The Irish Grassland Association (IGA) sheep committee has announced details of its 2021 sheep event, which includes an online tour of three sheep farms. With COVID-19 preventing the association from holding its normal conference and farm walk event for the second consecutive year, it has returned to the option of showcasing farm walks to three farms and broadcasting this through an online platform.

There will be one visit going live each evening on 22, 23 and 24 June at 8pm. The events, which are sponsored by Mullinahone Co Op, are following the theme 'The use of innovative practices to enhance flock management and performance'.

The farms selected offer a good insight into three different systems of production. These include the outdoor lambing flock comprising over 800 ewes run by Peter and Tom McGuinness in Meath, the mixed farming system of Alan Cole in Kildare, where a mid-season lambing 200-ewe flock is run alongside a tillage and contract rearing enterprise, and a view of the large-scale operation of 1,200 breeding ewes and 220 suckler cows run by Neil and Debbie McGowan in Scotland.

Event focus

The events will deliver a good overview of each farming system and delve into detail on how each farm has used innovative practices or technology to improve the management of their flock and increase overall flock performance. This will be delivered through video clips, which offer as good an insight as possible into the farm, along with an interactive discussion each evening.

An overview of each farm provided by the IGA sheep committee is detailed below.

McGuinness Farm, Trim, Co Meath

Tom and Peter McGuinness, Co Meath, hosts of the 2021 IGA online sheep events.

The first speaker will be Peter McGuinness. Peter farms in partnership with his father Tom in Trim, Co Meath. Over 800 ewes are lambed outdoors on the farm starting in mid-March. All single and twin-bearing ewes are outwintered, with triplets being housed. Grassland needs to be extremely well managed to allow for the out wintering of ewes and outdoor lambing from mid-March.

Peter’s excellent grassland management was acknowledged in 2020 when he received the Grassland Farmer of the Year award in the sheep category. Once ewes are lambed, the grassland focus turns to fattening lambs, with ewes and lambs rotationally grazed in batches of 250 ewes and lambs pre-weaning and then grazed ahead of the ewes in a leader-follower system post-weaning.

The high lamb performance achieved by the flock is demonstrated by 96% of lambs being drafted for slaughter in 2020 by October 1, with the remainder being sold as stores to allow the ewes to take grazing preference once again for the breeding season. The farm has 20 permanent paddocks that can be subdivided to manage grass at different times of the year and this, along with 10% of the farm being reseeded annually, allowed Peter to grow an impressive 13.7t of grass per hectare in 2020.

Peter spent some time in New Zealand on work placement and it was there that he discovered the value and benefits of grass measurement. He embraced this technology and has implemented it on his own farm to great effect. Peter joined the Teagasc Grass10 programme in 2019 and started measuring grass using a plate meter.

Grass measuring

Peter walks the farm on a weekly basis throughout the grazing season, with up to 33 measurements taken throughout the year. All grass measurements are uploaded to PastureBase, which helps Peter to manage the grass on the farm and to ensure there is always a good supply of good quality grass in front of the ewes and lambs right through the grazing season.

The use of the PastureBase system also helps Peter to make decisions on what paddocks to skip in the rotation, which ensures high-quality grass for grazing but also high-quality silage from the skipped paddocks. The high level of grassland management means that the 13.7t of grass produced on-farm supports a stocking rate of 10.5 ewes per hectare, produces silage for a beef finishing unit on-farm and also supplies enough surplus grass to feed 100 dairy heifers that are grazed on the farm on a daily rate during the summer months.

Cole Farm, Co Kildare

Alan Cole, Kildare, one of the hosts of the 2021 IGA online sheep events.

The second speaker will be Alan Cole from Athy, Co Kildare. Alan farms a flock of 200 mid-season lambing ewes and all lambs are finished on-farm. There are multiple enterprises on the farm with spring barley, winter wheat and contract rearing of 60 dairy heifers, meaning that the farm needs to be managed efficiently to ensure all enterprises run smoothly concurrently.

Alan puts a big focus on grassland management for his sheep flock and dairy heifers. The high level of grassland management is helped by the excellent grassland infrastructure, with the farm split into 20 main paddocks that can easily be subdivided when required. Alan’s aim is to finish as many lambs as possible off grass and to achieve this, he has a two-pronged approach.

Firstly, he ensures that lambs have an ample supply of fresh, leafy grass in front of them at all times and secondly, he ensures the lambs are not under any parasitic burden that would hinder their performance. Alan is very aware of the effects a high worm burden can have on lambs’ performance and the worm burden of his flock is measured frequently over the grazing season using faecal egg sampling.

Faecal egg sampling serves two purposes for Alan, firstly it allows him to monitor the level of worm burden in the lambs and to treat the lambs with anthelmintics when required, and secondly it allows him to manage the level of anthelmintic use on his farm to avoid the development of anthelmintic resistance. Frequent faecal egg counts allow Alan to only administer anthelmintics when the lambs are under a high worm burden, avoiding the overuse of anthelmintics, which can lead to anthelmintic resistance.

McGowan Farm, Incheoch Farms, Pertshire, Scotland

Neil McGowan, one of the hosts of the 2021 IGA online sheep events.

The third speaker is Neil McGowan of Incheoch Farms in Perthshire, Scotland, where he farms alongside his wife Debbie. The McGowan’s are farming 1,200 breeding ewes and 220 suckler cows on 485ha of upland ranging from 400 to 750 feet above sea level. The focus of the farm is to produce lamb and beef from grass and forage crops grown on farm.

All ewes lamb outdoors from late April with minimal intervention. Of the 1,200 ewes on the farm, there are 800 performance-recorded Lleyn ewes and 100 performance-recorded Texel ewes. Neil and Debbie use EID technology to record a large amount of data on each animal and from this, estimated breeding values are produced, allowing for the selection of the top performing animals to breed the next generation.

Focusing on traits such as lambing ease, maternal ability and ewe efficiency allows the McGowan’s to select for the most commercially viable ewes that need minimal shepherding. All sheep are involved in faecal egg counting breeding programmes with the Lleyn and Texel breed societies to breed for better worm resistance.

The careful selection for desirable traits has seen the twinning rate increase from 65% to 75% over the past 10 years and lamb liveweight at 150 days increase by 3.8kg in the same period. Grassland management is an area that is constantly being assessed to improve animal performance. All lambs are finished off grass or forage crops with no concentrate supplementation, while ewes are outwintered on swedes.

The aim of the farm is to produce functional, efficient, and robust sheep, which are then sold on to other farmers for breeding at their annual on-farm “Working genes” sale, where they sell 80 to 90 rams. The achievements at Incheoch Farm have not gone unnoticed, with Neil and Debbie being awarded the 2018 AgriScot Sheep Farmer of the year award and the 2020 Farmers Weekly Sheep Farmer of the year award.