Tweaking ewe type to lift output
The McEneaneys operate a mixed hill and lowland system in Jenkinstown, Dundalk, Co Louth, comprising 50 to 60 ewes run on hill ground and 70 ewes run on lower ground. The two systems intertwine with replacements for the lowland flock bred from the hill flock.
Cheviot ewes are the breed of choice, but the type of ewe has gradually been changing to the Lairg strain of Cheviot. Gerry McEneaney says this type of ewe better suits the terrain, with a lower mature weight and compact size lowering maintenance requirements and reducing the level of inputs required.
Half of the hill flock is bred pure. Gerry explains that good longevity, with ewes lasting upwards of seven years, is reducing the number of replacements required.
The lowland flock was traditionally based on crossing five-star Suffolk sires, sourced from LambPlus flocks, with Cheviot ewes to breed Suffolk-Cheviot ewe lambs for sale.
These have been targeted for the Cooley Sheep Breeders Association sale, which Gerry is chair of.
A more recent change is the introduction of a Bluefaced Leicester sire to breed with some of the hill Cheviots to breed ewes for running on lowland ground.
The reasoning behind the change is a focus on increasing litter size and output with Bluefaced Leicester genetics while still retaining a type of ewe capable of breeding good-quality replacements.
Suffolk sires selected on their €uro-Star credentials from LambPlus flocks and rated as five-star are joined with the Mule Cheviot ewes in the McEneaney's ewe flock to breed replacement ewe lambs.
“We have a lot of two-year-old sheep coming into the flock, but are already seeing the benefits in an increased litter size.
“Thankfully, we have had a much better lambing than in 2018, where there was pressure from all angles and higher losses than normal. We have more live lambs on the ground, plus feed costs have been significantly reduced.
“The level of labour needed was also well down and farmers got a much-needed break. We were able to lamb a lot of ewes outdoors during the day and for those lambed indoors, there was a quick turnaround time from lambing to turning outdoors.”
Higher than normal growth rates have also led to a quicker recovery time for hill vegetation and this is opening up the opportunity of putting sheep back to the hill quicker.
Suffolk cross replacement ewe lambs are marketed through the Cooley Sheep Breeders Association which Gerry is currently chair of.
Gerry says he likes to prioritise the amount of time dry hoggets and ewes rearing ewe lamb replacements spend on the hill, so that sheep become accustomed to hill grazing, while he can also gauge what sheep perform best.
No meal fed to ewes in 2019
Gerry Rice runs a flock of Lanark Scottish Blackface ewes on a mixture of lowland and hill ground in Aghameen, Riverstown, Co Louth. The difference in management between 2018 and 2019 has been massive. Gerry says that there has been a substantial saving in input costs, with no meal fed to ewes in 2019.
Gerry Rice runs a flock of Lanark ewes on hill and lowland ground and also carries out sheep scanning in Louth, Meath and Westmeath.\ Philip Doyle
“The kinder winter meant ewes were under less pressure and with much better conditions, grass supplies lasted much longer.
“I also got some access to winter grazing and this was a great help in giving my own ground a rest, with the result of better grass supplies being available for the run-in to and during lambing. I held off going in with meal, as ewes were in great condition and I was afraid of difficult lambings, but all worked out well with ewes lambing well with plenty of milk.”
All ewes lamb outdoors, which Gerry says is not for the faint-hearted.
“The breed of sheep has a big effect on the most suitable system for a farm. I find Lanark ewes don’t take well to being housed. If weather is anyway favourable, they will find their own shelter and there are few problems.
“Ewes were looked at last thing around eight o’clock and at half five again in the morning. With the exception of a fox which caused us a lot of grief, outdoor lambing worked very well in 2019.”
Gerry Rice, sheep scanner and breeder on the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth.\ Philip Doyle
With grass supplies above normal levels, Gerry says there is less pressure on the system and, with a lamb crop of 1.72 lambs per ewe scanned, ewes and lambs will be retained on lowland ground until weaning, at which stage ewes will join replacement hoggets on the hill.
Also a sheep scanning operator, Gerry says that while early lambing flocks recorded a lower scanning rate, mid-season lambing and hill flocks in Louth, Meath and Westmeath typically recorded an improvement in litter size.
“Some flocks pushed back scanning, as they were able to keep ewes longer on hill grazing, while fine weather has put flocks in a great position.”
Another notable change Gerry has seen in recent years is a greater focus in improving breeding and the quality of output. In the Cooley Peninsula, he credits the annual Cooley sheep breeders sale as having a positive effect.
“As well as providing an outlet for farmers for ewe lambs and hoggets, the sale has also created a good buzz. You can’t beat a bit of friendly competition.
“My daughters Millie and Jenna and son Jack are interested in showing and trying to continually improve breeding. This focus increases quality across the entire flock and brings about continual gain. Our recent stock judging event got great participation and raises money annually for charities.”
Gerard Goss, Ballymakellett
Aiming for part-time efficiency
Since taking over the farm from his parents, Gerard Goss has made a number of changes to leave it in a better position to be operated on a part-time basis.
Gerard Goss, sheep breeder on the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth. \ Philip Doyle
The farm in Ballymakellett, Ravensdale, Co Louth, was previously operated with a greater focus on utilising lowland ground, but flock size and the breeding programme has changed to get greater use out of hill grazing and reduce labour.
Gerard has a good interest in breeding horned sheep and the flock of Scottish Blackface ewes has grown to 100 head.
There is a mixture of pure breeding and crossbreeding, with a Bluefaced Leicester ram joined to ewes not required to breed flock replacements, which in turn are used to provide replacements to a lowland flock of 50 Mule ewes or marketed as replacement ewe lambs.
“The aim has been to try and make the system as straightforward as possible, while still achieving decent levels of output. The Scotch ewes work great on the hill and require little intervention.
Gerard Goss runs a mixed hill and lowland flock with Scottish Blackface ewes mated pure and with Bluefaced Leicester rams to produce Mule replacements for the lowland flock and for sale.
“The Mule ewes are relatively easy to look after and have increased overall flock output, with the entire flock this year scanning in the region of 1.5 lambs per ewe.”
In his bid to make sheep farming and working off-farm more compatible, a new slatted sheep shed has been constructed.
“My wife Shauna and I have two young kids, Cillian and Rian, so making an investment that frees up time will easily pay for itself. It will also allow grass to be utilised more.
“Ewes will go to the hill as normal after tupping in October, but instead of hauling feed to ewes in February and March, ewes will be housed. Slats were a more expensive option than straw, but given the rising cost of straw and labour associated with bedding, it is another investment that will pay for itself.”
“While it may be an unfair year to test it, ewes and lambs have been turned out to good grass, with labour and cost reduced from not having to supplement.
“Starting off on the front foot will hopefully allow a lot more benefit to be made of grass during the season and increase performance while reducing input costs.”