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February 2021 Teagasc BETTER Sheep Farm Focus

Michael Gottstein, Teagasc Head of Knowledge Transfer Sheep Programme, gives an update on the progress of the Fitzgerald Family farm since joining the Teagasc Better Sheep farm programme in the autumn of 2018. The Fitzgeralds operate a hill sheep farm in Baile an Lochaig West of Dingle in Kerry

The Fitzgerald family farm

John Joe Fitzgerald together with his wife Karen and five children (Shannon, Aoife, Colm, Aodhán and Tadhg) operate a hill sheep farm in Baile an Lochaig West of Dingle in Kerry. The farm consists of approximately 12ha of green/improved  ground and a share of approximately 80ha of open commonage on Mount Brandon and a half share (11ha) of an enclosed section of rough ground at the base of the commonage where the ewes are kept prior to lambing and fed supplementary concentrates.

The Hill Flock

The Fitzgerald family joined the Teagasc Better Sheep farm programme in the autumn of 2018 with the view to improve the performance of their farming operation. The farm currently hosts 150 mature ewes of which 56 are Scottish Blackface (SBF) (Mayo and Dingle Scotch) with the remaining 94 half and three quarter bred SBF crossed with Texel and Belclare. For the 2021 lamb crop the ewes were mated to Scottish Blackface rams (Mayo and Dingle type) and a high index (Five star on Terminal, Replacement, Days to Slaughter and Lamb survival) Suffolk ram.  Forty of last year’s ewe lambs have been retained as replacements of which 36 are SBF and the remaining 4 are ¾ SBF. The Replacement policy for the coming years is to increase the amount of Scottish Blackface genetics in the flock to make to flock more resilient to grazing on the commonage for 9-10 months of the year. The plan is that in the next four or five years there will be 200 mainly Scottish Blackface ewes grazing on the commonage from May through to February (albeit being taken down for mating in November). The purpose of this flock will be to make full use of the commonage grazing available. 

The Lowland Flock

A second smaller flock of 30-40 lowland ewes will be run on the surplus green ground that is not used by the hill flock for lambing, mating and feeding weaned lambs. Over the last two years John Joe has put a lot of effort in the improving the quality and quantity of grass grown on the lowland block. This has involved taking the following actions;

  1. Soil samples taken
  2. Ground lime applied to correct soil pH
  3. Reseeding poor performing pastures
  4. Fencing and rotational grazing of pastures
  5. Grass measuring and taking action based on this information (e.g. taking out surpluses as baled silage, applying fertiliser & closing up paddocks for the winter)

Flock Performance

The ewes are currently still grazing on the commonage and just scanned in the last few days. In 2020, 156 ewes to the ram weaned 186 lambs giving a weaning rate of 1.19 lambs per ewe to the ram. However disappointingly 13.5% of the ewes were empty at scanning time. We are unsure as to why the number was so high and are surmising at this stage that it may be down to poor body condition in some of the half bred ewes (Texel and belclare crosses).  At the time of writing John Joe has just scanned his ewes and again there are a significant number of empty ewes after showing up. Thirty three out of the 150 ewe to the ram are empty which accounts for 22%. Of the remaining ewes 48 have scanned with twins and 64 with singles, a small number of ewes are still on the hill and were not down for scanning. This gives a litter size of 1.48 and a scan rate of 1.07 which reflects the high number of barren ewes. We have yet to analyse the data to see what the possible reasons for this could be. John Joe was somewhat concerned about the number of dry ewes he was going to end up with, given an ongoing issue with people walking the hills and their dog chasing the sheep. This has become a common occurrence in the last few years but has spiralled out of control in particular since the last COVID 19 lockdown.  

Lamb Sales

In 2020 all lambs not retain as replacements were sold as store through Dingle Livestock Mart. Prices ranged from €35 - €86. Cull ewe were sent directly to the factory, but John Joe feels that he would probably have been financially better off selling them live through the ring.

Plans for the next few months

The priority for the last few weeks was to get the ewes off the hill for scanning. After scanning any ewes scanning with twins will be retained on the enclosed rough ground and will be offered high quality silage (77% DMD  & 16.8% CP) that was harvested in the end of May. Depending on body condition some of the thinner ewes will also start to receive a small amount of concentrate supplementation. We know from previous experience that ewes that lamb down in poor body condition have much lower milk yield and have lambs that grow much slower.

Ewes scanned with singles will be returned to the hill for a few more weeks and will be brought down for supplementary feeding four to five weeks pre lambing.  Pre lambing rations for all ewes will contain 100grams of Soyabean meal per lamb carried per head per day for the last two weeks pre lambing. The purpose of this Soyabean meal is to provide rumen bypass protein and to maximise Colostrum quantity and quality. In addition to getting the nutrition right the Fitzgerald family will also be getting the lambing shed ready for the impending lambing.

Fertiliser is being ordered and will be in the yard for spreading in late February / early March when ground and weather conditions allow. The aim will be to spread 23 units of protected urea per acre in the first application.

For more on the BETTER Farm Sheep Programme click here