That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with Ryan Murray, a 26-year-old from Ballygowan, Co Down, of Ravara Farm in this week’s sheep farming segment. He discusses his family’s long-standing butchery tradition, moving away from pedigree to commercial ewes and focusing on high-performing sheep that require “little/no” inputs.
“I come from a family where farming is a tradition, and I am the fourth-generation to take the reins.
My great grandfather was a dairy farmer, and my great grandmother reared turkeys, ducks, and geese.
Then my grandfather (Alfie Snr) went into suckler cows until the early 90s before branching into sheep.
Shortly after, he became interested in pedigree Beltex, his reason being that he was a butcher.
He went to his local abattoir to pick lambs out for his butcher shop and saw these great lambs. From there, he decided to establish his own flock of pedigree Beltex sheep.
Two years ago, my grandfather, father (Alfie Jnr), and I stopped breeding pedigree sheep and now run a flock of 150/160 commercial ewes and 50 replacement dry ewe lambs.
We have 300 turkeys and a handful of geese for our family butcher shop. Furthermore, we also run a few dairy-bred drop calves and sell them the following year.
I am farming part-time as I work in the family butcher shop in Killyleagh as I am a butcher.
We can work the farm and butcher shop together, producing great local healthy products that are sustainable and good for the environment as there are low food miles and low input levels.
Ravara Farm is in the townland of Ravara (Ballygowan). We have Hampshire Down tups and Hampshire-cross Beltex tups.
Furthermore, we have home-bred Bluefaced Leicester-cross-Suffolk, Cheviot and Suffolk-cross ewes. We strive to breed Hampshire Down-crosses from our ewes.
Five/six years ago, we looked into getting a better scanning/lambing percentage, as we were averaging 175% before that with other breeds.
We also had high vet bills, so we invested in 50/60 Suffolk-Cheviot ewes, bringing the flock total to 110 commercial ewes.
Also, we bought a Bluefaced Leicester tup from Scotland to cross with these ewes to produce quality Suffolk Cheviot Bluefaced Leicester-crosses.
We have increased our scanning/lambing percentage to an average of 195%. We now cross them ewes to Hampshire Down tups to produce prime lamb for our shop and are able, with the EBVs in the tup, to select tups that can produce these top-quality prime lambs.
We buy EBV (Estimated Breeding Value) recorded Hampshire Down tups to give us an insight into how the lambs will grow and perform in both terminal and maternal traits.
We have found that Hampshire Down-sired lambs are very fast-growing off grass at a young age from about 10/11-weeks-old.
They die well in the factory and have a great eye muscle with a perfect fat covering and average U3/R3. They are at a very affordable price for customers.
Also, the taste of the Hampshire Down-sired lambs is by far the best I have ever experienced, and my grandad and dad can safely say the same.
I aim to produce that perfect, low-input high, performing ewe with low carbon emissions. In my opinion, the best way to do that is to get lambs finished in the shortest time possible off grass only.
Lambing starts around March 10th and takes place indoors. We used to lamb in the middle of February, but 3/4 years ago, we pushed it back to March.
In my view, it is a more natural time to lamb sheep with longer days and better weather (supposedly).
We mate ewes in their normal cycle, that being the middle of October to lamb in the middle of March. Tups are in paddocks with them for six weeks to have a tight lambing period.
Also, I like to be prepared by having what I need during lambing season ready and in the right places.
For example, having pens set-up, fields electric fenced for ewes and lambs to go out, and organising pens and lambing equipment supplies.
Most lambs go into the food chain, and we keep 30/40 ewe lambs each year to increase the flock size.
Any other Hampshire Down-sired ewe lambs head to county Wicklow as breeding ewes.
I am striving to produce a very high-performing ewe that needs little to no inputs and produces two top grading and tasting lambs off grass in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner as fast as possible.
Producing quality lambs from farm to fork and using new ideas that you pick up that make things easier and more efficient are the most enjoyable aspects of farming. I believe that you are never too old to learn.
There is often a public view on farming in this country that it is not environmentally friendly. Often, farmers are blamed for everything.
However, it is up to us as farmers to make the public know that here in Ireland and the UK, we have the best animal welfare and most environmentally friendly sustainable farming methods in the whole world.
We should be pushing that as much as possible because what we produce is not only sustainable and great for the environment, but it is healthy for you.
Furthermore, it is not fake and has extremely low food miles, which is great for the planet.
I am responsible for stock management and farm quality assurance paperwork. However, I dabble in everything; everyone mucks into every job.
To farm successfully, you must take no prisoner. If a ewe is not performing, for example, she is not in-lamb, get her to the factory, because all she is doing is costing money.
Increasing ewe numbers
My plan for the future is to produce a prolific, low maintenance, high-performing ewe that is good for the environment. I would like to increase ewe numbers further, and I am always open to bringing new breeds onboard as long as they positively influence the flock.
Moreover, I want to increase ewe numbers and finish 90-95% of lambs off grass by the end of August. My goal is to farm full-time with the number of sheep I have.
I would love to farm them along with a herd of suckler cows, finishing their offspring and lambs off grass.
Sheep farming can provide a viable income if you farm sustainably and have as few inputs as possible for the system. In my view, finishing all lambs off grass is the way forward for the sheep industry.
People have to eat; the population is growing and growing. There will be challenges, but we will overcome them, as farmers always have done and always will do.
Farmers must start standing up for the industry more and protecting the great products produced in this country and let the public see that.
In summary, my journey has been a rollercoaster. It is a steep learning curve all the time, but when things go well, there is nothing more satisfying and rewarding than farming and producing an animal in the best welfare standers from birth to produce.
I am proud to be a part of the industry that does not get nowhere near enough credit of that it does for the environment and employment it creates.”
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