone through a major expansion phase, with breeding numbers rising to an average 578 ewes last year.

With ewe numbers holding steady for 2022, this should see inputs settling and sales catching up to cover such costs.

Gross margin did increase by £23/ewe (€27) and £147 (€175) per hectare thanks to a significant increase in lamb price for stores and animals slaughtered.

Also, 10% more lambs were sold as stores in early summer, thereby lowering variable costs as concentrate use was reduced compared to the previous year.

Five key lessons from 2021 benchmarking

1 Gross margin increases in 2021

Gross margin increased from £87 (€104) to £103/ewe (€123) on the lowland farms, a 30% increase on the previous year.

For the hill farms, gross margin increased from £46 to £54/ewe (€55 to €64). This is a 17% increase year on year and reflects the challenges with driving output from a predominantly Blackface ewe base.

2 No major price advantage to early lambing

The farms that lambed in February and March saw no major benefit in terms of sale price when compared to the farms operating late March and April lambing systems.

Normally, lamb price tends to start off high, before dipping in early summer with a moderate recovery during autumn as supplies tail off.

However, in 2021, there was no distinct drop in factory prices, with market prices holding relatively steady across the year.

This meant for farmers offloading lambs in midsummer and autumn achieved prices that were as strong, if not stronger, when compared to lambs marketed in May or June.

There were three farms with a sizeable percentage of February to March born lambs in 2021.

Factory-fit lambs across these units averaged £109 (€130), although this is an average sale price for all lambs sold direct for slaughter rather than a subset of animals.

Fat lamb price was £106 (€126) on the other two lowland farms running midseason lambing flocks.

On the hill units, 30% of lambs were sold direct for slaughter, with these animals averaging £112 (€133).

3 Higher store lamb prices

Favourable grazing conditions in late summer and autumn, underpinned by a strong factory price, resulted in a price boom for store lambs.

On the hill farms, 53% of lambs were sold through the store ring last year at an average price of £84 (€100), up from £73 (€87) in 2020.

For the lowland farms, 30% of lambs are sold in the store ring although price was marginally higher at £86 (€102), a £9 (€11) increase year on year.

4 Breeding ewe numbers increase

Stocking rates increased in 2021, albeit at modest levels for both the hill and lowland farms. The average lowland flock comprised 277 breeding ewes (1.8 CE/ha) last year, up from 263 (1.57 CE/ha).

On the hill farms, breeding flocks averaged 481 last year, up from 473.

5 Variable costs increase

Variable costs increased from £53 to £59/ewe (€63 to €70) on the lowland farms and from £42 to £51/ewe (€50 to €61) on the hill farms from 2020 to 2021.

Forage costs accounted for the around 50% of the increase in variable costs, partly from higher nitrogen prices in 2021.

However, improvements in soil fertility and reseeding affected variable costs also.