In this week’s sheep farmer segment, That’s Farming, speaks to James Johnston from Co Kildare. He discusses taking over the family farm, introducing a distinct sheep breed to the enterprise, bringing calves to beef for up to €1,250 and his plans.
James Johnston has taken his family farm in a different direction, moving away from traditional farming to a calf-to-beef enterprise, 200 Lleyn and Texel sheep and a small agricultural contracting business.
He farms an 84-acre farm in Kildare with his wife, Orla, and daughter, Mia.
“In 1930, my father’s parents bought the farm and moved up to Galway before he was born,” the Gurteen Agricultural College graduate told That’s Farming.
“They started farming it when he was 15-years-old until he handed the farm over to me in 2014.”
Kildare sheep farmer
James brings up to 40 Angus and Hereford to beef at 18-24-months for 18-24-months, slaughtering these in Dawn Meats, Slane and ABP Waterford.
He buys these as calves from local dairy farms from 21-28 days at the end of February each year.
“I am giving around €150/head for these Angus and Hereford calves. I do not think there is much more of a margin to give for that type of stock.”
He rears these calves until they are old enough to be fed 1kg of concentrates and milk once a day.
He sends them out to paddocks at the start of June alongside sheep for grazing ahead of preparation for slaughter.
“This year, I killed most of my bucket-reared calves under 24-months in the back-end of the year off grass. I am very happy with their performance.”
“That group comprised 20 cattle, a mixture of bulls and heifers. They came into an average of €1,250 at 18-months after receiving 90-100kgs of meal and were on grass before slaughter to bring up fat classes is it.”
“The average grade on that group of cattle was O= and 3+ 4. They were weighed 6-8 weeks before slaughter, so we reckon they achieved close to were close a 50% kill-out.”
He explained why he branched into a dairy calf-to-beef enterprise.
“In 2014, when I took over the farm, I got rid of the sucklers, and I changed over to calf-to-beef enterprise alongside sheep.”
“There was very little profit to be made out of the suckler enterprise.”
James established his commercial flock of sheep by purchasing two Suffolk hoggets and Texel and Charollais rams from Blessington 12 years ago
He then acquired a small quantity of Lleyn sheep from a farmer, converting to dairying. He bred them to a Texel and is now breeding Lleyn sheep from them.
James’s ideal ewe can rear two lambs unassisted, which he can slaughter off grass.
He explained the reasoning behind why he branched into LIeyn sheep alongside Texel.
“I was sick of buying very expensive hoggets in marts that were stuffed with meal and failed to perform compared to homebred stock.”
“I did a bit of research and went to a Lleyn Sheep Society open day. Honestly, I was very impressed with the ewes. They are small, compact, docile ewe that can rear two lambs, kill her lambs off grass with very little meal requirements.”
“I tried them here, and they worked extremely well, so I am starting to breed my own sheep now. To suit my system, I had to breed a ewe to suit what I was doing.”
“As a young farmer starting up, sheep farming required less investment for infrastructure than to increase cattle numbers.”
“Also, there was a lot of sheep fencing already completed on the farm here.”
Lambing and progeny
The flock runs a variety of rams, including a Rubex (Rouge X Beltex) ram, a Texel ram with the main flock and a number of Lleyn rams to breed replacements.
James lambs his main flock of 180 ewes from March 17th, with the second batch of 65 ewe lambs from April 1st, to May 1st.
Grass growth and weather conditions allow him to achieve an early turnout date when lambs are one-day-old.
“We aim to replace 20-25% of our ewes every year. So, at the moment, we retain 50% of our ewe lambs every year to allow for losses.”
“The rest of the lambs all go for slaughter. We started killing lambs in the middle of June, and with the main flock, we kill until November 1st.”
“Then, we kill lambs off the ewe lambs at the end of the summer into the start of December.”
James slaughters 20-30 lambs each fortnight in Kildare Chilling Company from mid-June to the start of December, aiming for a 20kg carcass.
In addition to this, the North Kildare Lamb Producers’ Group member buys 150 Cheviot horned ram lambs in spring to allow for monthly cash flow.
Advice and challenges
In James’ eyes, to succeed as a sheep farmer, it is all about your output, and your ewes have to be producing lambs.
“There is no point having a nice fancy ewe in the field and one lamb standing underneath her.”
“You have to have a ewe that can produce and that can produce without costing a lot of money.”
“The biggest piece of advice I could give to anyone starting is to do your homework, find someone who is where you want to be and gather the information you can from them.”
“Finding the type of ewe to has been a great highlight here on our farm and to experiment with different breeds and crosses.”
“We are very happy we found that ewe that can do what we want her to do. The mistakes I made and the good things I did, I learnt from the whole journey.”
“I do not think there is a whole lot I would change if I could turn back the clock. Sometimes you have to make mistakes to learn from the right things to do.”
According to James, the cost of inputs is most challenging for him at the moment.
“It seems to be that the more you get for your products, you seem to be getting hit with extra costs. So, that is a bit of frustration at the minute.”
“The biggest challenge was to have to a willingness to take chances on different things with farming.”
James intends to rent an extra parcel of land, increase sheep numbers, push lamb input and purchase New Zealand Suffolk sheep to breed replacements.
“I am most passionate about producing quality lamb and beef. The calf-beef system works very well with the sheep enterprise because we operate a paddock-grazing system with the ewe and store cattle.”
“They generally graze in one group and rotate over paddocks until they get near finishing,” Kildare sheep farmer.
“I see my farm in five to ten years improving efficiencies, more output from grass and feeding less concentrates.”
In James’s view, “there is a good future in sheep farming going forward. He feels he is young and willing to take on an extra number of sheep on his farm.”
“With sheep, you can expand without having to heavily invest in infrastructures, unlike other farming enterprises.”
“Sheep farming is a viable business in the current situation going forward definitely.”
“The beef side is a little more haphazard than sheep with markets. So, I would be cautiously confident going forward with the calf-to-beef enterprise.”
“The fact Ireland produces a very high-quality environmental product, I think we are in a situation where we can be sustainable, unlike other countries.”
“If we pursue producing our high-quality product, there will always be a market for it.”
To share your story like this farmer, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming, – [email protected]
Read more sheep farmer profiles