Close to 500 farmers attended a series of four Sheep Farm Walks across Northern Ireland organised by AgriSearch, AFBI and CAFRE on the 21-24 January.
Each of the host farmers first outlined their breeding strategy. Joe Maginn’s farms mostly Blackface ewes on common grazing grounds in the Mournes, 1,000-3,000 ft above sea level, together with 90 suckler cows. He also uses 30 ha of lowland and 40 ha of LFA. The key objectives of Joe’s breeding policy are to breed durable ewes from within the flock with the capacity to increase numbers of lambs weaned per ewe and improve lambing ease. Close to 90 visiting farmers particularly enjoyed the opportunity they were given to view Joe’s Blackface ewes, Swaledale and Blackface rams as well as crossbred ewes obtained as part of the AFBI trials. Farmers expressed particular interest in knowing more about the origins and benefits of using Belclare and Highlander sire breeds to obtain replacement ewes. Seamus Maginn replied that he was most satisfied with his pure Blackface and Swaledale x Blackface ewes, and that the other breeds did not seem to cope as well with hard hill conditions. Most of the ewes from their flock are lambing outdoors in April.
Aurélie Aubry from AFBI explained that poor ewe fertility and lamb growth performance were the main constraints on profitability of hill production systems in NI. AFBI have been evaluating two contrasting replacement breeding strategies on their upland co-researcher farms (of which Joe is one) to introduce maternal traits, whilst still delivering high lamb output to market specifications. A criss-cross strategy uses Blackface and Swaledale rams, aimed at ‘hard’ hill areas and a three breed rotational breeding strategy is aimed at more ‘green’ hill areas, the latter being also investigated on lowland flocks. The three breeds currently investigated are Highlander (for easy care), Texel (for carcass traits) and Lleyn or Belclare (for prolificacy). The highest weaning rates in the upland trial so far were achieved by the Swaledale and Highlander crosses, with little difference in ewe performance between the two breeding strategies examined. All breed types (except Texel cross) achieved good efficiencies of 0.88-0.97 (kg lamb weaned per kg ewe), about 15-20% higher than pure Blackface ewes. Work is ongoing to assess lifetime performance of these crossbred ewes, with the expectation to obtain efficiencies close to a good target of 1 kg of lamb weaned per kg of ewe body weight.
Jason Barley also spoke on good practice with regard to the treatment of liver fluke in sheep. The choice of the right product is vital. He also highlighted the importance of using the correct dose rate and checking your drenching equipment for accuracy.
Eileen McCloskey from CAFRE highlighted the importance of getting your winter diets right. Appropriate feeding in the last 6 weeks of pregnancy will pay dividends later. Initially influencing birth weight and milk production, in turn lamb growth rate and eventually lamb weaning weight. Silage analysis is a vital first step in identifying the type and amount of concentrates that are needed. Producing high quality silage can cut the amount of concentrate required by 50%. Eileen also demonstrated the importance of identifying a ewes feeding requirements depending on their litter size, and body condition score. Visiting farmers expressed particular interest in Seamus’ feeding regime at this time of year, with questions relating to the type of feed blocks used for both his single and twin-bearing ewes.
Ciaran Hamill, Business Technolgist @ CAFRE, reviewed physical and financial performance on benchmarked hill farms, highlighting the variation between farms and the significant impact the technical issues discussed earlier can have on the financial performance of a sheep enterprise. The benchmarking service allows farmers to compare their performance with others but more importantly to monitor their own progress from year to year.