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Forward-thinking sheep farming

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This year’s Irish Grassland Association sheep event visited John Large’s sheep farm, which straddles the Kilkenny-Tipperary border. The home farm is located on the outskirts of Gortnahoe village and is the base for a busy sheep and suckler beef system. The farm also encompasses a further two blocks of ground that add up to an 80 hectare operation, writes Matt O’Keeffe.

John has always adopted a progressive approach to new initiatives helping to drive the sheep industry forward. He has one of the central progeny test (CPT) flocks working with Sheep Ireland and was one of the original participants in the programme when it began back in 2010. This wasn’t John’s first venture into helping breed improvement. Previously, he participated in a number of Teagasc on-farm ram evaluation trials. Aside from breeding initiatives, John has embraced the grazing challenge, having previously also hosted one of the Grass10 programme sheep walks.
Away from the farm, John also sits on the board of Sheep Ireland as a farmer representative.

Sheep system
The sheep system makes up the main part of the farming enterprise, running a closed flock that comprises 630 mature ewes and 160 ewe lambs that are also joined. Stocked at approximately 12 ewes per hectare (ha), with all progeny excluding replacements taken to finish, this is a high-output system.
As part of the CPT programme, all the mature ewes are artificially inseminated. This process takes place in two phases in mid-October, with a two-day interval between each. In total, four different ram breeds – Texel, Suffolk, Charollais and Belclare – were used on the flock. Following the round of artificial insemination (AI), the ewes are divided into three groups and natural service is used, with rams being introduced to cover the repeats. The replacement ewe lambs on the farm are also joined with the ram, which will coincide with the repeats from the AI in the mature ewe flock. A key focus on the farm has been to ensure these lambs are well grown prior to mating, aiming to reach a target weight of 48kg at joining. These ewe lambs are joined for two cycles with all rams on the farm being removed by the start of December, enabling the lambing to be wrapped up by early April. The focus on ensuring ewes reach target has been paying dividends, pregnancy rates for the group this year are 86.5 per cent, with those pregnant carrying, on average, 1.24 lambs.
Intensive data recording at lambing
With so many ewes lambing in such a compact period, the start of March is a busy time on the farm. Extra staff are drafted in for lambing, with Sheep Ireland technicians also present at this time to help record a variety of information on both ewe and lamb performance. All progeny from the AI rams are tagged and recorded at birth, and their performance and health data are recorded throughout the season. A selection of female progeny from each of the sires used is retained for breeding, enabling the capture of maternal data. This information is recorded in the Sheep Ireland database and forms part of the genetic evaluations for the sires used. It also provides an invaluable resource for the industry as it provides much needed on-farm commercial data.

The grass challenge
Another challenge posed by having such large numbers lambing at one time is the need for sufficient amounts of grass at turnout. John has focused efforts to ensure enough ground is rested from October onwards to have reserves built up for spring. Increasing the number of divisions on the farm and investments in fencing infrastructure have aided in this process. Achieving high levels of performance from grass is key for this flock. With the high stocking rate, good levels of performance are needed to keep hitting drafting targets. With three separate farmlets to manage, good grassland management skills are key. To keep supplies in check in the middle of the grazing season, heavy covers are removed as baled silage. This has the added benefit of providing high dry matter digestibility (DMD) silage for both the sheep and beef systems on the farm during the winter period.
Efficiency and performance
Focusing on efficiency and performance of the flocks is a key aspect of management, and drafting lambs is no exception. Once they start to approach finish weights, lambs are assessed and drafted every two weeks, with lambs weighed and assessed for fat cover. John aims for a 20+kg U or R3 carcase.
To achieve the desired level of finish, John will introduce concentrate supplementation from August. Rather than blanket feeding, all lambs are batched according to weight on the farm, with those over 40kg supplemented. Forage rape is also grown and used to finish a proportion of lambs in October and November.

Beef system
The beef side of the farm is another considerable operation. This is based on a 35-cow autumn calved sucker herd. Replacements for the suckler herd are purchased. To further keep the grazing system and resources streamlined, all bull calves from the herd are sold as weanlings in the spring. The heifers are carried over to the following year and finished off on the farm. Good grassland management is central to the beef side in order to achieve performance. This system is operating at 2.4 live unit per hectare, achieving an output of 774kg per hectare.

Tags: sheep Irish Grassland Management