Catherina Cunnane, That’s Farming editor, in conversation with Martin Feeney of Atlantic Sheepdogs, in this week’s sheep farming segment. He discusses leaving the HSE to pursue his passion for farming, and agri-tourism, family life and changes – including introducing Highland cattle to the farm – he had made to the enterprise since taking the reins in 2015.
“My name is Martin Feeney. I am 39-years-old from Streedagh, Grange, Co, Sligo. I currently live in Grange village, in my father’s original home place, just a couple of kilometres from my home place in Streedagh.
Both my parent’s families farmed in this local area. My father’s parents were sheep farmers and grazed their sheep on the slopes of Benbulben Mountain.
On the other hand, my mother’s parents had a small amount of land and kept cattle.
I have had an interest in farming for longer than my memory allows. My parents have informed me that I could identify our sheep on the mountain when I was 2 or 3-years-old.
I can remember trying to work with one of our sheepdogs, Craig, when I was about 4-years-old.
Also, I can remember bringing sheep through our local village (now the N15 main Sligo to Donegal Road) with the dogs for dipping with the county council dipping tank, which used to visit annually.
My parents kept and fattened cattle previously but had changed to sheep before I was born. Since then, there were no cattle on the farm until 2021, when we acquired a couple of Highland heifers from Scotland.
My wife, Trish, has been interested in these for some time, so we hope to expand this over the coming year.
I have been running the farm for some years now but have been farming in my own name since 2015 when I completed the Green Cert.
Over the past number of years, our farm has completely transformed.
As mentioned above, from a very young age, sheep and dogs were of huge interest to me. My dad, Eugene, competed at sheepdog trials since the 1970s and following in his footsteps, I started in 1992, at the age of 9.
I have been lucky enough to compete at the highest level, representing Ireland at international and world levels.
In 2013, we opened our farm to visitors to view dogs working and learn all about dogs, local farming history and current practices.
Atlantic Sheepdogs was born and has gone from strength to strength over each year since.
I had previously worked with the HSE as a staff officer and section officer. However, in 2019, I decided to take a break from this to pursue a passion for farming and now agri-tourism.
500 ewes, 270-acres
We currently farm approximately 270-acres, which is mostly rented (approximately 230-acres).
In total, we keep approximately 500 ewes and 100 replacement ewe lambs. We have 100 mule ewes, which we breed to Suffolk rams.
Furthermore, we breed 300 Lanark-cross ewes to Blue Leicester rams to breed Scotch mule lambs and breed a further 100 Mayo horned ewes to Lanark rams to breed some replacements. Lambing starts in mid-March, and all ewes lamb outdoors.
Due to problems in previous years, we no longer segregate ewes in small batches with just one ram.
We have at least two rams with each group to avoid a prolonged lambing period if problems occur with a ram.
We enjoy breeding mule lambs and strive to improve our mule ewe lambs each year.
To note, we are trying to breed a hardy, grass-fed lamb that will produce numerous crops of lambs for the farmers we sell them to. We sell our ewe lambs at the Carrick Prolific Ewe Lamb Sale and the Donegal Mule Group’s sales.
Mule ewes give us a high lambing percentage, have lots of milk and are great mothers. However, large crops of lambs are a little more labour intensive.
Therefore, I am trying to balance keeping more mule ewes versus horned ewes, as we look after all lambing ourselves (my wife, my dad and I).
We also have three small children, Máirtín (5), Mícheál (4) and Senan (8 months). They are a little small for helping just yet.
I enjoy turning out well-presented lambs to any sale, whether it be a special sale with ewe lambs or regular sales selling wether or ram lambs.
It is always a challenge to balance the needs of sheep with weather conditions, mineral deficiencies, dosing needs etc.
One week can be a long time in the life of a sheep, so meeting their health needs is a constant struggle.
Sometimes, even when we think we have done everything just right, one sick animal will tell us we have not.
As well as diversifying into the farm tourism industry, the breeds of sheep we keep have also changed hugely.
My father had Cheviot-cross ewes and kept cheviot rams. Shortly after taking over running the farm, I developed a huge interest in Texel sheep. At a time, I had almost a complete flock of purebred Texel ewes. However, I soon realised this did not suit the land we farm.
We were lambing in January, so feed costs were extremely high, as grass does not usually grow until late March/April.
I slowly changed towards cross-bred ewes, mainly Suffolk-crosses, but having some horned sheep for training dogs, soon showed me how much I could save in labour by keeping a more maintenance-free breed.
As the number of horned ewes increased, I started to look for the ideal sire to put to these ewes. The traits of the mule ewe appealed to me, so I chose the Blue Leicester.
Each year, we try to improve different aspects of the farm, scanning rates, fertiliser use, feed amounts, etc.
Over the next five years, it would be nice to expand the farm a little more to ensure it is viable to raise a family.
I also hope to attract more visitors to our farm and build on the positive feedback over the past number of years.
Fertiliser prices and climate change
Sheep farming is currently going through a very positive period. However, unfortunately, at times like this, we need to plan for times when trade may not be so positive.
We have many unknown and immeasurable challenges facing farming over the next few years.
Just in the space of the last few months, we have witnessed a huge increase in the price of fertiliser, almost to the point of it not being economically viable to purchase.
We also have climate change which we will have to learn to adapt our practices to ensure we allow the production of good food without being detrimental to our landscape.
As I mentioned above, farming has been a passion since I was very young.
However, I am still learning something new every day. Farming is not a one-size-fits-all industry. We work with huge variables, from weather to land type.
I have learned that most problems in farming have been encountered by someone else previously, and often other farmers have the answers we are looking for.
Also, I have learned a lot from my dad and friends who I talk to. I would advise all young farmers never to be afraid to ask questions. And do not be afraid to take on the advice of others.”
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