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Running a contract rearing operation alongside your flock


John O'Connell is a BETTER farm sheep programme participant and farms on the outskirts of Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim. He runs a sheep and contract grazing system. Ciaran Lynch Teagasc Sheep specialist & Tom Coll Teagasc Advisor, discuss the resulting changes and grassland management improvements here

John O Connell is farming on the outskirts of Ballinamore in Co. Leitrim alongside his wife Amanda and their children Peter, Lizzie and Dearbhla. The 34.5 ha farm is split in two equal sized grazing blocks with an additional 2.4ha of forestry adjoining the home farm. John is currently managing a system consisting of 200 mid-season lambing ewes, 80 contract reared dairy heifers and 25 contract reared dairy bull calves. This has changed considerably since joining the BETTER farm sheep programme in 2013 when there was 120 mid–season lambing ewes and a small number of B&B cattle for the winter on the same land block.

Grass Focus

The transition was a gradual one that was led by improvements in grassland productivity on the farm and changing opportunities in the sector. A focus on improving the grazing infrastructure was central to the increased productivity. John started off with 12 permanent divisions and he has increased that to 23 divisions at present on the farm with temporary fencing used to further sub divide when needed. Soil fertility has been addressed on an ongoing basis as part of a three year nutrient management plans for the farm. This concentrated initially on correcting soil pH and amending the fertilizer plan accordingly to improve soil P & K indices, more recently it’s been focused on maintaining fertility levels. Reseeding has been targeted at underperforming paddocks in recent years with preference for trying to get this done in the early part of the grazing season having it available at or just after weaning. The last piece of the grassland jigsaw on John’s farm was grass measuring and budgeting and it has probably had as big of an impact on productivity as any other, with weekly measuring and recording the data on PastureBase Ireland. The information generated from these measurements form the core of the grazing decisions on the farm, to quote John ‘you measure to manage’. 

A focus on improving the grazing infrastructure was central to the increased productivity

Like many changes in management on the farm the improvements in grassland are cumulative, to put this in context the farm produced 12.5 to of grass DM in 2020 with high levels of utilisation. Achieving this level of output on a farm with heavy soil that’s subject to the prevailing weather more than most is no mean feat. In recognition of this grassland management skills John was awarded the 2019 Teagasc Grass10 Sheep Grassland Farmer of the Year Award.  More importantly for John it has driven animal performance and profitability

The Sheep System

Johns sheep system for 2021 revolves around a 190 ewe flock and a further 26 ewe lambs that started lambing on the 10th of March finishing up the first week of April. The ewes are predominantly Belclare X Suffolk with a number of Mule & Texel-x ewes making up the remainder. They were mated to Belclare, NZ Suffolk and Texel rams with a Charollais used on the ewe lambs.  Barring the homebred replacements John sells his lambs through the Sligo/Leitrim producer group with a number of breeding females sold in a special breeding sale in Carrick on Shannon in August. The main group of ewes and their lambs are kept on the home farm and receive no supplementation prior to weaning. Ewes rearing triplets or yearling ewes along with a few other problem cases are grazed on the out farm where lambs are supplemented with creep.  So far this season lambs were treated for Coccidia and subsequently Nematodirus. Lamb performance is monitored during the season with the lambs just recently in for their 7 week weighing. Performance to date is on target with twin reared lambs achieving growth rates just in excess of 300g/day up to that point.  

Dairy heifer contract rearing

The dairy heifer contract rearing venture began in 2015 with increased demand for this type of farming relationship and has proved quite successful locally. The contract rearing complemented the sheep system and provided another revenue stream during the year. The heifers come on the farm reared in early May and stay until the following autumn. John is responsible for their management during this period and ensures they hit the performance and reproductive targets.   Currently there are 39 yearling heifers on the farm that have just undergone the first round of AI following synchronisation. A busy few days proved successful to date with a 100% submission rate which will also compact any potential repeats.  This year’s crop of 45 heifers are due to arrive in the coming days and will be grazed alongside the sheep flock on the home farm.

Dairy bred bull calves

The contract grazing enterprise was expanded further during the spring of 2020 with the addition of a contract grazing of 25 dairy bred bull calves. These join the farm in early April and remain there for 12 months and are moved direct off farm the following year. The first batch of these left the farm this April at an average weight of 361 kg. Like his sheep system good grassland management is key as is nutrition during the first winter where they were offered high quality silage (74 DMD +). This year a further 24 calves are on the farm with John hoping to improve on last year’s performance.

Flexible grazing management

Producing grass is one thing, utilisation and managing what’s in front of you is another. For John being flexible with grazing management to adapt to conditions is key. This year is certainly no different it is another year where John has had to adapt his plans on a number of occasions to match ground conditions and more recently grass supply after a prolonged period of below average growth. John had an opening cover of 950 kg/DM/ha at the start of March that was a result of an strict autumn closing plan of the farm, although the farm cover was slightly high it enables him to get stock out earlier in a part of the country where growth tends to be slower in the early part of the season.

Like most the lower than average growth during April has put pressure on Johns grazing system with demand increasing weekly and outstripping weekly growth toward the latter half of the month. Johns approach is always to manage what’s in front of you. The weekly grass measuring showed the extent of the potential deficit.  John took the decision to add some of the paddocks closed off for silage back into the grazing rotation to meet the shortfall in supply and maintain performance.  He plans to remove more heavy covers of grass for silage and target a few additional areas  to close up for silage to meet any deficit in silage supplies and produce high quality silage which are critical to both his sheep and cattle systems.

Listen to the recent BeefEdge podcast on Contract Rearing here

Learn more about the BETTER Farm Sheep Programme here 

Teagasc Advisors and Specialists are regular contributors of articles to Teagasc Daily. You can contact any of our Teagasc offices using this link Teagasc Advisory Regions here