Grass is central to the success of the Connell family’s high output and efficient farm operation, which is mixed by nature, with a large mid-season ewe flock, a bull beef system and some tillage utilised to provide winter feed and straw.
Eddie and Aidan Connell, Coolygagen, Clonbullogue, Offaly, aim to maximise the use of grass, from which they sell the majority of lambs off, by September with little to no concentrates and to push weight gain and performance in bulls.
The father and son team farm a total of 90 ha, 65 Ha of owned land plus an additional 25 ha of rented ground.
The majority of the farm; is grassland-based; however, there is 15ha of tillage, which they utilise to provide feed for finishing animals.
There are two main enterprises on the Connell farm: a 400-ewe mid-season lambing flock and a bull beef operation.
At any one time, there are approximately 200 head of cattle on the farm.
The ewe flock comprises predominantly Borris ewes, a maternal Cheviot-cross-Suffolk. To help simplify their system, they do not keep any replacement ewe lambs and, instead, purchase replacements as hogget ewes.
As such, all ewes lamb down for the first time as 2-year-olds.
They use a team of Texel rams across all ewes, with particular attention paid to the genetic potential of the sire at purchase.
They have consistently acquired five-star rams, using the Sheep Ireland €uro-star indexes as an additional tool in their armour when doing so.
Over the past number of years, the sheep enterprise has had a scanning rate of 1.8-1.9 lambs per ewe joined to the ram, with all lambs finished on-farm.
Unfortunately, when ewes were scanned in December of this year, the Connells were “disappointed” with a scan rate of 1.65 lambs per ewe joined.
While this is still above the national average, it is below the target for this farm enterprise, for which they have cited a drought in summer 2022, which limited the build-up of grass for flushing ewes pre-mating, as the cause.
Grazing management is a priority for both Eddie and Aidan. The 75 ha of grassland is divided into permanent paddocks with mains electric fence and water available in all paddocks.
The average paddock size is 4.5-acres (circa 2 ha), and they are further subdivided using temporary electric fences where necessary during the grazing season.
The Connells strongly advocate for mixed grazing with cattle and sheep grazing together “when and where possible”.
Eddie believes that “this contributes to achieving better grass utilisation and animal performance compared to grazing animals separately”.
Little to no meal
Lamb rearing and finishing from a mainly grass-based diet is a major objective for both Eddie and Aidan, with little or no meal used in most years.
All lambs are reared on ewes, where possible, with cross-fostering of triplet lambs onto single ewes a priority at lambing.
Lambs are weaned in mid-June to coincide with the availability of after-grass from first-cut silage. The aim is to have the majority of lambs sold off farm by September, at which point weanlings are purchased for the bull beef enterprise, and ewes get preference for grass pre-mating.
This system works “very successfully” for the Connell’s with, on average, 1.6-1.65 lambs sold per ewe joined per year.
Furthermore, investing in labour efficiency is a goal shared by both Eddie and Aidan. The erection of a new sheep shed in 2018 has made life “a lot easier” for them, particularly at lambing time.
This, combined with a sheep handling unit, saves time while also making it easier to work with animals as and when required.
IGA sheep farm walk
The Connell’s farm will be the main focus of the Irish Grassland Association’s (IGA) sheep farm walk this year.
This year’s free admission IGA sheep event, sponsored by Mullinahone Co-op, will take place at 6 pm on Thursday, May 18th, on the farm of Eddie and Aidan Connell, Coolygagen, Clonbullogue, Co. Offaly.
The 2023 event will have a change of format with all proceedings taking place on-farm.