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10 tips for new entrant sheep farmers

Tom Coll, Teagasc drystock advisor, provides 10 tips for new entrant sheep farmers.

The past year has resulted in an estimated 43% increase in gross margin and a 191% increase in net margins on sheep farms largely as a result of a 9% increase in average lamb price in 2020.

The Teagasc outlook for the sector is again a positive one. It forecasts a further 23% increase in net margin per Ha for 2021.

The future profitability potential for the sector may encourage new entrants to sheep farming or flock expansion for those taking over the family farm.

An increase in lamb price alone will not ultimately result in a more profitable enterprise.

Here are ten areas that, in my opinion, are vital for new entrants to the sector to maximise the profit potential and reduce the labour requirements.

10 tips for new entrant sheep farmers
1. Foundation stock

Source the correct foundation stock for your farm ‘tuas maith is ea leath na hoibre’ a good start can halve the workload. To justify a return for your time and effort a net margin of €40-50 per ewe at a stocking rate of 10 ewes per ha will result in a net margin of €400-500 per Ha excluding premia.

These figures are not achievable unless the mature ewe flock has the potential to scan over 2.0 lambs per ewe put to the ram. Foundation stock or replacements for the expanding flock should be sourced from prolific flocks and not based on fancy heads and conformation.

Buying from a reputable flock will put you on the front foot and set you up to breed prolific replacements from within your own flock. High index rams that look the part either on the terminal or the replacement side should be sources to match your flock requirements.

2. Disease

There are an ever-increasing number of diseases in the wider Irish sheep population that are best avoided if at all possible. Some may be visible at purchase i.e. CODD but only if looked for. Others are what are referred to as ‘iceberg diseases’ and are not visible at purchase and manifest over time, they can spread quite rapidly within the flock.

Again, sourcing stock from a reputable flock with a high health status is the best method of avoidance. In all other cases, a good quarantine procedure can reduce the risk of buying in more than you bargained for.

All bought-in stock should be given an appropriate quarantine dose for fluke, worms, and scab on arrival, housed for at least 48 hrs and retained separate from the remainder of sheep on the farm for four weeks.

This period is in the hope that any other diseases will become apparent in the quarantine period to allow for treatment or culling prior to mixing with other sheep. Unless you are 100% sure, that all sheep were purchased from a flock that never had a case of enzootic abortion it is advisable to vaccinate for enzo and probably toxo as young naive sheep are more prone to these abortive agents.

Prepare a detailed flock health plan with your local vet to help safe-guard against the potential pitfalls that a new entrant to sheep farming may encounter.

3. Grassland management

Grassland management skills are key to profitability in a sheep enterprise. The first job is to have a stock-proof boundary fence, important not to fall out with the neighbours.

A paddock system based on a 3-4-day residency period, a 3-week rotation system and a minimum of six paddock per grazing group should be put in place.

An awareness of the correct pre-and post-grazing heights depending on the time of year is a must to maximise lamb performance off grass.

A flexible system where high DMD silage can be harvested from paddocks to maintain grass quality can reduce feed costs which can account for over 40% of total costs on sheep farms.

Attending a Teagasc grass 10 grazing course in 2021, will help develop the young farmer’s knowledge of grazing management to grow and utilise more grass and maybe lead to the use of PastureBase to make more accurate decisions.

4. Handling facilities

The labour requirement on sheep farms can be substantial especially where facilities are poor. Routine tasks such as dosing, vaccinating, drafting, and weighing all are made easier and take less time when good handling facilities are available.

Lameness control and treatment can be extremely taxing on labour throughout the year. Where well-designed handling facilities are in place, lameness control can be carried out in conjunction with other tasks reducing the stress on both the farmer and the sheep.

5. Animal housing

Ensuring an adequate supply of grass for ewes post-lambing in the spring is heavily reliant on a minimum rest period of 120 days for paddocks.

For this to be achieved, a winter housing period prior to lambing is required. Well-designed winter housing facilities can reduce the labour requirement and facilitate close monitoring of ewe body condition score and pre-lambing nutrition.

Existing housing can often be quite easily converted to suit the requirements of the heavily pregnant ewe. Allowing 600mm of feed space per ewe for concentrate feeding in late pregnancy is a must.

6. Stocking rate 

Overall farm stocking rate is largely dependent on soil type, weather conditions and how much the farmer is willing to push the system.

Teagasc research shows that the optimum stocking rate is around 10-12 ewes per ha. Farms stocked at 12 ewes per ha with ewes capable of weaning 1.8 lambs per ewe will have a high output per ha and can achieve a net margin of €400 to €600 per Ha.

However, the high output advantage can be lost where costs are high especially concentrate costs. Regardless of stocking rate, output per ewe must be maximised and costs controlled to ensure a positive net margin per ewe.

7. Soil fertility

It is good practice to get a nutrient management plan done for the farm based on recent soil analysis. The plan should reflect the existing farm stocking rate and plan ahead for future stocking rates.

The aim is to grow enough grass for the livestock on the farm. Furthermore, the starting point is to raise a large percentage of the farm to a pH of 6.3 through a targeted liming programme.

8. Join a local sheep discussion group

The best and most practical knowledge is that gained from other like-minded farmers and their lifetime experiences.

A good discussion group can help with problem-solving and demonstrate what can actually be achieved when best practices are adopted.

Attending farm walks and open days on Teagasc research units and demonstration farms will also offer a good opportunity to see what can be achieved with the correct advice.

9. Join a local lamb producer group

Avail of the advantages that exist by joining a local lamb producer group. Lambs can be drafted for sale on a weekly basis. This allows you to match your finished lamb to the market requirements and avail of the bonuses for quality assured animals.

There is no advantage in having lambs heavier than the carcase pay weight. Lamb producer groups can also save on time and labour. Lambs are generally transported from local collection points which eliminates the days spent travelling to and queuing at the factory.

10. Experience

Be prepared for what you are letting yourself in for. In the early, to mid-eighties, a lot of new entrants to sheep farming sold out after a year or two.

Experience gained from an agricultural course or working on a well-run sheep unit can be invaluable.

The last thing you want is to head into a busy lambing season without having the experience of lambing ewes. I hear I forget; I see I remember, I do I understand, the 3 principals of learning. You will gain additional experience and encounter something new every year.

Advantages

One of the advantages of sheep farming is that you can start off from a small base and increase your flock fairly rapidly over a number of years, especially if you are confident enough to breed from ewe lambs.

The sheep welfare scheme is open to new entrants in 2021. Secondly, TAMS grants are available at a rate of 60% for qualified young farmers. They can substantially reduce the setting up costs of fencing, handling facilities and housing as mentioned earlier.

Experience gained in the first few years will allow you to plan where you want to get to and what you want to achieve. A detailed farm plan drawn up with your adviser can set realistic targets for your farm and keep you focused on achieving them.

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