A firm focus on maximising performance from grass is underpinning top performance in the mixed sheep and suckler enterprises run by Margaret Stevenson and her son Jack in Liscooley, Donegal. The Stevensons run a 500-ewe mid-season lambing ewe flock alongside in excess of 80 yearling hoggets and a 30-cow spring calving suckler herd on approximately 63.5ha (157 acres).

The farm is located midway between Castlefinn and Killygordon and while land type is generally good in this area it is being managed in a manner that exploits this opportunity. The farming system has developed in a manner that aims to drive output in the most efficient and labour-friendly manner possible.

Output in the ewe flock is impressive. The 500 mature ewes consistently scan in excess of two lambs per ewe joined to the ram, with the litter size in the most recent years recorded at 2.1 lambs per ewe joined in 2023 and falling slightly back to 2.04 lambs in 2024. This performance is achieved from a ewe breed utilising Suffolk and Texel genetics in a criss-cross breeding programme.

In exploring the positive fertility in the flock, Margaret comments that a focus on selecting replacements from multiple litters dating back to advice delivered by the late Teagasc adviser Gerry Scully could have a part to play but it is also important to highlight that a keen focus on body condition score and adequate nutrition pre, during and post-breeding also has a massive bearing on flock fertility.

Attention to detail

The high litter size means that there is no room for complacency in the late pregnancy feeding programme and requires precise management around lambing. Cross-fostering is utilised where possible but the potential of such is limited and therefore surplus lambs are also artificially reared. No ewe is let to the field with triplet lambs no matter how good she appears to be and likewise yearling hoggets rear just one lamb.

The breeding programme utilises mainly Texel and Suffolk genetics.

In the past lambs were reared as triplets or twins in the case of yearling hoggets but the Stevensons found that it gave rise to a higher incidence of mastitis and increased workload while the performance of yearling hoggets and their lambs suffered.

Labour demand around lambing is high and Margaret comments were it not for help from a good night lamber and help from extended family members and good friends it would not be possible to deal with such numbers without significant losses. Charollais, Roubex and Dutch Spotted rams are also strategically used on yearling and two-tooth hoggets for ease of lambing. The Dutch Spotted is joined with one batch of ewes and ties in with an interest Jack had in black-fleeced sheep from a young age and adds a bit of variety to the breeding programme.

Focus on grass

The high workload at lambing adds extra pressure on having a good supply of grass to get ewes and their lambs turned out quickly. Lambing in recent years has coincided with the Easter break in college with Jack studying agriculture in Ballyhaise College.

Jack has taken a keen interest in grassland management and closing paddocks to give swards their required rest period and ensuring soil fertility is at optimum levels to support grass growth in the shoulders of the year. Regular whole-farm soil analysis takes place while protected urea is used along with strategic use of slurry, applied with low emission equipment, targeting phosphorus and potassium where needed most.

The farm is located midway between Castlefinn and Killygordon.

The aim is to harvest silage in late May with a dry matter digestibility of upwards of 70% and ideally heading towards 75% to reduce concentrate costs and underpin performance in late pregnancy.

Managing grass

When it comes to grazing management, swards are managed differently depending on weather, growth rate, time of year etc. To expand a bit on this there is no strict mixed grazing policy in place but the suckler herd is seen as integral to maintaining grass quality. There is typically two batches of cattle – cows and calves run alongside a bull and replacement heifers run with cows not being presented for breeding. These groups are used strategically to increase grazing intensity in a particular area when needed or to graze out paddocks following ewes and lambs. Dry hoggets are also used in a similar manner.

The foundation breeding in the suckler herd is mainly Simmental and Limousin cows bred from good British Friesian cows. The combination of a high milk yield potential, good grassland management and terminal genetics from a Charolais sire is leading to impressive growth rates in progeny with weanling bulls gaining 1.47kg/day and heifers 1.35kg/day.

Lamb finishing

Creep is not fed to lambs up to weaning, with this policy making the maximum use of grass and also tying in with the farm’s policy of selecting replacements. Offering creep would interfere with identifying replacements which are performing positively due to ewe milk yield and their ability to perform on grazed grass. A higher number of replacements than is required is initially selected allowing performance post-weaning to be assessed.

Strategic use is made of concentrates in finishing lambs with ram lambs offered creep from shortly after weaning. Margaret explains that a few years ago the farm was having some issues with fat cover on lambs. She says the farm’s adviser Eoin Gallagher suggested targeting feeding of heavier ram lambs for a short intensive period and this has remained in place following good results.

Now lambs weighing 36kg to 38kg upwards (depends on lamb type / time of year) are drafted in to a finishing group and offered concentrates in feeders. Margaret says that the overall level of feeding is small per head with lambs also having access to after grass / good-quality grass. Getting lambs moved off the farm faster is avoiding having to feed similar levels of concentrates at a later stage and is helping to build autumn grass with this previously a greater challenge at a high stocking rate.

The majority of lambs are marketed through the East Donegal Lamb Producer Group. The aim is to get as close to maximum weights as possible without giving the factory any free meat. The average carcase weight of lambs slaughtered in 2023 was 21.25kg. A small bunch of ewe lambs suitable for breeding are also sold live.

The farm implements a replacement rate of close to 25% with the Stevensons commenting that the type of continental bred ewe realises a positive sales value while keeping a younger flock avoids age-related issues.

Farm walk

Margaret explains that she and her late husband Nicholas loved to attend farm walks / events and attributes the great foresight of Nicholas in always being willing to try out and adopt new technologies as being responsible for the farm possessing good sheep and cattle handling facilities. While not a fan of public speaking Margaret and Jack recognise the value in such events and are kindly hosting an Irish Grassland Association (IGA) farm walk on Tuesday 14 May.

Light refreshments will be provided from 6pm with the walk starting at 6.30pm and finishing at 8.30pm. The walk, sponsored by Mullinahone Co-op, is of interest to both sheep and suckler farmers and will cover the farm’s production system, grassland management, animal performance and other relevant topics.

  • Selecting replacements with good genetics and implementing excellent nutrition is delivering in high levels of output.
  • The suckler enterprise is used to good effect to help manage grass at key times of the year.
  • Soil fertility and grazing management drives grass growth.
  • Strategic use is made of concentrates in finishing ram lambs efficiently.
  • A mid-season lambing flock of 500 mature ewes and in excess of 80 ewe lambs are run alongside a 30-cow spring calving suckler-to-weanling herd on 63.5ha (157 acres) in Liscooley, Donegal.