Tomas O’ Leary BETTER Sheep Farm Participant, Kerry
Tomas O’ Leary, his wife Eileen and Children Míchéal, Yvonne and Sinead farm just over 40 adjusted hectares in two blocks of land in Kerry. Traditionally a suckler and sheep farm, the O’Leary’s joined the Teagasc BETTER Sheep Farm Programme in 2013 with the aim of increasing the performance and profitability of both their sheep and cattle enterprises.
Today the farm runs a mid-season ewe flock (210 mature ewes and 50 ewe lambs) in addition to contract rearing 90 Friesian Cross Heifers. The suckler cows and finishing cattle enterprises were replaced in 2018 with a contract rearing enterprise to reduce market volatility and increase margins. This year ewe numbers have been reduced by 60 head from 320 to 260 to better match stocking rate to grass supply and ease the pressure somewhat.
The home farm is situated in Readrinagh situated approximately 3km north of the village of Barraduff. It consists of approximately 13ha of heavy, difficult land which is primarily used for silage production (2 cuts) and some grazing with ewes in the spring and autumn/winter. The ewes are housed on the home farm for the winter period.
The second block of land is situated in Rosnacarton Beg (approximately 12km NW of Killarney) and consists of approximately 27ha of good dry land. This block of land is 27km distant from the home farm and is the main grazing block for both the cattle and sheep with occasional surplus grass removed as silage when growth allows. In 2021 this block is on target to grow 15t grass dry matter (DM) per hectare which has enabled it to carry all the grazing animals for the main grazing period. This block also contains the cattle housing which means a daily round trip of 55km for Tomas daily to feed and check stock.
BETTER Sheep Farm Programme
One of the major focuses of the BETTER Sheep Farm Programme is to have a defined breeding programme. The O’Leary farm is achieving a litter size of approximately 2.3 lambs per mature ewe with lambs weaned per ewe mated of around 2 lambs per ewe. The 50 ewe lambs generally perform somewhat lower, scanning around 1.7 – 1.8 and weaning around 1.4-1.5.
In a nutshell the aim is to produce around 470 – 500 lambs available for sale and to select replacements from the 260 ewes put the ram annually. Achieving this level of output it is a combination of the correct female genetics (in this case a Belclare x Suffolk or Texel ewe), coupled with suitable high performance terminal genetics (rams selected for lamb survival and days to slaughter) and having ewes in good body condition at mating time.
In 2021, Fertiliser was applied every three weeks during the growing season at a rate of 25kg N/ha (20 units per acre) in the form of protected urea. All chemical nitrogen that was spread on the farm in 2021 was spread as protected urea (except for some 10:10:20 used to reseed 0.8ha). All cattle slurry is spread with a trailing shoe, hence reducing emissions, retaining more nitrogen and giving greater flexibility in grazing.
Aims for 2022
The primary aim for this farm in 2022 is to reduce the reliance on chemical nitrogen with the main focus on incorporating clover into grass swards. Tomas is part of the Teagasc Moorepark On-Farm White Clover Project. The aim of this project is to establish white clover on 35 grassland farms (dairy, beef & sheep) across the country. This project will establish white clover on farms over a 4-year period, with between 20 and 30% of the area sown with clover per year. White clover will be established on the farms by a combination of reseeding and over sowing over the course of the project, with the overall aim for farms to be in a position to reduce chemical fertiliser when adequate sward clover contents (≈ 20%) have been achieved. The project has just completed its first year, with very successful clover establishment to date.
We are busy drafting lambs for the past 6 weeks and the drafting rate is much the same as it has been other years. I have about 40% of lambs still on the farm to be drafted but with lambs going every week, in the next 6 weeks it should leave the numbers very small by mid-October. I am feeding meals to the heaviest of them that are within 4-6 weeks of being drafted or 37kg+. They are getting 0.5 kg concentrates / head / day. So as I draft a number of lambs each week, I add a similar number to the batch of lambs that are getting meals. It’s working well with the current grass situation, its reducing demand for grass and making sure that I keep them moving. Plus it’s leaving more grass for the ewes to put on condition before breeding. I would be happy with my drafting rate. I put a lot of this down to the leader follower system with lambs getting fresh grass regularly and the ewes following them.
I’m dosing lambs with cobalt every 3 weeks. They are also dosed for worms on the basis of the results of the faecal egg count which I do every 2 weeks.
