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‘One good dog will do the work of 10 men when it comes to sheep’

In this week’s sheep segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Emma Tobin, sheep technician at Kildalton Agricultural College’s, about its sheep unit, training the next generation of farmers in Ireland and top tips for sheep farmers.

A sheep unit has been an integral part of Kildalton Agricultural College since it was established in 1970.

Emma Billy Fraher and Eilis Lawlor currently oversee the running of the 150-ewe flock at the college, which has over 1,400 students.

The educational provider is situated in Piltown, County Kilkenny, off the main Waterford to Limerick road, approximately 20kms from Waterford city.

“Sheep flocks are a common commercial enterprise in Kildalton College’s catchment area for student training, dry stock training, and outside sources such as discussion groups,” Emma Tobin of Kildalton Agricultural College told That’s Farming.

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Ram power and replacement strategy

The college’s flock consists of 150 ewes, including 43 ewe lambs, primarily Suffolks, Belclares, Charollais, Texels and Mules.

The farm is home to two Belclare rams, one Charollais ram, one Suffolk ram, and one Texel ram.

“We buy in our rams; we tend to buy one out of two new rams each year at the sheep Ireland sale in August. This year, we bought one Belclare ram lamb and one Texel ram lamb at the sale in Kilkenny.”

Kildalton College tends to keep 20% replacements each year, retaining sufficient numbers of superior Belclare, Suffolk, and Mule ewe lambs to maintain their 150-strong flock. Besides, they bring all surplus ram lambs and ewe lambs to slaughter.

“Once we wean lambs, we weigh them every two weeks and bring anything over 40kg in early summer to the factory. That weight increases to 45kg later in the season, whilst aiming for a carcass weight of 20kg all the time.”

“We then go through ewes and pick out any culls so that we have an idea of how many ewe lambs we want to keep.”

“We will always keep extra, so maybe end up putting 165 to the ram in total, which allows for picking more culls before tupping, allows for any empties at scanning, and also for any illnesses such as twin lamb come lambing time.”

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They aim to lamb from the second week of February, which is followed by late-lamving ewes and ewe lambs in March.

“This gives us enough time for our CIA Level 5 students to get lambing experience in before going on placement while allowing for there to be enough ewes left for our WIT students to get some lambing experience.”

“With this, our beef herd start calving in January, which Billy also looks after. By lambing in February, this gives him enough breathing space between the two units.”

Why outdoor lambing?

The college lamb indoors to provide a better learning environment for its students base.

“Students learn the importance of ewe and lamb management such as dipping navels, checking ewes for colostrum, ensuring lambs have received sufficient milk and watching for illnesses such as watery mouth, in lambs.”

It also means that Emma can take a group of students to the sheep shed and perform tasks such as tagging, castrating, and ringing tails on lambs, without potentially causing distress to ewes still to lamb by gathering the others in a field.

“The other reason would be down to ground and weather conditions. We do not have a big enough dry stock grazing platform to allow ewes to be out all winter. If we did, we would not have a good enough opening cover in spring to get both ewes and suckler cows out to grass.”

“We sponge all mature ewes, and they lamb down within the first week. Then, we flush ewe lambs and then put them to the ram; they will be a bit slower lambing, but we find this works better for them.”

This year, the college had an overall scanning result of 1.9, which includes mature and ewe lambs. Out of 150, they had two empty mature ewes and two empty ewe lambs.

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Handling facilities

Kildalton College’s sheep shed will comfortably hold in the region of 150-200 ewes. The shed comprises 6 slatted pens, 20 bonding pens and a sole large pen, which can hold ewes and lambs that are almost ready to be turned out to pasture.

“The rest are placed in pens that will hold 20/25 ewes, depending on size. With this shed, it makes it easy to group ewes after scanning into pens of singles, doubles, triplets, and quads so that we can feed them accordingly.”

“Along with this, we have a permanent indoor race with three drafting pens, a foot bath, and space to attach the weigh crate.”

Grassland management 

The college operates a mixed grazing system over a 50ha grazing block for its dry stock unit. Their ewes follow suckler cows in the rotation once weaned, which the college find works well.

“Ewes will clear up what the sucklers will not, giving us good grazing residuals, while still having enough to keep them in optimum condition. Before being weaned, we put ewes on some rented land off-farm where they have plenty of lush grass to keep them in milk, without getting fat.”

“We measure grass each week and input data into Pasturebase. AFCs will range from 600kg – 950kg DM/ha in the summer months. We will stop any sheltered paddocks in October for ewes and lambs come turn out in spring, following the autumn and spring rotation planners across all of our grazing block.”

“We close up our silage ground around April 5th with the first cut mown around May 28th. Ewes and lambs will graze our dry stock silage ground before closing. We find this gives us very clean pastures and excellent quality silage.”

They aim to achieve a DMD% of +72% for first-cut-silage and 70% DMD for the second, with last year’s first-cut being 73% DMD.

They take less than half this ground for a second-cut as they take bales from paddocks over the season as a way of managing grassland.

Kildalton Agricultural College, sheep, sheep farming, sheep farmers,

A successful sheep enterprise

The sheep technician believes good fencing, planning, organisation, consistency, an adequate handling system, and a good dog all contribute to running a successful sheep enterprise.

She stressed the importance of having a good paddock system with 2/3ha per paddock depending on your flock size, with good grass covers high-quality grass.

She believes this will give you good lamb growth rates during their peak growth and lessen the need for creep feed.

Also, she highlighted the need to have all fences intact and prepared for grazing and the need to identify which paddocks you will start your rotation in come springtime.

“Also, have a flock health plan in place with a routine set up for the simple tasks such as foot bathing and checking for lameness, a quick and easy job to do once you are consistent with it.”

“This will all be made easier with a good handling system and a good dog. If you have sheep, you are at nothing without both of these. One good dog will do the work of 10 men when it comes to herding and drafting sheep.”

Emma believes when it comes to a handling system, you need to have strong gates with “everything intact”.

“If you have gates made up and tied together, sheep will easily breakthrough, and you will be back to square one herding them in again, and you, generally, only get one shot at getting them in smoothly.”

“If you are lucky enough to have most of your paddocks near the yard, then a permanent race is great. Furthermore, if you have a lot off-farm, then a mobile race is excellent; they are straightforward to set up and run with one man and a dog!”

Trials at Kildalton Agricultural College

According to Emma, as with any enterprise, you must have your system making a profit, which is “very easy to do” with sheep once you get the basics right, including fencing, foot care, and parasite control.

“If you have these three going well, then everything else should hopefully fall into place and make your day-to-day life much easier and profitable! Also, quite obviously, you must like sheep.”

Emma would potentially like to undertake some trials on fattening lambs without the need for creep feed. This would entail picking out some paddocks and putting in a forage such as chicory.

“Studies have shown may also have added benefits of potentially reducing the number of internal parasites in the lambs, which all aids in their growth.”

“To do this, we would have three groups of lambs, one on chicory, one just on grass in the normal grazing platform, and one group grazing while being given creep feed, with lambs of similar size and breed being picked out and put into the groups post-weaning.”

“In Kildalton, we are seeing a year-on-year increase in female students who excel in both the practical skills and theory side of the courses and also give a great sense of balance to life on campus,” Emma of Kildalton Agricultural College concluded.

More information

You can find more information about Kildalton Agricultural College by clicking here.

Co-written by Catherina Cunnane

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