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Farming life continues as normal in these uncertain times for Sheep & Suckler Farmer Tomás O’Toole

14 April 2020
Type Media Article

Article by Joanne Masterson, B & T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc, Galway/Clare

It is a busy time of year on the farm of Tomás O’Toole which is located in the scenic village of Moyard, 10 kilometres outside Clifden, Co. Galway. The calving season has finished and the majority of lambing now also completed.  Tomás runs both hill and lowland sheep enterprises alongside a suckler herd selling followers as weanlings. The farm consists of 40 hectares of green ground, 13 hectares of enclosed hill and 29 Ha of commonage. The lowland flock consists of 90 Suffolk X and Mules; they have finished lambing over the last number of weeks with the focus now on the hill flock which consists of 70 Black Face Mountain and Lanark ewes.

This is the first year that Tomás has split the ewes into two separate flocks. Previously both hill and lowland flocks would lamb at the same time. This change has come about due to Tomás joining the Teagasc BETTER Farm Sheep Programme which supports the adoption of a number of key areas such as grassland management, breeding and production methods which are implemented into a plan for the farm. Splitting the flock means that Tomás can better utilise the commonage and hill ground that he has on the farm for use for the hill flock while keeping green ground available near the home block for the lowland flock. In the programme Tomás now records data such as weight and condition score of ewes at breeding, recording weights of lambs at birth and again at weaning. This data helps Tomás to see what ewes are performing and information on lambs that are produced on the farm.

A key element of farmers selected to participate in the programme is that they are enthusiastic about development of their sheep enterprise and that they are open to change in order to achieve better financial returns and labour efficiency for the farm.  Tomás is an ideal candidate for the programme as he is a young farmer with lots of new ideas and enthusiasm to further improve the farm.

Tomás has always had an interest in farming from a very young age and was always out and about with his father Patsy helping out on the farm. After school Tomás studied Equine Science in Whittle University College. This interest in horses is still there today with Tomas keeping Connemara ponies on the farm. Having spent some time in the U.K., Tomás moved back home fulltime in 2014 with his family; wife Shemeem and two children Keris-Mae and Toby. Since this move home he has had an interest to drive on the farm even more and make some key investments to further improve the farm.

Currently farming full time, the aim for the farm from early on was to invest and improve the farm in a number of areas. Fortunately he had an excellent base and farm to take over from his father Patsy as he had a slatted house and 4 bay sheep shed already in place. These sheds were updated with new barriers and a sheep race which has helped with labour efficiency on the farm. In recent years Tomas also applied for the TAMS Young Farmer Capital Investment Scheme where he has availed of a number of items such as improving sheep fencing on the farm, and updating sheep and cattle handling facilities.

A key area of the BETTER Farm programme is to utilise as much grass as possible on the farm. Previously Tomás would have focused on improving grassland management on the farm. This included taking soil samples to find out if soil fertility needed improving. A liming programme was then implemented on some areas of the farm in order to improve soil pH. The plan is to take new soil samples later this year in order to see if these practices have helped improve soil fertility. Tomas has also started to grass measure using a plate meter, which measures grass growth in each paddock on the farm. This information is then uploaded onto Pasturebase in order to see how paddocks are performing, and to calculate the amount of grass grown on the farm which helps with managing grazing ground in the weeks ahead for stock.

The main aim for Tomás for his flock is to build up a prolific lowland flock with good quality rams being used for breeding. He would also like to be able to produce good quality replacements and be able to sell excess ewe lambs from both flocks at a premium sale.  Tomás also sends some of his ram lambs to the Irish Natura Hill Farmers Association (INHFA) light lamb producer group which have a light lamb market called ‘Atlantic Hill Lamb’ which pays for light lamb carcasses between 10 & 15kg, lambs that are above this weight are paid at ‘French’ prices. Having these markets available for farmers such as Tomás is important for the local sheep industry and the sheep sector overall.

The Suckler herd of Limousine Charolais Crosses which are run with a Charolais stock bull are also a key focus for Tomás. He hopes to improve and build a strong herd with the aid of tools such as ICBF which is an excellent source of information for making genetic improvements and also the use of HerdWatch which is a good tool for keeping track of the herd in a number of different areas.

Having been farming full time since 2014 Tomás has built up a lot of experience over the past number of years. The farm is also used as a benchmark farm for Greencert students to visit as part of their coursework. Having Tomás talk to students about his experience farming and also showing students the improvements he has made over the past number of years with regards breeding, grassland management and improving the farm infrastructure is a valuable source of information for students.

Farming at the moment is going through a particularly uncertain time with the Covid 19 virus. I asked Tomás what effect it will have on the farming community.

“The markets are in a very difficult place at the moment as they were last year with poor prices for stores and with the beef demonstration; this had an effect on prices that farmers received. The Covid 19 virus is already having an impact on farmers and food producers; the closure of restaurants and food outlets will mean that this will have a direct impact on beef and sheep markets. Farming and farmers always bounce back. We are good at what we do. We can produce the best beef and lamb in the world to a very high standard for a small country. Going forward, the impact of the Covid 19 crisis will hopefully encourage people to source locally therefore improving the Irish economy as a whole”.

Farmers like Tomas will continue to farm in this uncertain time, like in past challenging periods the farming community are resilient and will help and support each other during this time.

Teagasc Covid 19 support for Farmers:

Please remember that Teagasc offices remain closed for now, however, Advisors are working from home and will be able to continue to answer queries, submit Basic Payment Applications and provide online resources for clients.

Teagasc also have a new telephone helpline to assist farmers with queries in relation to the current Covid 19 challenge. The phone number is 076 1113533.

There is also a Regional Farm Labour Database being set up for farmers who are available to work on farms to assist fellow farmers during this period. The contact number for counties Galway and Clare is 091 845804.

The Department of Agriculture also have information and support available. The contact number is 076 1064468 and the following website also has up to date information on the current guidelines.   www.agriculture.gov.ie/customerservice/coronaviruscovid-19