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Split system developed in the Wicklow hills

Farming in the picturesque setting of Glenmalure in the Wicklow hills BETTER farm participant Patrick Dunne is operating a sheep and suckler beef system. The sheep enterprise is split into 2 separate units, a hill sheep flock and lowland flock which Ciaran Lynch & Kevin Sheehan, Teagasc discuss here

The sheep enterprise on Patrick’s farm is split into 2 separate units. He maintains a 230 strong hill ewe flock plus replacements grazing commonage ground in Glenmalure and a separate 200 mid-season lowland ewe flock plus replacements on his home farm some 7km away alongside a 20 head suckler cow herd. The home block consists of 130 acres between owned and rented ground.

Since Joining the BETTER farm programme in 2015 there have been some considerable changes to Patrick’s sheep farming system. The introduction of a separate lowland flock and a change in approach to his hill sheep system has developed during this period.

The Hill Flock System

If we start with his hill flock first, Patrick had been running a 300 strong flock of Wicklow cheviot ewes. Like many hill flocks these ewes were spending more time on enclosed ground, being housed for increasing periods during the winter and lambing indoors. Essentially they were incurring the costs of a lowland flock whilst only achieving marginally higher output than their hill managed counterparts. This was something Patrick was acutely aware of and wanted to transition the flock back to spending more time on the hill only coming down for lambing and mating while also running a higher output flock on the lowland farm. This process was hastened by the opportunity to take on an adjoining block of ground in 2016 which gave him the scope to carry a flock 200 lowland ewes

The focus in the hill system was to reduce the overall ewe numbers slightly and produce a ewe that fitted the system better. This required a two pronged approach. Firstly some Blackface ewes were introduced to the flock and latterly a Lanark type ram was mated to a proportion of the Cheviot ewes to produce crossbreds that are now being back crossed to a Cheviot in a reciprocal system. Secondly, Patrick started selecting his replacements with more emphasis placed on keeping replacements from ewes that were delivering in the system (i.e. were able to rear lambs on the hill), and culled harder on those that didn’t, or instead put them to a terminal ram.

Ovine Pulmonary Adenocarcinoma (OPA)

The culling process in the flocks was sped up as a result of the health issue in the flock. For a number of year previous a cohort of ewes were struggling to maintain condition, there were higher than expected barren rates at scanning and increased ewe mortality with pneumonia like symptoms. Following submissions to the Regional Veterinary lab in 2016 the presence of OPA was detected in the flock. OPA or to give it its full title Ovine Pulmonary Adenocarcinoma is an infectious tumour that effects the lungs of sheep.  It has also been referred to as Jaggsiekete or more commonly as wheelbarrow disease. It is a debilitating condition that spreads sheep to sheep that proves fatal if let run to term. Although levels reported in Ireland are still quite low its likely present in more flocks than currently reported as it really fits into the Iceberg disease category, i.e. were only seeing the tip of the problem often with a larger proportion of infected animals going undetected.

Key to managing this condition within a flock has to focus on reducing the incidence present in ewes and avoiding retaining replacements of this with the condition. Early detection is essential to managing the condition, the only means currently available to achieve this is via ultrasound scanning of the chest cavity to detect the early signs of tumours and classifying the ewes based on risk, keeping in mind not all detected lesions are confirmed for OPA. As this is a specialised process the services of Veterinarian Patrick Grant were enlisted who is an expert in this area. OPA detection scanning was conducted twice yearly up to this year where Covid restrictions unfortunately meant it was not possible. Infected ewes were culled from the flock and their ewe lambs weren’t retained, this helped reduce the overall incidence and spread but also allowed them to realise a cull value and reduce the level of mortality and passengers in the flock. 

As a result overall performance and wellbeing of the flock has improved. It is something that anyone who suspects it should follow up on with their local vet and Regional Veterinary Lab. If confirmed farmers should consider the option of investing the time and effort in scanning their flocks to allow for early detection and improve the situation in their flock as it has shown benefits in Patrick's flock.

The Lowland Flock System

Patrick's lowland flocks consists of Suffolk-X, Belclare-X and Llyen-X ewes that are managed completely separate to his hill ewes. This self-contained flock produced its own replacements and finished the remaining lambs to the factory. These ewes are due to lamb this year from the 20th of March onward. To boost numbers a total of 39 ewe lambs were joined for a limited window to coincide with the start of lambing. The ewes and ewe lambs were scanned in early January and the results are in Table 1. The overall scan for the ewes was on target after a 5 week joining period, the lower pregnancy rate in the ewe lambs is  reflective of the duration of the joining period, with a good litter size for those pregnant.

Feed Management

Silage quality was tested in early December from the three different cuts of round bale silages batches yielding results of 72 DMD for the first cut of 68 DMD on the second cut and  71.5 DMD on the third and respectively. Patrick is currently feeding the 72 DMD silage to ewes and ewe lambs. He will supplement this with approximately 18, 25 and 32 kg of concentrate in total to the singles, twin and triplet bearing ewes respectively. With just shy of 20% of ewes carrying triplets he will start introducing concentrate supplementation to them from mid-January onward building gradually with the twins and single bearing ewes following suit in the coming weeks. The condition of the ewes will be checked at this stage of the year and any thin twins will also be drafted out and put with the triplet ewes for additional feeding. The ewe lambs are being supplemented at a low level 300g/day since housing to help maintain growth and will follow the ewe’s feeding regime closer to lambing.

Find more information on the BETTER Sheep Farms here