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Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a fifth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the company in 2015.
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What to consider before you venture into sheep farming

That’s Farming speaks to Teagasc sheep specialist, Damian Costello. They discuss what to consider before becoming a sheep farmer, covering flock numbers, fencing, handling, and housing facilities, labour and land requirements, diseases, and stocking rates.

TF: What should someone consider before becoming a sheep farmer? 

DC: The first requirement is a genuine interest and a liking for working with sheep. For a person with little or no experience, spending a bit of time working on a well-managed sheep farm, especially at busier times such as lambing, can be worthwhile before getting into sheep.

Completing an agriculture course, joining a sheep discussion group, and attending Teagasc open days at research centres or demonstration farms can help decide what sheep system will best suit you and your farm.

TF: How can they obtain a flock number?

DC: Assuming you either own or lease a holding of land, contact the local Dept of Agriculture Food and Marine District Veterinary Office (DVO) to obtain an application form (ER 1).

TF: What is the procedure if you have a herd number already? 

DC: You must notify DVO of your intention to purchase sheep in advance, and your existing herd number will also be your flock number.

The DAFM will issue a flock register and dispatch/movement document book, including your flock designator number.

It will be important to become familiar with obligations in relation to the identification and movements of sheep contained in the National Sheep Identification System (NSIS).

TF: What sort of capital does a farmer need to startup? 

DC: This is very farm specific and depends largely on what system of sheep you are entering as well as the current infrastructure present on the farm.

TF: What about fencing? 

DC: At a minimum, the farm boundary must be stock proof for sheep. Your target after this should be to have at least 5 to 6 internal divisions per grazing group that are enclosed by a permanent sheep fence.

For optimum grassland management, these can be subdivided by temporary electric fencing. Contractor costs to supply and erect timber posts, sheep wire, and a row of barbed wire are generally around €6 – €7 per linear metre (ex. VAT).

Measure the length of permanent fencing you will need. Check your eligibility for TAMS funding as the scheme funds permanent sheep fencing.

The cheapest temporary fencing options are plastic posts and reels of poly wire. These are coming in at €1 – €1.50 per linear metre.

TF: What about handling facilities? 

Studies have shown that farms with good handling facilities reduce the labour in performing routine tasks with the flock.

Handling facilities should, at a minimum, include a collecting area, holding pens, handling race and a facility to foot bath sheep for lameness prevention. There are fixed and mobile options, and both are eligible for grant aid under TAMS.

TF: What about housing facilities? 

DC: In a lowland ewe flock, as stocking rate increases, winter housing will be needed to allow grazing area 120 days rest over the winter period to build up covers of spring grass.

There may be an option to convert existing buildings. New builds are again eligible for funding under TAMS. Total capital cost (before TAMS) can range from €300-€500/ewe, depending on the size and design of the shed.

If planning a shed, seek advice on design and applying for TAMS and visit existing sheep housing facilities. A solid financial plan to fund investment is also essential.

TF: What about labour requirements? 

DC: If considering a breeding flock, bear in mind that the lambing period accounts for over 25% of the annual labour requirement.

If working off-farm, will you be in a position to take time away from your off-farm employment and/or source extra help to lamb the ewes? Good fencing, handling facilities and housing all contribute to a labour efficient sheep system.

A proactive approach of prevention rather than cure when it comes to flock health will also save on labour.

There are opportunities to reduce labour at lambing through breeding and good management.

TF: What diseases should farmers be aware of? 

There are a host of them but broadly speaking, they include internal and external parasites, lameness, mastitis, infectious abortion, clostridial diseases and other issues such as mineral deficiency, orf etc.

There is also a growing prevalence of the so-called iceberg diseases on Irish sheep farms. Consult with a local vet to draw up a detailed flock health plan for the flock.

TF: What category of stock is ideal for first-time sheep farmers? 

DC: If planning to start a lowland breeding flock, the cheapest option is for a farmer to purchase ewe lambs bred for prolificacy.

Breeding these as ewe lambs requires a high management level and may be a step too far for the inexperienced shepherd.

If so, they can be left to join rams the following year, lambing down at two-years-old.

There is also the option of purchasing hoggets or even a ewe flock where the owner is exiting sheep. In the case of establishing a hill flock, select breeding stock that are traditional and performing well in the area.

In the lowland situation, lambs reared per ewe to the ram is a key driver of profitability. The ewe flock must have the genetic potential to scan around 2.0 lambs per ewe to the ram.

TF: How much land does a farmer require when becoming a sheep farmer?

DC: 3ha is the minimum area to qualify for ANC payments, but you will need more area for a viable commercial ewe flock.

TF: What is the advised stocking rate?

DC: It is farm-specific and depends on the grass growing potential of the farm. Research at Teagasc Athenry has shown that as a rule of thumb, the average lowland ewe and her lambs require 1 ton of grass Dry Matter (DM) per year.

Therefore, if a farm can grow 10 tons of grass DM per ha, with good grassland infrastructure and management, 10 ewes per ha would be the appropriate stocking rate.

TF: What category of stock is suitable for a new entrant sheep farmer? 

DC: Farmers should aim to purchase stock ideally from one source where the farm is known to have good health status. Your flock health plan, mentioned earlier, should include a biosecurity protocol for all sheep brought onto the farm.

Farmers should look out for signs of lameness, ill-health or stock that are not well grown for their age. Seek advice from an experienced sheep farmer in selecting suitable stock.

TF: Is sheep farming viable? 

DC: Yes, it can be. Results from Teagasc eProfit Monitors and National Farm Survey (NFS) data clearly show that well-managed sheep production enterprises can return gross margins that compare very favourably with other dry stock enterprises.

TF: What do farmers need €-wise to justify the investment?

DC: The target should be €40 to €50 per ewe of a net margin considering variable and fixed costs. Where farmers achieve this at a stocking rate of 10 ewes per ha, it results in €400- €500 of a net margin/ha.

TF: Would 2021 be a good year to begin sheep farming? 

DC: The buoyant sheep trade in 2020 and so far in 2021 has led to an increased price for breeding stock.

If you are committed to starting up in sheep, it is as good a year as any. You can start with a relatively small base flock and plan to increase by breeding your own replacements.

The Teagasc Annual Review and Outlook have estimated a 7% increase in lamb price for 2021 over 2020. This followed an estimated 9% increase in lamb price in 2020 over 2019.

As with all sheep farmers, the focus should be on efficiency, targeting factors under your control. Price alone will not make a profitable enterprise.

TF: What is your outlook on the future of sheep farming in Ireland?  

DC: The short to medium-term outlook for world sheepmeat markets and lamb prices is positive, with demand expected to exceed supply over the coming years.

TF: What are your final words of advice for aspiring sheep farmers?

DC: Consult your adviser and draw up a 3 to 5-year plan before starting a new sheep enterprise. Set realistic targets, e.g. for mid-season lamb production, focus on these three areas that are key to profitability:

    • Number of lambs reared per ewe joined;
    • Stocking rate appropriate to the farm;
    • Grass-based system limiting the amount of concentrates that needs to be fed to ewes and lambs;

Furthermore, focus on attention to detail to reach your goals and keep your plan under review.

Further reading on becoming a sheep farmer
  • Sheep breeding season: ‘Fail to prepare and be prepared to fail’: Article from Colm Murray.

Read more articles from Teagasc.

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