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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘Margins from hill lamb production are insufficient to maintain current levels of farming activity’ – Teagasc

Teagasc has published a 2027 sectoral road map for the sheep sector.

The roadmap includes market and policy issues; potential shape and size of sector in 2027; environmental & land use implications; technical performance indicators; research & technology transfer actions and comment.

Teagasc 2027 sheep roadmap 

In its roadmap, the state agency outlines that in 2018, the EU was 86% self-sufficient in sheep meat. This, it added, is expected to decline marginally due to growth in consumption being greater than growth in meat production.

“Margins from hill lamb production are insufficient to maintain current levels of farming activity. Hill sheep farming is essential for the maintenance of hill and mountain landscapes.”

“The provision of support to hill sheep farmers on the basis of their contribution to the maintenance of hill and mountain landscapes will be essential to the maintenance of current levels of hill sheep farming activity.”

Flock sizes

The national flock in 2019 stood at 2.57 million ewes, having contracted slightly (by 3.2%) from the previous ten-year high in 2017.

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“It is expected that Irish sheep numbers will remain stable over the medium-term. In 2019, 21% of flock owners had flocks of over 150 ewes.”

There is scope to increase the number of organic sheep farmers, subject to the identification of sustainable routes to market for store lambs, according to the state agency.

Technical performance indicators outlined by Teagasc:
  • The lowland sector can achieve significant improvements in terms of ewe productivity and lamb carcass output/ha;
  • Lambs reared per ewe can increase from the current level of 1.39 to 1.55 by 2027. This can be undertaken through the use of available genetics and management practices, it points out;
  • On lowland sheep farms, a stocking rate of 9 ewes/ha can be achieved by 2027, by growing 9 tonnes DM/ha through improving soil fertility, incorporating white clover into grass swards, and replacing calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN)-based fertilisers with protected urea. No increase in chemical nitrogen (N) will be required;
  • Increasing stocking rate to 9 ewes/ha will increase average output per hectare from the current level of 223kg of lamb carcass to 280kg; this will generate a gross margin of approximately €825/ha at current prices and input costs;
  • Better nutrition planning, in conjunction with improved flock health planning, biosecurity, self-contained flocks and improved on-farm hygiene, will reduce the reliance on antimicrobials and anthelmintics, which will feed into the One Health Strategy.
Research and technology transfer actions pinpointed by the state agency:
  • The continuation and strategic expansion of an effective model for technology uptake through the BETTER Farm programme/Signpost Farm Programme;
  • Teagasc has a proactive Sheep Stakeholders Committee. This ensures an “effective” partnership between Teagasc, industry stakeholders and sheep farmers that identifies relevant research and technology adoption needs;
  • Future research will be targeted at improving animal production efficiency, grassland management and environmental science, flock health, forage crop evaluation, rumen microbiome and GHG production with a strong likelihood of adoption by the sheep industry;
  • Research/demonstration farms will continue to demonstrate the financial and technical gains in efficiency that can be achieved through better use of animal breeding, grassland management, flock health and other farm management practices;
  • Grass-clover varieties and companion forages are being evaluated to improve animal production and sustainability. Alternative forages are being evaluated for finishing of store lambs;
  • Teagasc maintains strong collaborative links with research organisations globally. The imported New Zealand genotypes are being evaluated against the best available Irish and UK strains for growth rate, carcass, health, carbon footprint, and maternal traits under grass-based systems;
  • Research programmes will continue, in conjunction with external partners, to develop and evaluate low-cost genomic technologies;
  • Portable accumulation chambers are being used to identify the most feed-efficient sheep with the lowest GHG footprint, and linked to rumen microbiome, particularly the methanogen bacterial populations;
  • Adding value to hill farming systems will be promoted through greater integration between hill and lowland sheep producers and the BETTER Farm programme;
  • Different systems for finishing store hill and crossbred lambs will be evaluated in terms of profitability and meat quality attributes;
  • A parasitology programme will continue to reduce the dependence on anthelmintics and ameliorate the development of anthelmintic resistance in both internal and external parasites;
  • Teagasc commits to working closely with Sheep Ireland in the further improvement of genetic indices and in the promotion of genetically superior rams, including the launch of genomic selection;
  • The state agency proposes closer research collaboration with Irish universities to avoid duplication of resources and to maximise the benefit of research to the sheep industry;
  • Teagasc will continue to gain a better understanding of the demographics of both the lowland and hill sheep sectors;
  • Hold annual lowland and hill national sheep conferences and use electronic and social media platforms to communicate new information to the industry.

The full roadmap can be viewed on Teagasc’s website.

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