That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Alan McDonald (40), Killeigh, Tullamore, County Offaly, in this week’s Farmer Focus series.
He tells us about growing his prize-winning flock from humble beginnings, a one-week lambing season with 125 ewes, juggling full-time off-farm employment and his forthcoming farm open day.
“I am a part-time farmer, with a 125-ewe flock and 15 suckler cows, finishing all progeny on-farm and working full-time in Midland Veterinary Tullamore, a veterinary supplies firm.
My father bought the farm in 1965, and his parents farmed 10 miles away.
I run the Ormston Flock No.1852, with some assistance from my wife, Aoife, which comprises pedigree Lleyn sheep.
The Lleyn ewe ticks a lot of boxes for me as a part-time farmer and is very easily managed, in addition to other desirable traits.
They are excellent mothers with plenty of milk, are prolific and easily managed on a grass system.
In 2007, 15 shearling ewes were imported from Derek Steen in Scotland, and these ewes form the backbone of the flock today, with only a few females purchased since.
The whole flock is nearly homebred at this stage. Rams are mainly purchased from the top flocks in the UK and Ireland, with our newest stock ram bought in Wales last year.
Lambing season occurs during the last week of February, and this takes place indoors, which makes it easier for Sheep Ireland recording.
I find this time suits best as the pre-lambing feeding overlaps with winter housing which is handy when working full-time. It also allows a lamb to make the most out of the high-quality spring grass.
All ewes are sponged to compact lambing, so only one week’s worth of holidays are taken.
Ewes are split into batches of about 40 and are hand mated with the rams leaving one day free between each batch.
Most of the ewe lambs are retained and sold as shearling ewes at our society sale in Roscommon. The top 5% of the ram lambs are kept for selling as breeding rams, with the remainder sold through the Offaly Lamb Producer Group to ICM Camolin.
My aim is to breed a medium-sized ewe that is capable of producing two lambs off a grass-based system with minimal labour requirements.
I really enjoy the breeding side of sheep farming, purchasing a new stock ram and seeing how his progeny progress and what females he suits best.
I really enjoy being outdoors and working with nature and animals. Farming is also a great way of meeting people from a lot of different areas and backgrounds, especially the show circuit – I exhibit sheep at five agricultural shows annually.
As a sheep farmer, I have had plenty of ups and downs, but the ups live longer, and I have made some great friendships on the way.
As a lot of people may be able to relate, the biggest problem is finding the correct work-life balance with working full-time off-farm.
Outside of farming and work, I am on the committee of the Southern Ireland Lleyn Sheep Club, which I have previously chaired, and I also was the Irish rep on the UK council for two years.
I am so fortunate to have done a lot with the Lleyn breed, from winning many show champions, but the first time I won the champion pen of ewes at our society sale was still the best feeling.
To be a successful sheep farmer, you need a low-input ewe capable of producing a high output.
The ewe must pay for herself first before she pays you. A good handling unit is also important as this can greatly reduce the workload. I built a new handling unit last year, and now I regret not doing it years ago.
In the future, I would love to increase ewe numbers and run an A and B flock to ensure the best ewes are used to produce breeding stock.
My advice to aspiring sheep breeders is this – start simple and try to learn from your mistakes because we all make them.
I am hosting the Lleyn Sheep Ireland Club Open Day this year on Saturday, July 15th, 2023, at 12:30 pm at R35FP68.
The open day is to showcase a flock of purebred Lleyn ewes working in a commercial setting on a grass-based system.
The day will kick off with an introduction and talk on the farm’s operations and management practices, followed by any questions.
Marie McGlynn from Chanelle Pharma will then deliver a talk on veterinary-related such as worms, followed by questions.
We will then walk the farm looking at the different stock groups and the aforementioned handling unit.
Some trade stands on the day and a sheepdog training and working demo by David Oliver.
Tea, coffee and light refreshments will be served upon arrival, and the event is free to attend.
More info can be found on Facebook – Lleyn Sheep Ireland.”
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