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SheepNet final seminar: sharing knowledge to improve ewe productivity

Increasing ewe productivity (number of lambs reared per ewe joined) is recognised as the key factor impacting flock profitability and was to the forefront at the SheepNet final seminar held in Teagasc Athenry recently.

SheepNet final seminar: sharing knowledge to improve ewe productivity

Ewe productivity in Ireland’s lowland flock is 1.3 lambs reared per ewe joined and has not improved in the last 35 years. The overall aim of SheepNet, which was a thematic network, was to share knowledge between stakeholders to improve sheep productivity, thus profitability, across Europe.

In his opening address to the SheepNet Seminar, Professor Gerry Boyle, Director of Teagasc, commented on ‘the importance of the sheep sector to Irish agriculture and that there was great scope for technical improvement. He also stated that SheepNet provided a great opportunity to improve knowledge transfer between stakeholders in Ireland and other EU countries. Professor Boyle finished by saying that he is looking forward to new project, EuroSheep, starting in January which will focus on lamb nutrition and health from birth to slaughter. 

Dr Tim Keady, Teagasc and SheepNet National Facilitator, said that many scientific and practical/innovative solutions already exist at local and national level, but are not widely transferred at an EU level, or may need to be adapted to specific livestock farming systems.  

Dr Alan Bohan, Teagasc Athenry, discussed sheep production systems practiced in the 7 SheepNet countries and said that ‘while meat production is the main focus of sheep production in Ireland and the UK, many other EU countries focus on milk production predominantly for cheese.
Tim Keady presented the results of an EU survey undertaken to identify the main needs and issues of stakeholders to improving sheep productivity. The mains needs identified were similar in many countries across the EU and related to nutrition management, animal health management and lamb vigour and immunity at birth.

Communication is critical for the successful uptake of knowledge by stakeholders. Tim presented the results from an EU survey and said that ‘it was clear that to achieve effective knowledge transfer that a number of different media need to be used and that the choice of media used depended on region and stakeholder type’. 

SheepNet produced 42 solutions to improve ewe productivity.  A review of the literature related to sheep productivity was undertaken and resulted in the production of 22 fact sheets and three briefing papers (Improving communication and technology transfer; Support network for effective thematic networks; Support innovations and technologies for the sheep sector). Alan Bohan stated that ‘73 ‘tips and tricks’ were collected from stakeholders to aid the implementation of solutions to improve ewe productivity.’

Twenty nine of the 42 SheepNet solutions were evaluated on commercial sheep farms. Tim Keady described the solution evaluations and stated that all evaluated solutions were well received, easy to implement and had beneficial impacts on ewe productivity and the day to day management of the sheep enterprise, across many countries. Alan Bohan said that the solutions evaluated in Ireland included measuring colostrum quality, abortion management and control, lamb mortality recording and a body condition score toolkit.

In summary SheepNet:-     
   - involved 7 countries (France, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Spain, Turkey and United Kingdom) representing 80% of the EU sheep farmers.
  -  held 34 national and 5 EU transnational workshops.
  -  described 19 sheep rearing systems across the EU and Turkey.
  -  collected 461 stakeholder questions on sheep productivity and addressed these with 42 solutions (29 of which were evaluated in commercial situations), 73 ‘tips and tricks’, 21 factsheets and the analysis of 3,458 scientific articles.

All results from SheepNet are available on www.sheepnet.network.

Tim Keady paid tribute to the members of the Irish SheepNet stakeholders group for their contribution to the project during the last 3 years. Collectively he said that those with sheep flocks in the group on average reared 1.83 lambs per ewe joined, equivalent to the top 2% of sheep producers in the country, highlighting the quality of knowledge and expertise in the stakeholder group and the achievability of high ewe productivity in an Irish setting. 

Professor Tom Kelly, Director of Knowledge Transfer in Teagasc, closed the conference and complimented Tim Keady and his team and all participants in SheepNet for an excellent job in participating in this important EU Horizon 2020 Thematic Network. Tom Kelly commented that ‘it takes a lot of effort and focus to ensure that we learn from others in these projects while sharing our expertise and the applied nature of the work that we do. To farmers who participated in the project I say thank you, I hope you learned something new, or at least reinforced what you already do, and that by sharing experience you are more confident in your own decision making. I would encourage you to share your SheepNet experience with other farmers and people in the industry so we can multiply these good practices and attitudes’. 

Tim Keady said that ‘EuroSheep, which is a new thematic network on the sheep sector, will start in January 2020 and will follow up the work undertaken by SheepNet. EuroSheep will focus on animal nutrition and health’.