The main sheep-related tasks on Tullamore Farm continue to be dominated by drafting lambs for slaughter and advancing plans for this year’s breeding season.

The latest batch of 40 lambs were drafted for slaughter on 26 August and averaged €132.85 per head.

The average price per kilo was €6.43/kg with an average paid carcase weight of 20.68kg, as detailed in Table 1.

The average price for 171 of the 241 lambs potentially available for slaughter is running at €131.46, compared to €107.56 for the corresponding period in 2020.

Farm manager Shaun Diver continues to excel in terms of drafting performance, with 39 out of the 40 lambs in the batch recording a fat score of 3.

Shaun Diver

The lamb that recorded a fat score of 2 was known to be performing below par. Shaun continues to try and find the best balance in optimising lamb liveweight and subsequent carcase weight.

There is a focus on trying to maximise the sale value, but not at the expense of retaining lambs with a smaller frame for an excessive period of time, which is a poor use of feed resources, and also moving lambs before they risk going overfat. The latter is encouraged through significant price penalties imposed on overweight/overfat lambs through marketing of lambs to Irish Country Meats with the Offaly Quality Lamb Producer Group. There was 13kg of free meat on the latest batch of lambs and 6.8kg of this came from two lambs.

Marketing of lambs

The average price per kilo of €6.43/kg for the latest batch benefits from the producer group payment mechanism. The farm holds lamb prolificacy higher than lamb conformation, but still tries to enhance the latter through the selection of rams with good physical attributes and strong terminal figures. Lambs have been performing much better in 2021 and this is feeding into a higher number of lambs killing as U-grade.

There is significant variation in the liveweight of ewes in the flock.

Over half, or 22 out of the 40 lambs, drafted in the latest batch were U-grade, with the ration for the year to-date running at 59% R-grades to 41% U-grades. U-grade lambs receive a 10c/kg bonus through the group.

Drafting progress

Conditions on the farm in 2021 have been close to ideal in terms of boosting lamb performance. In recent years, lamb performance was hampered significantly by prolonged inclement weather post-lambing and by regular drought conditions curtailing grass growth and forcing early weaning in two of the last four years.

The number of lambs drafted to-date in 2021 was running at 71% up to the end of August and this figure will be boosted by more lambs being drafted this week. This compares to just 25.4% of lambs drafted at the same time in 2020, as reflected in Figure 1.

The drafting rate was calculated excluding lambs retained as flock replacements (29 head) or sold as replacements (42 head) to allow a fairer comparison to previous years, when this was not a factor for the flock.

There are also two other aspects that can be attributed to the higher drafting rate in 2021. Shaun feels that an underlying coccidiosis issue was having more of an effect on lambs in 2020 than might be expected going on faecal egg count analysis.

There was also a lower litter size in the flock in 2021, owing to unexplained fertility issues last autumn which have been well documented in previous editions of the paper.

The scanning rate of 1.69 lambs per ewe joined across mature ewes, hoggets and ewe lambs compared to 1.91 lambs in 2020, halved the number of triplet and quad births, which has also helped average lamb performance in 2021.

There are just 70 lambs remaining on the farm with about 20 of these also on the point of drafting.

Lamb performance

This is not to take away from the performance of lambs in 2021. There are 70 lambs remaining on the farm, around 50 of these comprising lambs which were reared artificially or by yearling hoggets. Concentrates were only introduced to lambs reared by mature ewes in the last week, while the batch of younger lambs and replacements were receiving in the region of 0.4kg concentrate supplementation at weaning, reducing back to 350g when feeding levels could be better controlled.

Lambs are currently receiving this level of feeding, which may be increased for ram lambs depending on weather and grass utilisation in the coming weeks.

Purchased replacements

The flock replacement policy has changed in recent years, with Texel x Mule cross ewe lambs retained for the last two seasons, along with continuing to purchase Mule ewe lambs.

Dry ewes are currently being used to graze out paddocks and will be transferred on to a higher plane of nutrition in the coming weeks in advance of breeding.

This change of direction was possible due to flock numbers increasing from 150 to 250 ewes and was carried out following numerous requests by producers to also put first cross Mule offspring to the test.

