In this week’s sheep farming segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Westmeath farmer, Mikey McGrath. He discusses entering a farm partnership with his father, building a lambing shed, getting E and U grade ewe lambs and rising input costs.
Mikey Mcgrath and his father, Michael, farm 45 pedigree Beltex ewes, 25 pedigree Vendéen sheep, 170 commercial sheep (which are ¾-bred Beltex with some Belclares) and a 75-cow suckler herd – mainly Limousin-crosses.
Last February, Mikey, an apprentice carpenter with Stoneyhill Carpentry in Moate, entered a farm partnership with his father, Michael.
Mikey’s mother, Ann, helps on the 179-acre farm (comprising owned and leased land) during busy periods.
In December 2014, the family established their Beltex flock under the MCG prefix by purchasing two in-lamb hoggets from TJ Gormley at the Belgian Beltex breeders’ society of Ireland sale in Tullamore Mart.
Furthermore, they began their Vendéen flock under the MME prefix the same year by purchasing six in-lamb ewes at Gordon and Yvonne Johnston’s Cottage Flock clearance sale in Tyrellspass, County Westmeath.
“We also purchased 20 Lanark-cross ewes this year to try them with the Beltex ram. They will lamb down this week, so we do not know how they will go yet,” Mikey McGrath, a 2020 Ballyhaise Agricultural College graduate, told That’s Farming.
“My father has been farming over the last 35-40 years. There were always sheep around the farm.”
“He has only got big into sheep in the last ten years; there was only a few sheep before that. In 2015/2016, he started to increase his sheep numbers. I was interested in farming since I could walk. I was always involved in the farm.”
The family’s preferred sheep-type is a “long thick” Beltex sheep with “plenty of muscle and a sweet head”.
On the other hand, their ideal Vendéen sheep has plenty of power and is a “good” square sheep with a “good” brown face.
The McGraths said the purchase of a Beltex ram for their commercial flock the summer before gaining their pedigree status played a role in the choice of the breed.
“We went down to the Belgian Beltex Breeders’ Society of Ireland premier sale and bought a ram off breeder, Brian Matthews. The next year we liked the lambs on the ground.”
“I suppose we wanted to try something different rather than normally rearing a factory lamb. Then, my father got into Vendéen sheep because he had Vendéen rams years ago, and he always liked them.”
The McGraths use two Beltex stock rams, Edmondstown Gavin (bred off Sheephaven Eddie Rocket) and Matt’s Flustered, which they purchased, from breeder, Matthew Burleigh.
The family put their Vendéen sheep in-lamb to Tallagh Sean (who they bought five years ago from Tom Duffy from Mayo) and Quitrent Valiant (acquired from Cyril O’Brien from Cork) and use their own Beltex rams for the commercial flock.
“We started experimenting in the year gone by with flushing. We flushed five eggs, so it is a learning curve, but we hope to go into more ET work this year.”
According to Mikey, vet, Ronan Gallagher, Enniscrone, County Sligo from ProStar Genetics, carries out this procedure for the family on the flock.
The family lamb their pedigree sheep for three weeks from January 20th, with commercials arriving from March 17th onwards.
“We lamb the pedigree sheep then, so we have them strong enough for sales and shows and to give us time to get them on their feet and get them moving.”
“Weather is better in March, so we lamb the commercial sheep then. All the sheep are indoors for six weeks around lambing. We sponge the pedigree ewes, so they usually lamb tight enough. You have a few repeats, but lambing is generally compact.”
They do not use lambing cameras but checkewes in the shed at 3am, 6am, and 11 pm.
In February 2021, the family extended their straw-bedded shed, and this recent build formed part of their lambing shed. It has 26 individual pens for twins and triplets, and a loose bedded shed for singles.
The Westmeath-based farm has a 10% annual replacement rate for ewe lambs, and it has a culling policy for mastitis, fertility problems and age.
They sell their Vendéen ewe lambs on-farm and send Beltex ewe lambs to the Belgian Beltex Breeders’ Society of Ireland sales.
They slaughter their commercial ewe lambs at Kepak Athleague and Navan and aim for Us and Es to qualify for the 30c and 35c bonuses.
“All commercial lambs are killed apart from a few replacements. 95% of all commercial lambs grade Us and Es.”
“The main reason we run the Beltex breed with the commercial sheep is because of the bonuses.”
“Lambs have to be inspected, so whatever weight they are on the day, e.g., 20kgs or 21kgs, they have to kill under that to avail of the bonus.”
Most of their pedigree ram lambs go for breeding to sheep farmers from July onwards, and they slaughter the commercials from 12-weeks-old in the factory.
They sold four rams at the Belgian Beltex Breeders’ Society of Ireland’s premier sale last August at Tullamore Mart – which averaged €600.
In addition, the family also sold five ewe lambs at the sale to an average of €350 – with the sale of two rams to Northern Ireland buyers.
“In my opinion, ram prices were very strong for the year gone by. It was more difficult to move rams on the previous years.”
“In my view, there is a price of a ram there for everyone – it is not all expensive rams. There are a lot of repeat customers. Word of mouth is also a good thing for us.”
High artificial fertiliser prices, weather conditions and rising meal costs impact the McGrath family’s enterprise.
“We try to cover all the ground with slurry, so we are utilising it as best as we can. We might sell a few more store cattle earlier in the year and spread less fertiliser on grazing ground.”
“The weather affects us when it comes to lambing pedigree sheep. If you get the weather good in February, it is grand to get lambs out, but it can hold them up inside if you get a tough month. Also, cold weather is hard on lambs, and we want to keep them thriving.”
Mikey believes to be successful in breeding pedigree sheep, you have to “try out new things and improve your sheep”.
“I suppose everyone is trying to get to the top. However, in my view, first, you need the right sheep, and you need proven bloodlines.”
“New bloodlines are a big thing. You need to try to bring in new bloodlines into society sales so that people will buy your stock.”
Commenting on his favourite part of pedigree breeding in the sheep field he said: “I like the breeding side of pedigree sheep, trying to produce the best lamb you can out of buying good rams, trying new things every year and trying to improve.”
The family attended Athlone Agricultural Show before the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 and achieved second prize for one of two ram lambs they exhibited.
“We have not done much showing with the sheep, and the Covid-19 pandemic has not helped us the last few years.”
The McGraths aim to improve their flock, keep “good-quality” sheep, maintain their ewe numbers, and invest in sheep slats for their lambing shed.
“I hope to be still sheep farming in five years. It is hard to make a living out of it on its own. In my view, I think you need an off-farm job to be farming.”
“Sheep prices being good has helped, but on the other side, all input costs are all going up. So, they are giving it to you in one hand and taking it back with the other hand. The cost of living is also going up as well.”
“I think the future for agriculture will be bright enough. All this global warming and things will play a big part in the next twenty years, and we will have to make changes with the way we farm.”
“For example, the way we spread fertiliser, and everything is going to be clamped down by the EU. I would like to think that young people are still interested in farming.”
“There is a certain number of environmental measures we can do without pushing the boundary out too much.”
“Some of the things proposed for the future are not viable as we still need to produce food for people, and that is just the way it is,” the Westmeath farmer concluded.
To share your story like this Westmeath farmer, email Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming, – firstname.lastname@example.org
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