Paraic McNeill runs a sheep and suckler enterprise alongside his father, Seamus at Annaclone, near Banbridge, Co Down.
Since joining the programme in 2019, Paraic’s plan was to build the breeding flock towards 300 ewes.
This autumn, there are 245 breeding females to be mated, which is broadly in line with the 250 sheep put to the ram last year.
While the initial plan was to serve close to 275 sheep this autumn, Paraic has become much more selective in his culling and replacement policy.
As all aspects of flock performance is recorded, over the summer period, ewes that weaned light lambs, had issues with feet or produced single lambs have been culled.
Although the higher culling rate means flock numbers are static this year, the end result is that breeding females remaining on farm should be more prolific and productive in terms of output.
Breeding under way
Due to limited housing space, as well as fitting in with off-farm employment, Paraic lambs the sheep in three batches which means breeding is also carried out in three groups.
Rams were turned out to the ewes on 16 September.
The flock carries four rams with Texel, Belclare, Charollais and Beltex
The first group to be mated consists of 85 mature ewes, which are mainly Suffolk and Texel cross, as well as Mule types.
The flock carries four rams with Texel, Belclare, Charollais and Beltex. All four rams were turned out, as smaller groups help to cover more animals in a short time period.
In the first breeding group, 75% of ewes were mated in the first nine days. Rams are raddled to show mounting activity.
Raddle colours shows that ewes covered in the first cycle appear to have held to the initial service.
“Breeding finished up after three weeks for the mature ewes. The rams covered a lot of sheep early, so hopefully this will carry through to give a good tight lambing with this group in February,” said Paraic.
The second breeding group has 100 ewes, which consists of 60 replacement hoggets and 40 thinner mature ewes that were given an extra few weeks to put on condition before the ram was turned out.
With breeding finished in the first group, rams went out to the second batch of ewes on 9 October. Again, there has been plenty of activity in the first week of breeding.
As with the first group, breeding will last three weeks before rams are removed
After one week, at least 50% of ewes and hoggets have been bred. With this group consisting of primarily of hoggets, Paraic is happy with the submission rates so far.
As with the first group, breeding will last three weeks before rams are removed. All four rams have been used, but the Belclare, Texel and Charollais are getting the bigger share of ewes.
This leaves the ewe lambs to be served in group three. After weaning, there were 85 ewe lambs retained for breeding.
However, some animals had an issue with CODD. After reviewing things, Paraic decided to draft harder on the group of replacements.
The end result means there are 60 ewe lambs going to either the Charollais or Beltex rams from 30 October with breeding lasting three weeks.
Both the replacement hoggets and ewe lambs are all homebred animals. Hoggets were too light to serve as ewe lambs and given the extra year to develop.
Prior to joining the programme, most of the homebred replacements were sired by Texel or Suffolk rams.
The move to Belclare-sired replacements is aimed at increasing the number of lambs weaned and sold
However, the addition of the Belclare ram has seen a change of direction for the replacement policy with daughters of this sire now retained for breeding.
The move to Belclare-sired replacements is aimed at increasing the number of lambs weaned and sold, which traditionally sat around 1.6 to 1.7 annually.
A teaser ram has been used this year to try and tighten both the breeding and lambing periods. A mature ram was purchased and castrated, rather than opting for a ram lamb born on farm.
Paraic has used teaser rams to good effect for a few years now and with over 75% of the first group and 50% of the second group served in just over a one-week period, it is something that will continue going forward.
As well as culling hard from weaning to the outset of breeding, there are a few additional tasks carried out to make sure ewes are primed for mating.
All mature ewes and replacements get a mineral bolus around four weeks before the start of breeding.
Ewe lambs, along with the thinner hoggets, are wormed before going to the ram. Mature ewes and hoggets in good flesh are not given a worm dose in an effort to cut down the overuse of anthelmintics.
This worming policy has become a common practice on the other programme farms and so far, there have been no negatives on general flock health or fertility.
Ewe lambs were also brought up to date with clostridial vaccines with Heptavac P used on farm. Toxovax and Enzovax were also given to these replacements prior to breeding. All breeding stock will be done with Footvax in December.
Autumn and winter grazing
Breeding sheep are generally wintered on farm as there is limited availability for moving animals to winter grazing.
“There are a lot of farmers in this area that buy store lambs, so getting a winter run is not something we can plan for,” said Paraic.
We usually tend to offer baled silage in ring feeders around mid-December to keep ewes fed
“Therefore, we try to build covers on farm as much as we can. We have a small outfarm of 14 acres that has been closed for that past five weeks.
“The first group of breeding ewes will move to it now and it should carry them up to Christmas time. There are some other parts of the farm we have been saving grass for wintering sheep.
“We usually tend to offer baled silage in ring feeders around mid-December to keep ewes fed. Silage will be tested once the cows are housed and we are opening bales every day.
“But it should be good quality, as it is reseeded grass with a high clover content and baled in dry conditions.
“Last year’s silage was 72% DMD, so all being well, this year’s fodder will be in the mid-70s for feed value.”
Mature ewes and replacement hoggets will most likely be scanned around Christmas time. Any ewe that scans empty will be offloaded at this point, unless the colour marking from the ram’s raddle shows a late service.
In this event, any ewe or hogget served late with be scanned at the same time as the ewe lambs towards the end of January.
Supplementary concentrates will be introduced after scanning has been complete with feed levels depending on the number of lambs being carried, ewe age and body condition and silage quality.
The first batch of early ewes will then be housed around a fortnight to one week before lambing starts.
While it will be a busy lambing period, based on breeding records, there should be at least a one week break between the first and second groups.