I mentioned in last month’s article the Faecal Reduction Test project that I’m involved in with Teagasc Athenry. I did it 4-5 years ago and at that stage I had no resistance to wormers. It was repeated this year to see if there was resistance now occurring to worm doses. They tested for yellow and clear drenches. To pass the test and I needed to achieve 95% worm egg reduction following dosing to have no resistance in the flock. For the clear drenches I had 90% reduction and for the yellow drenches I had 89%. So there is some resistance in the flock now. That’s a bit scary because since the last test 4-5 years ago, I have been managing my dosing and using faecal egg count tests to make decisions around when to dose. So if I hadn’t been managing the dosing, it could be lot worse. What do I do now with these results? A dosing programme will be set out for the flock to manage my dosing. It will be a combination of alternative dose usage and also using the faecal egg count test to trigger the decision when to dose.
I put out one load of lime last week. I put out 2 loads last year so the load this year means the whole farm has been covered. I looked at my nutrient management plan maps which sets out in colour the fields that need extra lime. It makes it very easy to put a plan in place then. At this stage the whole farm should be good for soil pH which will help me reduce the amount of chemical nitrogen I use. Good for the pocket and good for reducing emissions. Potash tends to be good on the farm. The farm is a little low for phosphorous. I took a holiday from applying it this year because of the price increases but hopefully will be going back to it in 2023 because if the soil phosphorous starts to drop then it could be hard to get it back up. The only P & K the farm got in 2022 was from slurry.
Since I last wrote this update, lambing has started and finished. It went well. The 1st week of lambing the weather was poor and ewes & lambs had to be kept housed. I have worked on building the groups quicker this year to get them into the rotation quicker and for ease of management. To do that, rather than having 2-3 paddocks per group, I had one paddock and added 10-12 ewes and lambs to it every day or so. They settled quicker and I got into the rotation quicker too. Yearling ewes are treated differently and still being fed 0.5kg meals at grass and their lambs will be supplemented also.
Urea went out on grazing ground in start of March. Slurry has gone out on grazing ground at a rate of 2000 gallons / acre after grazing. I don’t have enough slurry to cover all grazing ground and I will spread 1 bag of 18-6-12 per acre on remaining grazing ground which is about 1/3 of the grazing ground. I will continue with protected UREA after that at a reduced rate from last year.
I intend cutting back on N this summer. Typically I would put out 22-23 units / acre each round but this year I will cut that back to 17 units. I would be a little nervous but soil fertility is good, I concentrate on managing the grass and I have the fodder budget done so I will cut it back and see how I get on. There is going to be more emphasis on cutting back chemical N fertiliser in the next few years.
The cattle went out on St. Patricks Day. After grazing the paddocks get slurry spread with the trailing shoe. Its made such a difference because I can get back in to graze these paddocks with the sheep a lot quicker than I could have done with the splash plate.
I am walking the farm weekly and measuring grass covers. At the moment growth is good at 74 kg DM / ha and with a demand of 61 kg DM / kg, I have more grass than I need. I have 2 paddocks that are gone too strong and I will be taking these out for silage this week. Only by walking the farm can I identify these paddocks and make the call to take them out. This will make excellent silage which will come in useful next winter.
I also have the fodder budget done. I need 500 bales and I have 150 bales left over from last winter which is a good starting point. I have made sure to put out enough fertiliser to give me a good 1st cut. I will re-access after the 1st cut and see what I need to close up for 2nd cut. I will always build in a reserve for those bad Autumns / Springs that are becoming more prevalent. I cut in late May and aim for yield and quality. I have worked hard to get the soil fertility right on the farm because if its right I will not need to be delaying the cut to get the yield up. I make best use of the soil maps and the nutrient management plan to make fertiliser decisions. Interestingly, on the farm in Beaufort, I will achieve high grass yields – 15-17 t DM but the ground will not hold P. I spread the recommended quantity and I get the yields but the ground isn’t holding it. Seemingly some soil types are like that.
I have a plan to incorporate clover. In 2021, I reseeded on paddock and oversowed 2 others. The reseeded paddock is looking good but the oversowns paddocks don’t seem to have a lot of clover yet but I will reserve judgement for another while. I will cut back chemical N on the reseeded paddock that has 20%+ clover. It will get 2,000 gals of slurry shortly and for the summer get 10-12 units of protected urea i.e. ½ rate. I need to do this if I want to give the clover a chance. I will oversow a few more paddocks this year.