This year’s cohort of Mule ewe lambs have been purchased from three regions, with variance also in the type of lamb being purchased to give a better representation of performance.

There were two batches comprising 17 lambs purchased in the Carrick Prolific Ewe Lamb Breeders sale, a batch of 10 at the Mayo Mule and Greyface Group sale and two batches totalling 23 lambs in the Donegal Mule Breeders sale.

The average purchase price works out at €133 per head. Lambs weigh from the low 30kg range to the low 40kg range. Their performance will be monitored closely in the coming weeks and assessed in terms of any interaction between lamb liveweight and breeding performance. It is hard to judge the target liveweight with such a wide range in ewe liveweights in the flock. This is discussed in detail later.

New ram additions

The breeding policy will also be tweaked further in 2021, with a Suffolk ram purchased. The farm continues to receive high levels of producer feedback highlighting that the Suffolk Mule cross is as common, if not more widespread, than the Texel x Mule cross.

Mule ewe lambs are undergoing a quarantine period and will remain segregated until Shaun is happy there is no health risks posed.

With this in mind, and the scope to put it to the test with flock numbers pushing on to 280 ewes/ewe lambs for this years breeding season, a Suffolk ram will be joined with a portion of ewes. Shaun also wanted another mature ram in the team to swap rams between groups more frequently and hopefully limit the reproductive issues experienced during last year’s breeding. The ram is a forage-reared hogget ram purchased for €800. With Mule ewes possessing good maternal traits, Shaun was keen to balance the breeding mix with strong terminal traits and reasonable replacement figures.

The ram has a days to slaughter figure of -10.9 days and a survivability figure of 0.85%. The ram is genotyped and has good linkage delivering accuracy figures in the region of 70%.

A Charollais ram lamb was also purchased in the Irish Charollais society sale in Roscommon for €640. The ram is terminally bred with a days to slaughter figure of -22.58 days in the top 1% of the breed and a survivability figure of 1.04%, which is in the top 5% of the breed.

Grass management

Grass growth has rebounded strongly in recent weeks, with this week’s growth rates recorded at 72kg DM/ha. With demand of 36kg DM/ha, the farm has developed a surplus of grass with days ahead rising to 36 days. Demand is likely to increase however in the coming weeks, as ewes are transferred on to good-quality grass in advance of breeding. A high percentage of paddocks are also lush swards that may not sustain cows and calves for as long as predicted on paper.

Variation in ewe weights

As discussed many times before, producers who visit Tullamore Farm or discuss its performance regularly ask about possible variation between the Mule ewes. Some questions that arise relate to the size of ewes, both in terms of liveweight and carcase weight, and the possible effect of this on the performance of progeny. The latter is an area we hope to be able to provide more detail on towards the end of this year. The variation in liveweight among ewes is something that our purchasing decisions feed in to directly. We have been keen in recent years to purchase ewes from different regions to reflect the different profile of Mule ewes, but we have also been keen to purchase ewes of different type – be that ewes with a lot of Lanark breeding in their background to whiter and browner-headed ewes.

The latest kill sheet from 20 cull ewes slaughtered at the end of August shows the possible variation in the breed and also demonstrates that there is plenty of scope for producers to purchase ewes of varying size and type to suit their system.

The average carcase weight of 18 Mule ewes in the batch was 35.29kg with a wide range from 25.8kg to 46.1kg. There was one other ewe at less than 30kg carcase weight that weighed 27.3kg, while there were five ewes with a carcase weight in excess of 40kg.

The average price received for the ewes traded through the Offaly Quality Lamb Producer Group was €123.03 per head at a price of €3.50/kg. Two ewes exceeded the maximum carcase weight limit of 45kg and grossed a maximum price of €157.50. All ewes in the batch graded R with the fat score ranging from 3 to 5.

The other two ewes in the batch were two 2020-born Texel cross hoggets that contracted mastitis and were lucky to survive. These two ewes averaged 21.85kg carcase weight and were paid at €3/kg due to a fat score of 2 and grossed €65.82.