The greatest success when significantly increasing flock numbers is where a planned programme is put in place. This was one of the key messages at last week’s walk on the farm of John O’Connell, Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, as part of the Teagasc BETTER Farm Sheep Programme.
The farming system is undergoing a period of substantial change with the suckler herd being phased out and replaced with an increased sheep flock and a weanling-to-beef enterprise. The aim is to manage the transition from a 28-cow suckler herd to a mixed sheep and beef enterprise in as smooth a manner as possible.
The five-year plan for the farm, developed in 2012/2013, includes increasing ewe numbers to a target of 200 ewes and 60 ewe lamb replacements (target stocking rate of 11 ewes/ha). At present, there are 162 ewes on the farm. In 2012 John was managing a 80 ewe flock, he purchased 30 hoggets and 37 ewe lambs that year as well as retaining 45 of his own ewe lamb replacements. Further expansion in flock numbers planned to take place over the next two years by increasing the number of replacements retained in the flock. For the cattle system, initially the plan is to purchase 30 weanling heifers in 2014 and bring to finish (December). Once the system is operating sufficiently, this may be increased in line with improved grassland management to 50 heifers brought through from weanling stage to store or finish. The reasoning behind purchasing weanling heifers is that they will be lighter on the ground and hopefully offer the potential for a longer grazing season.
Managing the transition
The majority of the suckler cow herd was dispersed in February 2013. John explains his decision was finalised following the very difficult weather conditions in 2012 and the prospect of escalating costs in 2013.
“I was doing all I could to improve performance of the suckler herd and sheep flocks. Even with this, any gains I was making seemed to be cancelled out by my land type, weather and rising costs. I was reseeding and improving grassland but the benefits weren’t being realised as it was quickly getting damaged if grazed with cows. The final straw came in 2012 when I put most of the cows indoors permanently in July and those that I held out caused lots of damage and poaching to swards. It was a big step but one we felt couldn’t be avoided,” he says.
There are five cows, their calves and eight in-calf heifers remaining on the farm. One reason behind retaining a small group of cattle was to manage the transition better from a cashflow and sales perspective. These will offset the cost of buying weanlings this autumn. Also, facilities are being put in place in a gradual manner to cater for increased sheep numbers. In particular, cattle housing is being converted to house more ewes from December and January to lambing in March, fields are being fenced and subdivided to allow rotational and mixed grazing while a sheep handling unit is also being erected.
“The amount of work in sheep is influenced by the set-up that you have. I could have sold all the cows and bought extra ewes but I wasn’t at a stage where I could handle them. I am investing in the sheep enterprise but hopefully this will stand to me with less work and getting more from grass,” John says.
Improvements are being carried out over time with an emphasis on keeping costs in check. The greatest investment on the farm is in improving grassland management. Before joining the programme, a percentage of the farm was being reseeded each year but John admits grassland management was not as good as he would have liked.
“When I started sheep farming, one of the best investments I made was a few roles of electrified sheep fencing. My aim was to offer sheep fresh grass as often as possible and having a few roles [of electric wire] allowed me to subdivide fields.
“It was labour-intensive but it more than paid off in increased grass use and lamb performance. The sheep fencing grant has allowed me to greatly speed this up and I am now in a position where I’ll be able to run heifers and sheep together,” he says.
In total, close to 6,600 metres (4,100 under TAMS)of fencing has been erected in the last two to three years. This has brought the total number of paddocks on the 18ha home block of land to 12 divisions, while there are also now 12 divisions on the other 17ha block. While the investment in fencing is significant, with it, it would be very difficult to operate a rotational or mixed grazing system with either sheep or cattle, due to large fields and open drains.
Investment is also being made in improving soil fertility and reseeding. The land type and colder nature of soils in the area means growth is slow to start early in the year. The hope is that reseeded swards with optimum soil fertility levels will respond quicker and start growing earlier in the year and sustain grazing of ewes and lambs post-lambing. (Lambing started in 2014 on 6 March).
This spring also taught a valuable lesson in regards grazing fields and closing later in the year. The strong grass growth meant ewes and lambs were retained outdoors for longer. While this was a positive in terms of extending the grazing season and reducing winter feed costs, the shorter rest period meant grass growth and supply was delayed this spring. Smaller paddocks will now allow greater control and closing of paddocks as they are grazed in winter.
Managing more grass
The strong growth in recent weeks and a lower than normal stocking rate has led to a surplus of grass development. Paddocks that have gone too strong for sheep have been saved as high-quality silage. Making high-quality winter fodder has been a focus area on the farm in recent years with the quality of silage harvested continually ranging from 70DMD to 75DMD.
Taking out surplus silage will also help maintain grass quality which in turn will boost lamb growth rates post-weaning. The two of these areas are central to reducing the level of concentrate fed to each ewe and her lamb(s), which in 2013 averaged in the region of €35. Weanling heifers coming on stream in the autumn will also aid grassland management.
Base breeding in the ewe flock is mainly Texel (48%) and Suffolk cross ewes (approx 23%). In building ewe numbers, John is trying to incorporate more prolificacy into the flock. This has been achieved to date by purchasing Belclare cross ewe lambs/hoggets and running a Belclare ram with a percentage of ewes to breed replacements. The remainder of ewes will be bred to high genetic merit Suffolk and Texel rams.
Teagasc B & T adviser Tom Coll says management practices will also be used to help lift the litter size with a greater focus on nutrition and having ewes in optimum body condition at mating.
The litter size, from 162 ewes put to the ram in 2013, recorded 1.7 lambs. The average litter size was limited by a 14% barren rate. The litter size is also likely to improve as the age structure in the flock evens out.
For the 2013 breeding season, there was approximately 50% two-tooth ewes (hoggets), 17% four-tooth ewes (first crop) and 32% mature ewes. Mortality at birth was very favourable at 8.8%, so if the barren rate can be improved, there should be a significant increase in the number of lambs available for sale/replacements.
Making the system pay
It will take the farm a couple of years for ewe numbers to reach their target and allow the weanling-to-beef heifer enterprise to settle in. The gross margin attainable from the system will obviously be dictated by the farm being able to operate these systems in a mutually beneficial manner, input and output prices and, given the farm’s susceptibility to weather, the level of rainfall.
The target in an average year is to reach a gross margin of €800. This may increase to €900 in a year of low costs/high-output prices, but likewise may fall back to €700 or slightly below if production conditions are very unsuitable.
The farm will provide a very good barometer as to the potential performance that can be achieved and production issues with a mixed grazing system on more marginal lands.