Last week I attended the Teagasc national sheep conference in Donegal. The week before, Bord Bia discussed prospects for lamb. Just prior to Christmas, Teagasc held its annual review of gross and net margins for the sheep sector.

It takes a combination of information from all three meetings to get a feel for the prospects for the sheep sector, which for 2024 are better than recent years.

The average gross margin earned in 2023 is estimated to have increased by just over 5% to €905/ha. The outlook for 2024 is more positive based on costs reducing further.

Going back ten years, the average gross margin was closer to €590/ha. That’s an increase of €300/ha in the last ten years.

Some of the upside in income comes from the recent CAP policy shift to flatten and front load farm payments. For a big sheep county like Donegal in 2023, the total county cheque paid to date comes to €104 million.

On home turf last week, the minister was keen to emphasise the upsides of the policy shift at the Donegal conference.

He called out flattening, front loading, ACRES, the sheep improvement scheme (SIS), organics, ANC and everything else that favours farmers, particularly sheep farmers on the western seaboard.

Donegal has the highest SIS cheque in Ireland. This week, details of the additional €8 per ewe announced in the budget are starting to appear. Donegal has a big ANC and ACRES cheque.

The €104m will get bigger when the ACRES co-op cheques start to flow this week for 2023. In an election year, the location and timing for the minister could not have been better.

The topics covered at the conference were excellent. The finance piece on tax and succession seemed to be the crowd highlight, but for me the sheep health slot was top class.

Three farmers highlighted serious flock health problems that decimated flocks in clear, unambiguous language backed up by a regional vet laboratory expert. It was excellent.


However, you do have to stand back and ask who is co-ordinating the national flock health programme? Is it Teagasc? Is it the Department?

Has Animal Health Ireland (AHI) a play in it? Are ICBF/Sheep Ireland involved? Are they all involved – is that the problem? While excellent, the health session was like something you would have heard at a dairy or suckler conference twenty years ago.

However, significant research programmes, vaccination programmes and a national co-ordination plan on key herd health issues, centralised out of AHI have, to a large extent, solved health in the dairy and cattle herds.

Listening to the three farmers in Donegal, it is clear flock health can still have a very large impact on the income for a sheep farmer if it goes wrong.

Flock health is a large cost for sheep farmers. Think of the three problems the farmers talked about – enzootic abortion, ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma (OPA) and Haemonchus Contortus.

Then think about scab, anthelmintic resistance, fluke, flies, worms and a huge issue like bluetongue lurking around the corner. The flock health piece lacks clear leadership for me.

Yes, it’s good to see the Department making a change in establishing collection centres for regional vet labs in sheep areas.

It would also be good to see a commitment on a date on when these will be up and running and a turnaround time for getting results back.

Getting back to the sheep sector – there were so many questions that weren’t discussed. Should the majority of sheep farmers in Donegal, in Ireland, be in organics? If not, why not? Where is the market for hill or lowland organic lamb?

Even with the scheme, will organic produce increase at all? What is the latest on the uplands research programme? Why is the NPWS buying up land and leaving it to red deer, rhododendron or purple moor grass?

Can sheep not play a part with cattle in managing this type of land? Is there a hill lamb system that can deliver a viable income for a county like Donegal? What’s new in handling equipment to service the sheep sector? Is the sheep genetics programme delivering?

Key markets

We know from Bord Bia that France and the UK are the key countries for Irish lamb sales. Will a growing influx of New Zealand and Australian lamb soon dominate these markets and threaten the viability of the Irish sheep sector?

Irish lamb needs to be a step ahead with a point of difference. We need a functioning market premium for lamb that also delivers clean water and sequesters carbon.

This takes specific system trials and genetics work. A co-ordinated flock health programme is central. Lots done, much more to do for sheep farmers.